Editor’s Note: There are few no-risk activities during the Covid-19 pandemic, but there are ways to reduce risks. Fully vaccinated people are, of course, at much lower risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus than unvaccinated people. CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen advises approaching your decisions with that in mind.
This story has been updated to reflect the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance on mask wearing issued May 13.
They had the artsy, rustic venue, the tailored dress and a guest list including about 150 of their closest friends and family. But the pandemic had other plans, forcing Carly Chalmers and Mitchell Gauvin to make a difficult decision about their wedding – twice.
“Everything was changing,” said Chalmers, a Toronto-based marketing manager whose nuptials were originally planned for May 2020, two months after her province’s coronavirus lockdowns began. “In March 2020, it felt like every day something would happen that was kind of like another nail in the coffin for our wedding.”
The couple, who’d gotten engaged in 2018, quickly shifted gears, opting for a small wedding on their July dating anniversary in Chalmers’ parents’ backyard and rescheduling their big reception for May 2021. They ultimately canceled the latter, for good, in light of Ontario’s recent Covid-19 case surge.
“We just realized it wasn’t going to be the day that we wanted,” Chalmers added. “With travel restrictions and the (slow) vaccination rollout, we just knew that people wouldn’t feel safe.”
Having to plan a wedding during normal times “is stressful enough,” she added, but an additional burden was having “to worry like, ‘Oh, somebody might get sick and die as a result of coming to my wedding.’”
The small, outdoor ceremony Chalmers and Gauvin had is one lower-risk way to get married during the pandemic. But as coronavirus restrictions loosen, some couples are opting for more elaborate celebrations, and opening the door to a host of new anxieties, standards and etiquette rules in the process.
Either way, experts say prioritizing the safety of your community as well as your guests is paramount. That includes working with local health officials and paying attention to local regulations, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises.
“Until things get better, I think we just have to find innovative ways to still be able to enjoy ourselves, celebrate the coming (together) of two individuals and do it in a safe way,” said Dr. Ada Stewart, a family physician with Cooperative Health in Columbia, South Carolina, and the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “It will be important to check with local areas and venues to determine the requirements for masks and other protocols.”
What pandemic weddings can look like
Fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks or physically distance unless they’re on public transportation or they’re required to by local laws or businesses, the CDC announced May 13. Fully vaccinated people who are immunocompromised – or living with people who are immunocompromised – should still behave cautiously, since immune-weakening conditions make someone at higher risk for serious disease and death from Covid-19.
The CDC has continued to recommend that unvaccinated people wear masks and avoid large gatherings. Coronavirus spreads when infected people cough, sneeze or talk and others breathe in those droplets, and when coronavirus accumulates in, or flows through, the air. People can catch coronavirus on contaminated surfaces, too, but this is a much lower risk, according to the CDC.
That’s what makes weddings – particularly indoor ones – potentially risky. Lots of people possibly packed into the same area, talking, laughing, eating, drinking and dancing – maybe even hugging and kissing – creates an ideal environment for the virus to thrive. A high or increasing number of Covid-19 cases in the area where the event is happening – or in areas where guests are traveling from – only heightens that risk.
Ventilation quality is another factor that can makes indoor weddings more precarious. Outdoor weddings, like the one Chalmers and Gauvin had, of course naturally avoid that concern.
“A totally outdoor wedding (is) very low risk, even if you are unvaccinated,” said CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
Chalmers and Gauvin said their vows under a wooden pergola, surrounded by her parents’ backyard garden. “Our florist put up a golden arch and decorated it with flowers,” she said via email. “Friends of ours who own a theatre company came earlier in the day and used their props to set up our signing table which had an ‘old train station’ vibe, which was really special as my husband loves trains.”
Chalmers and Gauvin also livestreamed their small ceremony and reception so that other loved ones could virtually attend. Virtual weddings are always a safe option – and what the CDC has advised for those who can’t implement Covid-19 safety precautions at events where unvaccinated people would be present.
Chalmers’ wedding was intimate, but it left her feeling a bit wistful.
“I still remember that moment after we got married, and we walked back up our very tiny aisle in my parents’ back garden,” Chalmers recalled. “That really hit me … that I always imagined that moment with all our friends and family being there and that they weren’t there. And also, because of Covid, I couldn’t even hug my family members who were there.”
Indoor weddings are riskier, but doable if couples modify tradition to be as safe as possible.
Whether proof of vaccination is required at the wedding “changes everything,” Wen said. “If everyone is fully vaccinated, there may not need to be restrictions.”
Weddings without full vaccination mandates may have guests who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, which is why it’s important to consider the setting, Wen said.
The safety of a wedding venue may partly depend on the ability to modify layouts or seating so that people from different households can be at least 6 feet apart.
“We create signage off of (the stationery that the couple has used throughout the planning process), reminding guests to socially distance 6 feet apart,” said Desireé Dent, the president and lead planner of Dejanae Events, a Chicago-based wedding and event planning company.
“We’ve used, like, little animated people with the arrows with the words ‘6 feet’ in between the arrows. … It’s in a 8-by-10 frame so that they can see it. We usually set it up on a highboy.”
Indoor air quality matters too. Work with venue managers to ensure measures for well-ventilated rooms are in place, including the ability to open windows or doors when possible. High ceilings, window fans and HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters can help as well – as can properly functioning HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems that deliver clean air and dilute potential contaminants. There is no need for high-tech disinfecting systems, which the US Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and other government agencies rarely have proven effective.
Simplifying to reduce Covid-19 risk
The more people and the more crowded together they are, the higher the chances of spreading coronavirus if someone is infected. Couples can pare down capacity by going through their guest list and deciding who has to be at the wedding, Dent said.
