In recent weeks, we’ve shared a number of stories about people affected by the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus. They’ve worked in a variety of industries, including vocational training, car service and arts and entertainment, which is reliant on ticket sales and live audiences.
But for all the life changes occurring as a result of COVID-19, there have been countless milestones that couldn’t take place because of the pandemic, too: Weddings are a hallmark of the late spring, summer and early fall, but the virus put a stop to such gatherings. Those cancellations and postponements are tough not only for the couples but also for those who would normally work to make those days special.
That’s the reality for Wendy Ott, a 45-year-old photographer who lives in suburban Milwaukee. Nine of the 10 weddings she was booked to shoot in 2020 have been either pushed to much later this year — with a fervent, almost desperate hope that there won’t be a second wave of coronavirus before then — or to 2021.
“Since I’m so used to doing what I do every year, I was at a loss for what to do at first. Everything kind of disappeared all at once,” said Ott, who has been self-employed for eight years. Her business relies mostly on word of mouth, and she was coming off her best-earning year in 2019, when she made between $55,000 and $60,000.
Perhaps most challenging for Ott: She generates almost all her income from shooting weddings, so she earns nearly her entire salary just during the wedding season. That means she has to conserve money through the winter, with the expectation that she’ll be able to earn again come late spring.
Her money from last year’s weddings carried her through to about mid-March, then things started to get dire and her bank accounts briefly went into the red. Without any income, it was difficult to pay her rent and bills. Ott feels fortunate that her sister and brother-in-law lent her money — and her federal stimulus payment was helpful — but the wait of more than two months after filing for unemployment was agonizing. Earlier this month, she finally started receiving a little more than $750 per week.
Now that she has some money coming in from unemployment insurance, Ott feels more breathing room than before. It helps that her landlord, who charges $900 a month, vowed not to evict any tenants, even once residential landlords in Wisconsin are legally able to do so. Similarly, Ott’s creditors have been understanding as she pays what she can for now.
Ott has managed to stay centered while quarantined by reaching out to friends and family she normally wouldn’t have as much time to keep in touch with — and by devoting more time to hiking and running to relieve stress. Yet there’s an obvious question that occupies her thoughts from one day to the next: Will the coronavirus numbers dwindle enough to allow weddings to take place later this year?
There are alternatives out there for couples who don’t want to put off their wedding dates any longer. Some may move forward with much smaller ceremonies and opt to hire high-level videographers to document the event. Others are biting the bullet and having virtual weddings over Zoom.
But for Ott to make money, she doesn’t really see a workaround. “I’m banking on the fact that fall [weddings] will happen,” she said, calling herself an optimist. “If fall doesn’t happen, I may need a temporary career.”
One possibility Ott mentioned: As a freelancer, she could do more commercial photography. (Just before the pandemic, she had been in touch with a large Wisconsin bank about work.) She said she could also do some editing on the side for other photographers.
Ott views all these options as things that would merely fill the gaps until she can get back to her passion, though. “I don’t think wedding events will ever go away,” she said, adding that the one-time nature of such outings makes them different from theater or sporting events. “But all I can do is hope things will go up from here.”