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‘It’s a total disaster’: Omicron wreaks havoc on India’s huge wedding season | India

uBy December 28, Heena Vashisht was a happy bride-to-be. The 28-year-old was delighted that her family had made all the arrangements for their wedding on February 10, right down to the last candle. But their plans were dashed by India’s Omicron wave. The wedding can take place in New Delhi as planned, but only if she cuts her guest list from 650 to 20.

“My own immediate family is 80. How can I reduce the guest count to 20? The tension in my family is unbearable right now. Nobody knows what to do, and my mother’s blood pressure shot up from sheer tension,” says Vashisht.

With India’s Omicron-powered third wave firmly underway, the New Delhi government, along with other restrictions, has capped wedding guests at 20, dealing a severe blow to India’s traditional wedding season, which runs from November to March.

Thousands of families are in the same agony of uncertainty as Vashisht, with most arrangements being either paid in full or in part.

Vashisht’s father fully paid for the Tivoli Farms venue on the outskirts of town. “I wanted to be prepared for every little thing, so that everything was decided and advances paid. When I ask to move the date, all vendors say they might not be able to do it for the same price if I do that,” Vashisht says.

In pre-pandemic times, some December weekends could see more than 20,000 weddings take place in the capital in a single day, choking the streets with traffic. During this period from November to March, the industry makes most of its money because the weather is more temperate.

A bride searches for her coronavirus vaccination card to show to a healthcare worker at her wedding venue. Photo: Amit Dave/Reuters

Before the last wave, when cases were almost absurdly low, the fatigue of the pandemic had resulted in “revenge weddings” that were even more splashy and luxurious than normal. November was packed with destination weddings: After two years with little or no travel, people wanted to go to another city.

“You can’t celebrate with 20 people”

The industry’s suppliers are also staring at crippling losses. Its earnings were previously estimated at around US$50 billion and New Delhi is one of the largest wedding markets. On one “auspicious” day alone – November 14 – around 5,000 weddings took place in the city as the industry tried to recover. Flights to honeymoon destinations like Goa rang with the sound of brides wearing their traditional red wedding bracelets on both arms.

Rajeev Jain, chief executive of events management company Rashi Entertainment, believes the industry is a “soft target” for coronavirus restrictions. Staff at most venues and vendors are fully vaccinated, he says. The industry has taken every precaution because otherwise it would “die its own death” and the government only has to insist that all guests are vaccinated.

Seasons Catering co-founder Abhishek Mishra agrees, saying crowds at airports and train stations are much bigger than at weddings. “I was at Indore Airport the other day and there was hardly any room to stand. Election rallies are taking place, attended by tens of thousands of people. The markets are packed with crowds but no, weddings have to be cancelled,” says Mishra.

Mishra’s phone rang with distraught families asking for refunds. Some have been waiting for a wedding without pandemic restrictions for over 18 months. He wanted to make the repayments because of their need and “for the sake of our reputation”. He also has to pay the salaries of hundreds of employees, both permanent and casual.

“It’s a total disaster. There are hundreds of small vendors involved in a wedding. They are incapable of absorbing casualties,” he said.

Another couple, who wished not to be identified, were due to fly from London to New Delhi for the big day on January 23. More than 500 guests should celebrate at the pool of a five-star hotel. Except for the flowers, large advances had been paid for most things—the caterers, the DJ, an entire wing of the hotel, the decor, the outfits.

A wedding guest is given a Covid vaccine dose in a quiet moment.A wedding guest is given a Covid vaccine dose in a quiet moment. Photo: Amit Dave/Reuters

“Everyone had booked their flights, the hotel rooms, the rental cars, the photographer, the band, everything. We postponed it indefinitely because you can’t have a wedding with 20 people,” says the bride-to-be.

India has been experiencing a period of peace since June. In November, the capital with 20 million inhabitants only recorded 35 to 45 new infections per day. But with Omicron fueling a sudden surge, the government has re-imposed restrictions. India is seeing around 258,000 cases daily across the country, with New Delhi seeing 18,286 cases as of Sunday.

Sahiba Puri of XO Catering by Design in Delhi understands the need for the restrictions but has no idea what to do with the chefs who flew in from different parts of India over the weekend for a pre-wedding celebration.

“The bride’s family wanted to spoil the guests with all sorts of local dishes, so these chefs came and bought so many ingredients. Where you go? They pay rent for their housing and other expenses,” says Puri.

As the industry stares at another disaster, Mishra and others plan to ask the government to relax the 20-guest rule. The Confederation of All India Traders has also written to the government asking for an easing.

However, given the current explosion in cases, an easing is unlikely. Wedding card printer Arnav Gupta says: “Everyone will be so afflicted by the brutal second wave that no politician will take any chances.”

Vashisht has decided that she cannot unload 630 guests. She has no choice but to postpone it, but planning a later date is also proving impossible. “Who knows when this wave will end? It’s just getting started. Am I trying to view an appointment in March? April? Can? I mean who knows? This limbo is killing me.”

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