Sizing depends on the venue, but the number “in 2020, when we were in the heat of it, was 50 or less,” Dent said.
Even if you plan an outdoor wedding, you still “don’t want to over-invite,” Dent said. “If the weather does not agree with you on that day, you’re going to have to move people inside. And now we run into a situation of not having enough spacing.”
Consider your most important relationships, “and then from there, really think about your friend group,” Dent said. “Is it your best friend? Or is it a person that you’ve befriended at work that could potentially understand that they are not necessarily invited to this ceremony?”
The duration of the wedding also affects Covid-19 risk. “Being within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more (over a 24-hour period) greatly increases the risk of becoming infected and requires quarantine,” the CDC has said. So, longer events are riskier than shorter events.
Cutting the event short could mean not having a reception – which might also address concerns around coronavirus spreading as people share a meal.
The problem with eating “is people taking off their masks to eat if they are in close proximity with one another,” Wen said. “If everybody’s spaced at least 6 feet apart, not a concern outdoors. But if they are close together and taking off their masks to eat, that increases risk.”
If your guests will include individuals who are not vaccinated, you may need to continue to have people wear masks or seat people from different households away from each other. Avoid buffet-type meals since everyone would be touching the same serving utensils, Stewart said.
“The meals have been plated (and) brought to the guest,” Dent said of pandemic weddings she has planned. “Because we all have to remain seated when you are drinking and eating, the idea of passed hors d’oeuvres has been removed. … Each one of them are put on an individual plate, which has been covered in some form.”
Dancing – and specifically breathing heavier while doing so – can also make receptions higher risk, Wen said. “The only way to do that safely is to ensure that everyone there is vaccinated, and if that’s not possible for some reason, to be quarantined and tested.”
“The dances with parents, the couple’s first dance, the cake cutting, those ceremonial moments that you see in many weddings – those still take place because they’re, in a sense, one-on-one,” Dent said. “You just need to have a space within the environment.”
Fully vaccinated people can take photos together indoors or outdoors and unmasked if they are at least 6 feet away from others. Unvaccinated people should wear masks when photographed with others.
Even with more people vaccinated, it is still a good idea to avoid activities like bouquet tosses that could encourage people to crowd together until we have reached herd immunity, Stewart suggested. And instead of having a guest book that requires everyone using the same pen, have a small card and pen at every seat that guests can sign and leave to be picked up.
“Now it becomes more of a scrapbook of small, little handwritten cards versus one guest book,” Dent said.
Ensuring everyone is as safe as possible
You can help guests reduce risk by providing “sanitation stations” at venue entrances and throughout, Dent said. Those could include hand sanitizer, disposable masks or custom masks made for your wedding.
Providing on-site testing is also an option if you have the means, said Regina Davis Moss, the associate executive director of health policy and practice at the American Public Health Association. Some venues and hotels “are offering that, particularly when you have guests that are traveling from different places, and some states require a negative test before you return,” Davis Moss said.
But know that test results may not reflect whether someone was just exposed to coronavirus but hasn’t been infected long enough for test results to be positive, she added.
Some couples are hiring Covid-19 compliance officers to help politely enforce safety precautions like physical distancing, said Annie Lee, the principal planner for award-winning wedding and event planning company Daughter of Design. Plannie, founded by Lee, is an online platform through which people can book local planners to work for events on an hourly basis.
“Through that, we also added on Covid compliance officers that you can hire,” Lee said. “It’s not the planner’s job (nor) the venue’s job to also then have to be monitoring the guests and their masks and whatever other rules there might be.”
Managing expectations and pandemic wedding etiquette
If you plan to limit your guest list or require proof of full Covid-19 vaccination, having those conversations might be awkward.
“It is up to you, as the organizer, to set the rules,” Wen said. “You could very well say, as an example, ‘the health and safety of our wedding guests is our top priority. Vaccines protect everyone. We are therefore requesting that people attending must be fully vaccinated as defined by two weeks after their second dose of Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine, or two weeks after their Johnson & Johnson vaccine.’”
To children and adult guests who are unable to be vaccinated, you could offer that they instead quarantine and test, Wen added. “One test in the 24-hour period before the wedding is probably sufficient.”
“You can also frame it, if you wish, as ‘There’ll be people attending who are particularly vulnerable, and it’s important for us to help them attend. That’s the reason why we’re asking for your help,’” Wen said. “Make it about what it really is, which is protecting health.”
Since invitations can give only so much information, Dent suggested communicating your Covid-19 measures via a wedding website.
“You can address questions and answers on your website as well as if you are requiring proof of vaccination or proof of a negative Covid test. That information can be collected there, or you could give them instructions on how to send it to you,” she said. “I know couples that have sent (an electronic) waiver to their guests and requiring that they sign it.”
As a guest, if you’d have to travel long distance to a wedding, you may have additional issues to consider depending on your vaccination status: Unvaccinated people are still advised by the CDC to stay home, but should get tested one to three days before their trip, for example, and three to five days after they arrive home. Regardless of your second test result, you should also quarantine for seven days.
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If you’ve been invited to a wedding that won’t have safety measures in place and want to share your concerns, how you do that depends on your relationship with the couple, Wen said.
“If you are very close and feel comfortable with it, consider calling and having a frank conversation. … Perhaps they haven’t thought about the benefit of these safety measures. Perhaps they’ll hear from multiple guests and consider implementing new measures,” Wen said. “Think about attending a portion of the ceremony but not another – for example, an outdoor ceremony itself but not the indoor banquet. At the end of the day, you could consider telling them your true reason: that you are concerned about your own health.”