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HUNTINGTON — Social distancing, masks and reducing occupancy limits aren’t traditional focal points of a couple’s wedding day, but a pandemic can change things quickly.

For wedding venues in the Tri-State and beyond, moving forward with business as usual was no longer an option as they adjusted to countless state directives and other safety guidelines to recoup some of their lost business during the 2020 calendar year.

Venues, wedding photographers and other vendors each had their own way of navigating the challenges brought on by the pandemic, but one common theme emerged — adapting to smaller events and crowds.

The Oberports are based out of Charleston and have photographed weddings for over a decade together. What began as Emily Porter Photography morphed into “The Oberports” after she married her husband, Bobby Oberlander.

The couple typically photographs between 25 and 30 weddings annually, and while the number decreased slightly in 2020, they still helped over 20 couples document their big day. But those days didn’t look like they would in a world lacking a global health crisis.

COVID-19 changed some of how The Oberports handled their business as they decided how to safely continue their work while providing the same quality product to each couple. That started, they said, with good planning.

“By May, we had already sat down and decided we needed to expand our elopement offerings and also for small weddings because we really only had one option for people,” Porter said. “Even though we did maybe two to five elopements a year before the pandemic, we knew we needed to sit down and build packages geared toward people who wanted to proceed with something smaller, and that really saved us last year.”

They photographed small celebrations outdoors and sometimes in people’s backyards and, in order to be able to maintain safe distances between all involved, changed the way they photographed indoor events as well.

“We had to be very careful with any indoor coverage — the receptions, the dance floor coverage — in order to limit our exposure. But we did so in a way that ensures our clients are still getting the full product they booked us for,” Porter said.

Lara Clagg, owner of Lara’s Bridals and Formals in Ashland, said a trend she has seen in the last year is the idea of micro-weddings, or weddings under 50 people. Clagg said she has had multiple customers come to her shop talking about micro-weddings and how these smaller events can make it easier for people to be safely distanced during ceremonies.

Wedding venues had their own challenges, specifically related to the number of couples that were booking them for weddings in 2020. Little Tennessee Event Farm’s bookings were down by about a dozen dates and Bellefonte Country Club in Ashland hosted half the number of weddings they would in a normal year.

Much like The Oberports, Little Tennessee owner Nikki Stark said they shifted their focus to smaller offerings, and it’s likely what kept them from experiencing an even bigger loss of revenue.

“I honestly think the biggest thing is that we restructured things to offer smaller wedding packages. We normally do between 30 and 35 weddings. Last year we had 23,” Stark said, adding that balancing different directives from Ohio and West Virginia sometimes further blurred the lines of what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

Stark said business for them looks better already for 2021, with around 40 weddings on their schedule. To date, she said they have not had any events that led to a COVID-19 outbreak, and that guests and staff have all been vigilant in following guidelines.

Brittany Barker, clubhouse manager and event coordinator at Bellefonte Country Club, said the venue hosted about five weddings in 2020, but had many events canceled after they closed for a period of time during “peak wedding season.”

“After we opened, everyone was able to roll with the punches,” Barker said — the “punches” referring to capacity being restricted to 50% of their maximum, which took it from 150 to 75.

Barker said they limited seating capacity at individual tables, encouraging families to sit together and ensuring the host couple had contact information for everyone in attendance in case they would need to be informed of any potential COVID-19 exposure.

Barker said no outbreaks that they know of have been tied to any event held at the Bellefonte Country Club, and that they are seeing more events show up on the schedule, as it relates to larger weddings, for the summer of 2021.

“We’ve been extremely lucky,” she said.

Luke Creasy is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @HDcreasy or reach him by phone at 304-526-2800.

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