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Fear of Zika Virus Is Putting a Damper on Destination Weddings

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The New York Times

Fear, if not the reality of the Zika virus and the mosquitoes that carry it, has not only cast its shadow on the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August, but is upending the carefully laid plans of couples who have long wanted a wedding in an exotic tropical locale.

Credit Eleanor Davis

Alison Leigh Cowan

Now, no party in paradise can proceed without the host taking precautions against the disease-carrying pests. Conscientious brides-to-be are scrambling to have rooms sprayed with insect repellent before guests arrive, pack extra bug spray in all formulations for guests who may not bring any, circulate newsletters with the latest advisories from government agencies and, if they really wish to set a good example, wear long sleeves and pants.

And that assumes that the guests, many in their childbearing years, are going to these events at all. Many of the most popular wedding destinations in Central and South America, Mexico and the Caribbean are also where the Zika virus has been most active.

JoAnn Gregoli, a wedding planner at Elegant Occasions whose sunny demeanor is in sync with her Skype handle of “happily divorced,” has been dealing with fallout from these outbreaks. Last month, she watched the guest list for one wedding on the Caribbean island of Anguilla melt from 150 to 100 in a matter of weeks. She said that she helped another couple, marrying in Mexico, improvise when a pregnant member of the party was ordered to stay home by her doctor.

Last week, for another wedding in Mexico, she touched down loaded with bug spray. “They’re an older couple so not as nervous,” she said before the wedding, though “anyone young is not coming.”

The potential damage is financial as well as physical, and the virus “will affect everyone more and more,” Ms. Gregoli said.

Hayley Hines (7 months pregnant) and Bryan Ahearn, married in Arizona June 18, after canceling their original ceremony that was to have taken place in Cancun, Mexico. Credit Kameron Gunserson — Sweet Pea Photos

Contracts with wedding vendors tend to be ironclad, requiring deposits and payment deadlines. When booking a wedding at a resort, many require guarantees of a certain number of room bookings on top of the ceremony and reception costs.

Some couples have sought travel and wedding insurance, to guard against the unforeseen. But it unclear how many of these contracts anticipated or will cover the various ways the Zika virus is now impacting couples and their weddings.

Hayley Hines, a 30-year-old Arizona resident, was expecting to be married in Cancún, Mexico, on June 18, with 110 friends and relatives in attendance at a beachside resort. She and her fiancé, Bryan Ahearn, had attended friends’ weddings in that area and wanted the same experience.

The event was booked and practically paid for. Then a guest who was trying to become pregnant backed out; she was concerned that Mexico had reported some cases of Zika, a virus blamed for birth defects. “We’re at the age where people are having their first or second child,” Ms. Hines said.

In February, the bride-to-be discovered that she, too, was expecting, and would have to bow out. Becky Gillespie, the travel consultant who had spent months arranging the wedding, remembered thinking, “Oh, this is going to be a lot of work for nothing.” She spent weeks jumping through hoops with American Airlines, United Airlines and Sandos Cancún Luxury Experience Resort until she was able to return every penny of the $15,300 Ms. Hines and her guests had already paid.

The vendors “did not like it but they understood the situation,” said Ms. Gillespie, who operates For Love of Travel, an agency in Nevada City, Calif. She was “surprised that they let more than just the bride get their money back.”

A hotel waiter at a destination wedding resort in Cancun, Mexico, delivering “insect repellant” to a room.

Destination weddings — extended extravaganzas (usually with fewer guests) — are sold by travel agencies with love-comic names like Endless Love Travel in Georgetown, Tex.; Create the Moment Travel in Rochester, Wash., and 800 others in the Destination Wedding and Honeymoon Specialists Association.

Part of the allure is the notion that they help newlyweds escape some of the stress of the bigger wedding they might have had at home. But with the Zika threat, “It’s very stressful,” said Lacey Seltzer, a 29-year-old jewelry designer who made plans last year to marry Justin Pollner, 28, this fall at a resort near Cancún.

Getting married on a pretty white-sand beach has been her lifelong dream, according to her mother, Mona Seltzer, and 200 guests have already secured rooms. When the warnings about Zika grew louder earlier this year, the bride-to-be said she did not want to put her friends and guests “in an uncomfortable position” so she called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and now regularly checks the agency’s website. Some recommendations, she said, have been “changing weekly.” Mexico is on the agency’s watch list, though none of its reported cases are anywhere near Cancún.

One of Ms. Seltzer’s bridesmaids withdrew on the advice of a doctor. Fourteen others were “quite on board,” she said, as was every groomsman. The wedding is still on, but “I’m not taking it lightly,” she said.

“I’m upset that it has to be a question in anyone’s mind,”” she added.

The virus is of greatest concern to anyone who may be pregnant or may plan to have children after exposure. If saying your vows in a Zika-affected country means “you’re going to lose your sister because she’s pregnant and can’t go, that’s a problem,” said Annie Lee, a wedding planner. Some couples are keeping the C.D.C.’s phone number, 800-232-4636, next to those of their wedding planner and caterer.

