When my fiancé, Alex, and I got engaged in January, the COVID vaccine rollout was still shrouded in uncertainty and it was hard to imagine the limitations on gatherings lifting much, if at all, by our May wedding date. Apartment dwellers ourselves, we left imposing on home-owning friends for use of a backyard as a last resort. After all, safely spacing people and serving food would be challenging, restroom access could be a touchy subject and we would need to rent a tent in case it rained.
Back in February and March, the prospect of a 10-person maximum for indoor gatherings at some venues sent me trawling through the internet and crisscrossing the DMV by car to explore outdoor options with the trifecta of features we sought: natural setting, affordable cost and not a logistical nightmare.
Fast forward to late April, and Maryland, Virginia and the District doubled the maximum number of people who could attend indoor events from 25 to 50, and maximum number at outdoor events from 50 to a whopping 100. As of May 12, more than 50 percent of the region’s residents were at least partially vaccinated and the number of new COVID cases and hospitalizations locally were dropping, according to local departments of health. All this opened the door to celebrations in indoor settings previously off limits during the pandemic, even with burgeoning guest lists.
But for couples still committed to an outdoor wedding, whether to accommodate COVID-conscious family members, cut venue costs or because they just love to be surrounded by nature, here are some lessons I learned searching for my pandemic-perfect wedding site.
Pandemic discount packages get you maximum bang for your buck — if you can keep the guest list way down.
When we started considering venues, the first choice that leapt to mind was one that is reflexive for many MoCo residents: Brookside Gardens in Silver Spring. The gently rolling hills of this botanical garden and nature center, located within Wheaton Regional Park, are replete with gorgeous spots for a wedding ceremony and broad spaces to safely seat one’s guests during the COVID times. Additionally, as part of the Montgomery County Parks and Recreation system, Brookside Garden offers discounts on event packages for county residents. Ka-ching!
When I reached out to Brookside Gardens’ event department in February, however, I discovered they had no availability for a weekend wedding until at least August. Not only that: Unlike several venues I looked into later, Brookside Gardens did not offer a discounted package for pandemic-era smaller weddings that reflected the restrictions on large gatherings. I wasn’t prepared to pay the same amount for a 25-person ceremony as a 300-person blowout party.
Such discount packages made a venue like Dumbarton House in Georgetown seem like a no-brainer. Back in 2020, Dumbarton House instituted the policy that it could accommodate 50 individuals per event if the District of Columbia is in phases 2 or 3 in its ReOpen DC plan. In March, the Dogwood Event Package looked like it would suit our needs. For $1,000, plus a $100 refundable security deposit, one would get their choice of the property’s North Garden, Lower Courtyard, or East Park for a seated ceremony (chairs provided); the tented Upper Terrace provided as a rainy-day alternative for the ceremony and an ideal spot for the reception in any weather; as well as two rectangular tables, two cocktail tables, and white linens provided for the three-hour maximum duration of the event.
As we continued deliberating and the District opened up to allow outdoor gatherings of 50 instead of 25 people, we had to weigh the cost of upgrading our package choice to allow more family and friends to participate in our special day. An increase of just 10 people to the Crepe Myrtle Event Package, which admittedly also offered more time and perks, would bump the price from $1,000 to $3,000 dollars. Go up to 40 people, and the price would be $5,000.
Finding ourselves outside our desired price range for a low-budget wedding, we shifted our gaze back to public parks as our best option.
Public parks have rules, and some might surprise you.
I have many fond memories as a single parent exploring Rock Creek Park in the District with my son, now almost 10 years old, and I thought having the wedding there could be a sweet tribute and subtle form of closure to that period in our lives. The park features covered picnic areas available for reservation, a viable option for small event with a rustic vibe.
After scouring maps online and doing a drive-by visit in person, I identified Picnic Area 6 as my prime candidate: a picnic shelter staggered away from the open-air picnic tables, for a little more privacy; open space for the ceremony not far from the soothing sound of the creek; and easy access to public parking and a public restroom close by (but not too close by, if you catch my drift).
When I called the U.S. National Parks Service office, I was under the impression that all I would need for my event was to reserve the picnic shelter and maybe pay for a photo permit. A very patient park ranger explained to me that not only would I need apply for a special use permit to hold a wedding in Rock Creek Park, but that weddings are also limited to four specific locations: Georgetown Waterfront Park, Old Stone House, Montrose Park and Meridian Hill Park. The maximum participant limit is 50 people, the duration of the event could be no longer than two hours and decorations and chairs are not permitted. These were not pandemic-related rules but standard procedures to protect the condition of the parks.
No decorations? I could handle that. No chairs? Borderline dealbreaker. Limiting my options to four spots with no personal sentimental value? I didn’t see a need to have our guests stand for two hours for that. Surely we could find another, more hospitable, option.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will confess that I am not a huge stickler for rules. Left to my own devices, I have little doubt I would have held a flash mob-esque wedding and been prepared to disband or at least dissemble at the first sign of trouble. As the daughter of two lawyers and sibling of two more, however, I knew I would never hear the end of it from my family if I was presented with a citation along with my ketubah.
Rock Creek Park was out.
Get creative for the sake of tradition.
There was a factor I failed to consider about a public park wedding, even before my conversation with the park ranger popped the bubble of my plans.
In the interests of keeping our budget down, Alex and I were willing to forgo some elements traditionally associated with Orthodox weddings. A live band, for instance, and the crazy smorgasbord. A few details, however, are part of the ritual fabric of a religious wedding and cannot be foregone.
One of these details is the period of yichud, or seclusion, immediately after the wedding ceremony. The bride and groom head to a room to spend their first minutes alone as a married couple while the guests head to the reception area. A conversation with our rabbi confirmed that this practice was non-negotiable for us — but how could we create the yichud room experience in a public park?
The room is required to have a lockable door, so a tent wasn’t going to cut it. There are supposed to be two eidim, or witnesses, posted sentinel-like at the door — if we hid out in a car, would we need two people per door? This was getting ridiculous.
Meadowside Nature Center, located in Rock Creek Regional Park in Maryland, appeared to offer a solution.
Meadowside boasts a covered picnic shelter larger than the one at Picnic Area 6 at Rock Creek Park in DC. Reserving the shelter for the day is more affordable than booking Brookside Gardens or Dumbarton House. Finally, the nature center building is around the corner from the picnic shelter; with classrooms available for rent, that meant we would not only have access to the center’s restrooms for our guests, but also a yichud room for after the ceremony.
Unfortunately, while the park is open to guests and the picnic shelter is available for reservations, the nature center is closed for renovations until August.
Bye-bye, yichud room, and adios to the only public toilets for miles.
I successfully pitched our rabbi the idea of using a friend’s pop-up camper as the yichud room, but did not receive positive feedback from friends and family about the idea of a port-a-potty for wedding guests, so we were back to square one.
Backyard wedding, anybody?
Rachel Kohn is a freelance writer living in Silver Spring.