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Pandemic Nuptial Pandemonium

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a great amount of uncertainty into all of our lives. Nothing—and no one—has been immune from the disruption the virus has brought into society. We have all learned new phrases like “social distancing” and “shelter in place.” We are just now learning the full impact the virus is having on special days and special events.

According to The Knot, nearly 350,000 U.S. weddings were set to take place in April and May alone. Nationwide, there were 2.21 million weddings in 2016, with an average cost of $26,720, for a total spend of $59,086,336,800, according to The Wedding Report. There is no real clear answer to how long the COVID-19 crisis will likely go. It is also a crisis for businesses that rely on weddings like event venues, bakeries, photographers, florists, dressmakers, and tuxedo rental companies. Also, leisure and tourism associated with honeymoons are going to be heavily impacted with various travel restrictions.

The guidelines issued by the CDC and restrictions issued by various governmental agencies have already created a cascading series of cancellations of venues. This is presenting brides and grooms a particularly difficult decision: Tie the knot on their chosen date with a pastor or other officiant and no one else, or postpone for months, if not more than a year. Also, many of these brides and grooms have paid deposits and/or paid the full amount for their special day. Is there any recourse? The answer depends on the fine print of your agreement.

Contracts can contain a provision called a force majeure—Latin for “superior force”—which allow one party to avoid performing a contractual liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, plague, or an event described by the legal term act of God (hurricane, flood, earthquake, volcanic eruption, etc.), prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract. These provisions are popular in the coastal areas of North and South Carolina because of the frequency of hurricanes in the late fall. It is unclear at this point whether the pandemic itself versus the governmental reaction to the pandemic (quarantines, shelter in place orders, etc.) will trip a force majeure clause, but it likely will. South Carolina also adheres to the doctrine of impossibility which basically implies a force majeure clause into every contract under certain circumstances. No published court decision in South Carolina has ever imposed such a term in the event of a pandemic.  But, the doctrine of impossibility would likely excuse (at least for a time) the performance of wedding related services during this period of crisis.

What can you do to protect yourself?  First, read your contract. Does your contract contain any force majeure language? If it does, your options are usually limited to rescheduling to a later date. If it does not, then you have more leverage to get money back or get your event rescheduled. Or, if you are a wedding related provider, it is a provision you should ask to be included in your future contracts. Providers of non-perishable items, dressmakers for example, probably will not be excused from actually making the goods, but delivery may be delayed. Second, any travel related expenses would have to be covered under travel insurance if you have purchased it. Third, you may inquire as to the availability of “event insurance” if you are planning a wedding in later in the year. This type of coverage would provide some protection if the pandemic persists into the fall.

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