The virus can be transmitted via sexual intercourse as well as by insect bites. Doctors have advised pregnant patients and couples planning to conceive to avoid affected areas or take other precautions to ward off bites. (Last week, the golfer Rory McIlroy became the latest athlete to announce he would not participate in the Summer Games because of his concerns about contracting Zika.)

Sandy Malone, a wedding planner who lives in Puerto Rico and caters to couples wishing to marry there, has already lost four bookings because of Zika, now that Puerto Rico has been added to the watch list.

In one case, a military veteran who had signed up for a 150-person wedding in Vieques next year bailed out when her sisters objected because of childbearing concerns. Mrs. Malone said that her client did not get all her money back and will be marrying in Las Vegas instead. Another bride who recently canceled on Mrs. Malone told her she was determined to have a beach wedding and will be eloping in Hawaii.

Mrs. Malone said she understood if clients needed to cancel. “I’m a wedding planner, not a physician,” she said. “I can’t tell you to ignore what the C.D.C. says.”

Other clients who covet the beach experience have stood by their plans, she said. “The majority of brides and grooms committed to getting married in Puerto Rico are just asking for more citronella tiki torches and putting bug sprays in the welcome bags,” she said.

For couples who can handle the vagaries, there is a potential silver lining: bargains. “Some of the venues are hurting so bad, they will give you a sweet deal,” Ms. Lee said.

Valerie Townsend, a preschool teacher from Holtsville, N.Y., married in April on a Puerto Rican island. She used the FaceTime app on her phone to share the event with her sister, Pamela Sorrentino, who was expecting and could not attend. Credit Credit: E. P. Anderson Studios

Valerie Townsend, a preschool teacher from Holtsville, N.Y., was thrilled with the wedding she had in April in a rented villa on a Puerto Rican island for little more than $20,000. “We could have had a huge wedding at home but we were not into that,” she said.

The one drawback, she said, was not having her sister, Pamela Sorrentino, there. Ordered by her doctor to stay behind because she was expecting, Ms. Sorrentino did get a credit from the airline for future travel. That courtesy was not extended to her husband and children, who went to Puerto Rico without her.

The day of the wedding, the family used the FaceTime app on their phones to help Ms. Sorrentino chat with the bride as she primped and to watch the ceremony in absentia. Photographs show the bride nuzzling the phone while her sister had a good cry.

Nowhere are the strains on the couple and their social circles clearer than on the online chat rooms devoted to destination weddings. There, brides and grooms say they dread waiting for guests’ replies — or excuses.

One commentator on a thread bristled about an invitee who claimed he was “fighting with human resources” to approve his vacation when she knew he was not. She also lamented how “all of the groomsmen bailed out,” adding, “I don’t understand why people do this.”

On the same thread, another bride-to-be, marrying in Mexico in August, bemoaned having to guarantee a block of rooms by June 1 when only five of 40 guests had responded.

The bride and her sister chatted before the ceremony began. Credit Credit: E. P. Anderson Studios

Weddings always have dropouts, so hotels often make hosts guarantee rooms that are being set aside, months in advance. Zika has made it harder than usual for hosts to establish a firm head count, what with those who are “TTC,” shorthand on these forums for “trying to conceive.”

Public health authorities are unsure how long a person or their partner may need to refrain from sex or use condoms to avoid contracting the virus or passing it on once they return from a country where the virus is active. So guests who may be willing to attend one wedding in an affected area may be less keen to accept multiple invitations if that pushes their own ability to have children too far into the future.

In February one host solicited advice on Reddit about going ahead with a South American wedding the following month. Fifteen out of 88 guests had already backed out, he wrote, and 10 more who might “want to get pregnant in a year or two,” were on the fence. “If we do move forward,” the commentator wrote, “should we send an email letting people know and to bring certain bug spray? Or will that cause more alarm? Should we just assume people know?”

Hosts also wrestle with the delicate question of what to tell others if it is the bride’s pregnancy, not just the attrition of the guest list, that prompts cancellation of the wedding. The temptation to keep a pregnancy under wraps until it is farther along may be tempered by the knowledge that guests have arranged time off or put down deposits they may now lose.

Ms. Hines, the pregnant bride who was to have married in Cancún, leveled with everyone and shared her doctor’s letter with other guests who were seeking refunds from the airlines and hotel, according to Ms. Gillespie, her travel agent. The couple were married instead on June 18 at the Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. Most of their guests were able to get their money back from the Mexico bookings and joined Ms. Hines and Mr. Ahearn in Arizona.

But four guests had bought nonrefundable tickets through Expedia. So that group raised a glass to the couple last weekend from Mexico, Ms. Hines reported.

She said she and her husband had decided to keep the date, if not the place, because of the many teachers and firefighters they invited who “have to put in their vacation a year in advance.”

One bright spot of getting married closer to home: The groom’s 98-year-old grandfather, William Ahearn, was there. “He would not have been able to come to Mexico,” Ms. Hines said happily.

read more at The New York Times