Photographs by Matt Hamilton / Photo Illustration by Matt McClane

Organizers of the Erlanger Health System Foundation's Believe Bash spent 15 months planning the signature fundraiser, only to have it canceled five days before it would have taken place.

"It was a gut punch," said Mary Kilbride, the event's volunteer co-chair with Candy Johnson and their husbands, Bill Kilbride and Bryan Johnson.

In those final weeks of planning for the Aug. 7 event at the Chattanooga Convention Center, Hamilton County's coronavirus cases began ticking upward, a rise stoked by low community vaccination rates and the emergence of the more infectious delta variant. Even if guests were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend, Erlanger executives believed the risks were too great to proceed with the event, Kilbride said. The ballroom was already limited to half capacity, but with 500 guests expected, a breakthough case in an asymptomatic carrier had the potential to create a superspreader event.

"We were extremely disappointed, but I know in hindsight, they made the right decision," she said.

The Believe Bash wasn't her only disappointment this summer. Kilbride is also chairwoman of the board of Friends of the Festival, the organization that produces Chattanooga's Riverbend Festival.

"We were pulling our hair out in May with that event," she said.

A summer tradition since 1982, the music festival was delayed twice and restructured in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A reset for October 2021 was canceled for logistical reasons. It's now on the calendar for June of 2022.

"When you lose your momentum and you lose your revenue stream, there's just a lot of angst," said Kilbride. "But you also have to make smart choices."

Making those smart choices has been a challenge for many since March of 2020 when the pandemic upended life as we knew it. Social interactions, large and small, form the fabric of our lives. We throw birthday parties, meet for dinner and take vacations together so we can spend time with family and friends. We bond over shared reminiscences at class reunions and toast the future at wedding receptions. We convene with thousands of others for the communal joys of concerts, festivals and sporting events.

The coronavirus pandemic brought those everyday pleasures to an abrupt halt. In the early days, decisions were made for us as federal, state or local governments imposed lockdowns and medical experts' pleas for masks and social distancing changed our behavior. Once the vaccine rollout began in December, it seemed that our favorite pastimes might soon bounce back. But low vaccination rates in some areas and the more contagious mutation have deflated some of our expectations.

Still, private and public events are again filling calendars. For some involved in planning large events, it's a matter of finding workable solutions, staying flexible and heeding the latest health and safety precautions.

Professional event planner Shaun Mosley, owner of Cue the Champagne, based in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, said the pandemic wreaked havoc with her bookings last year, especially weddings. But this summer, she consulted on weddings, baby showers, graduations, tea parties, "all types of celebrations," and the pace is quickening for end-of-year gatherings.

"People are already planning for the holidays," she said.

Many clients are nervous about moving forward, especially after the late-summer surge in cases and hospitalizations. Mosley understands their anxiety, especially since the availability of vaccines wasn't the game-changer she expected it to be.

"I thought everybody would get their vaccine and we'd get back to normal,'" she said. "Just when I thought, 'Yay, we're good,' it turned out to be, 'Oh my gosh, we're still not out of this thing.'"

But she believes there are ways to reclaim some of the rituals that define us.

"We have to look for ways to still celebrate, but do it safely," she said.

That's the strategy members of the Brainerd High School Class of 1970 were using to plan their 50-year reunion, which they renamed "50+1" after they had to scrap their 2020 plans. Postponing was disappointing, but the pandemic added layers of significance as well as frustration.

"There's angst, drama, bush-beating — it's hard to find people after 50 years — and a renewed camaraderie of the members of the reunion committee," said Christy Cooper, whom classmates will remember as Chris Long, as she described in August what members of the planning committee were facing for the Sept. 10 event.

Cooper said they dropped, scaled back or completely changed many of their original ideas with safety in mind, but "we all have doubts."

And some were more doubtful than others, as reflected in a decrease in participation from the previous year.

"We're seeing it in the number of reservations," she said. And we [were] told by a number of classmates that they [weren't] coming because they just [didn't] want to risk being exposed."

For much of the planning process, there were enough former classmates, now in their late 60s, who preferred tentative steps over another indefinite delay. But pandemic risks proved too big a challenge to overcome. When they realized they preferred holding their planning sessions virtually instead of in person, the classmates acknowledged the inevitable.

"We have, regrettably, postponed the reunion," Cooper announced about three weeks before the event.

Members of the reunion committee, she added, remain hopeful that a "healthier" date, whenever that might be, will put fears to rest and renew all of their former classmates' interest in gathering. It's an especially poignant decision, she said, because three class members died in the intervening year when plans were first put on hold.

Mosley, the professional event planner, said such harsh realities have been brought into sharper focus over the past few months.

"What the pandemic did teach us is that you do still want to celebrate birthdays and weddings and graduations," she said. "Because life is too short."


* Expect complications. Christy Cooper said members of the Brainerd High School Class of 1970 reunion committee encountered overall price increases for their rescheduled reunion, including for venue rentals and food. And when some classmates bowed out, it meant those costs would have to be borne by a smaller, paying audience. They also worried about whether they could require that only vaccinated classmates could attend, how they would handle an unexpected outbreak following the event and whether there would be liabilities for the reunion planners. "Being aware of the reality of COVID, we have tried to keep our plans appropriate to the current situation," she said. Ultimately, organizers of the reunion made the difficult decision to postpone "until a later — and healthier — date" could be determined.

* Know your circle. If you're planning a private event and are considering your guests' vaccination status and risk factors, you may feel safer limiting numbers than opening the doors to all comers. Even then, said Shaun Mosley of Cue the Champagne, "you can keep people in pods. Keep them in their social bubbles. Do seating charts so people aren't sitting at a table with a stranger."

* Don't be afraid to pull the plug. "You have to take the temperature of the community," said Mary Kilbride, who was involved in two large-scale events that were canceled this summer, the Riverbend Festival and Erlanger's Believe Bash. Both events rely heavily on sponsors for funding. Kilbride said she and her fellow committee members were relieved that the sponsors understood the reasons for canceling and pledged their support to the next year's events.