How to Attend a Wedding (or Not) During a Pandemic

Tips on how to take safety into account while attending a wedding, as well as how to politely decline if it’s not for you.

Although the Covid-19 coronavirus caused many to postpone their ceremonies earlier in the year, clarity on how the virus spreads and less rigid social distancing mandates are leading to a return of weddings this fall—albeit with mask-wearing and smaller numbers.

That poses previously unimaginable dilemmas for a wedding guest: Will proper cleaning protocols be followed? Will there be close contact among attendees?

The good news is that most nuptials are proceeding with caution. Of those with weddings in 2020, 71% are incorporating health and safety measures into their celebrations, with 63% adjusting seating arrangements for more distance, according to data from wedding website the Knot.

However, a slate of headlines detailing how ceremonies have spread the virus—from a hidden indoor gathering in San Francisco to a super-spreader event in Maine that led to more than 100 cases—are enough to give anyone pause. Whether you attend is “a balance of protecting yourself and figuring out the characteristics of the event and your own family dynamic,” says Rachael Piltch-Loeb, preparedness fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Read on to obtain tips on how to take safety into account, as well as how to politely decline if you find that it’s not for you.

How to Attend a Wedding (or Not) During a Pandemic

Being Nosy 

When considering attending a celebration, experts recommend something previously considered taboo: asking for lots of details.

Many couples are providing descriptions of the ceremony's logistics on the invitations, or through updated communication and websites. If this information isn't readily available, there’s no shame in inquiring further, as long as the query is done with respect and politeness.

“You definitely are going to want to do this via phone call. You don’t want to send a text,” says Jacquelyn Youst, etiquette expert and owner of the Pennsylvania Academy of Protocol. “Explain your situation. It’s all in the words—and mostly, your tone.”

If the couple seems especially busy or overwhelmed with the planning—as was typical, even before a global pandemic—reaching out to another member of the wedding party is an option.

In general, the more people who attend, the more dangerous it is, Piltch-Loeb explains, although there’s no exact cutoff number. She says that her first questions when attending a wedding are: first, whether it will be indoor or outdoor, and then the amount of guests.

The gold standard for a safe ceremony is “outdoors, with a mask and with respect for social distancing and hand washing,” says Jessica Justman, an associate professor of medicine in epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

The outdoor component is especially crucial, given that studies show the coronavirus spreads more in indoor environments with low humidity. 

Other questions to ask include: Will there be sanitizing stations; will masks be provided or should I bring my own; and if it’s indoor, what is the venue ventilation like?

Some wedding parties are taking a “bubble” approach, which requires rapid testing for active, asymptomatic infections to attend, as well as harm reduction measures such as having guests drive instead of fly and minimizing contact at restaurants, shops, other social engagements in the lead up. Vendors such as DJs and photographers are also asked to comply. The goal: a stress-free, potentially mask-less experience.

“You just need to be an informed guest,” says JoAnn Gregoli, owner of Elegant Occasions, a wedding planner in the New York area. “The more information you have, the better you are.” And the more fully you can decide if the event fits into your risk tolerance, both for yourself and others. 

How to Attend a Wedding (or Not) During a Pandemic

Keep Your Distance

If any of the event characteristics sound risky or go beyond your comfort levels, there’s always the option to politely modify your approach, based on your risk tolerance.

“If you get somewhere, and you’re uncomfortable, you can always stand in the back and watch from a distance,” Gregoli says.

Or ask the couple if there is a virtual option. Many couples are including a broadcast via Zoom, or another streaming platform, alongside an in-person ceremony, designed for those who are high-risk or otherwise uncomfortable.

Some weddings also now include different-colored wristbands for guests, to easily show social distancing comfort levels, says Marlie Kelleher, owner of Marlie Renee Designs, a wedding stationery service.

For instance, red could mean no touching and staying six feet away from others, while yellow might mean keep masks on at all times, and green completely open to hugs and handshakes.

One of the riskier parts of the ceremony is often the reception, Piltch-Loeb notes, when alcohol flows and boundaries blur, and masks come off during dancing.

If that is worrisome, consider dancing or mingling in a separate area, sitting separately with family members or in a quarantine pod, or even making an early exit, before craziness ensues.

How to Attend a Wedding (or Not) During a Pandemic

Politely Decline

There’s no shame in telling a couple you cannot attend the ceremony. As Youst puts it: “Health comes before etiquette.”

Most couples moving forward with nuptials in 2020 realize that not everyone will be able to attend.

“The guests who are invited to a wedding, it means you have a very special relationship with the couple,” says Esther Lee, senior editor at the Knot. “The couple cares about you."

They should respect your decision to refrain from a choice that could endanger your health, she notes. Just be sure to thank them for the invite and convey wishes of celebrating the milestone sometime in the future, when the risk of infection is lower.

Even if you decline to attend, Youst recommends sending a gift; the amount of money spent can vary in proportion to your finances and relationship with the couple. 

“Your gift represents your good wishes toward the newlyweds,” she says. “You still want to be part of the celebration. You still want to send your well wishes. You want to cheer them on.”

Many couples are now offering virtual gift options, too, including honeymoon funds, to minimize the need for physical objects to change hands. 

For ceremonies that have been moved to a later date, Youst says to send a gift as soon as possible, especially since many retailers face shipping delays. It’s acceptable to hold off if the nuptials are being postponed indefinitely. Much can change between now and then. 

Although not required, Kelleher suggest sending a small gift, such as a bottle of wine or flowers, on a couple’s original wedding date, if it’s been postponed. 

“Even something small, just as a reminder to them that you are there and thinking of them,” she says. “It’s a very small gesture that will go a long way. People remember things like that.”

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