We can't cancel love — but should we cancel weddings? Experts weigh in.

Elise Solé
·9 min read

So, your wedding falls in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and you have hard choices: Postpone the event for the unforeseeable future, make sizable or costly cuts to meet health guidelines or advance to the altar, hoping for the healthiest outcome.

According to an October The Knot-Wedding Wire survey of 684 U.S. couples with nuptials scheduled between September 2020 and January 2021, 35 percent postponed, 7 percent canceled and 58 percent planned to keep their dates while implementing safety measures, according to Kristen Maxwell Cooper, editor in chief of The Knot. “Many couples are participating in what The Knot has coined a ‘minimony,’ or a mini-ceremony, with just the couple or the couple plus their immediate family, in advance of a couple’s rescheduled wedding reception,” she tells Yahoo Life.

Like festivals, concerts and sporting games, weddings fall under “gatherings,” events that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says contribute to the spread of COVID-19, through contact, droplet and airborne transmission. Depending on size and structure, a traditional wedding could meet the CDC’s “highest risk” scenario, defined as “large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area.”

Add alcohol, which the health agency warns can impair safety judgment, and celebratory behaviors like dancing or singing (the latter of which could emit infectious aerosol particles), and it’s clear why some weddings are potential “superspreader events” that lead to multiple infections.

Several ended this way — a 55-person August ceremony in Millinocket, Maine, that violated the state’s 50-person limit on indoor gatherings resulted in 177 COVID-19 cases and the deaths of seven people, the CDC reported. An Ohio wedding with 83 guests sickened 32 people, including the newlyweds who spent their North Carolina honeymoon feeling “horrible,” and this month, organizers of a large, covertly planned wedding in Brooklyn, N.Y., were fined $15,000 for violating New York City health mandates.

Still, in some parts of the country, wedding ceremonies can be exempt from size restrictions due to their religious nature. Others take place abiding by local or state gathering limitations, which might not permit receptions.

“When we talk about ceremonies and receptions, there is a big difference in risk,” Brian Labus, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tells Yahoo Life. “Wedding ceremonies tend to be shorter and can more easily be socially distanced because they have fewer people attending. Receptions are large gatherings with a lot of close socializing that can last for hours.”

The CDC acknowledges that gatherings aren’t one-size-fits-all, with “higher risk” events being medium in size, in-person and attended by those from outside the local region who stay six feet apart. “More risk” groupings are smaller and outdoors, with guests from the same local area. The “lowest risk” ones are, unsurprisingly, virtual-only.

With gatherings a clear health risk, why hold in-person weddings right now?

Weddings might be normalized by industry coverage. In November, Vogue deleted a story on a Martha’s Vineyard wedding that a local board of health member told NBC News was linked to 10 cases of COVID-19 (the bride in question told the Martha’s Vineyard Times, which covered the initial story, that connecting the cluster to her wedding was unfounded). The venue where the wedding was held told the Martha’s Vineyard Times that CDC guidelines were followed and masks were removed only to take outdoor wedding photos for the Vogue story.

A spokesperson from Condé Nast, which publishes Vogue, did not reply to Yahoo Life’s request for comment but told NBC News that editors “ensured that appropriate measures were being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the event” before agreeing to cover the story,” adding, “However, as no gathering has zero risk, we found out afterward that guests had contracted COVID-19 — and believe they did at the wedding — and so the editorial decision was made to remove the piece.”

The New York Times Vows section routinely covers how small and large weddings adapt to the pandemic, but comedian Selena Coppock, who founded the popular parody Twitter and Instagram accounts NYTVows five years ago, has noticed a different tone in the comments on her posts from her combined 35,000 followers.

“Before [the pandemic] it was snark for snark’s sake, but the comments [on her Instagram posts] have taken a personal turn,” Coppock tells Yahoo Life, adding that her project does not target individuals, but rather wedding culture. “Couples who canceled their own weddings say it’s hard to [read] this stuff.”

The New York Times declined to comment on how it specifically covers weddings during the pandemic and directed Yahoo Life to general guidelines from 2018 about the selection process for wedding announcements.

According to Labus, the cultural, religious and legal significance of weddings may shape risk assessment. “From a simple public health perspective, weddings are just as risky as a birthday party,” he points out. “What we are talking about here is the willingness to accept a risk due to the value our society puts on weddings. Think of it like driving on an icy road — the risk of an accident is the same no matter why you are driving, but you would accept that risk to get a sick child to the emergency room where you wouldn't accept it just to go browse in a store.”

Bethany Marshall, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist, agrees. “Weddings are part of our evolutionary heritage — historically, they’re less about the couple themselves and more about uniting a community and committing to ensure the survival of our species,” she tells Yahoo Life. “Today there’s also a type of ‘princess culture’ associated with weddings that doesn’t simply disappear because there’s a pandemic.”

However, it’s expensive to cancel or postpone a wedding (the average cost of which is $33,900, according to The Knot 2019 Real Weddings Study, which includes the engagement ring, but not the honeymoon) and couples typically sign contracts with multiple vendors, all with different financial clauses. Some include a clause called “force majeure” allowing either party to breach due to an “act of God” (unforeseeable situations like earthquakes), but, according to the American Bar Association, not all contracts include epidemics or pandemics.

According to wedding planner Rebecca Lang, the owner of Live Laugh Love Events, a full-service wedding and event company in Orlando, Fla., depending on the contract, cancellations or postponements can put vendors or couples in impossible positions. “Since most vendor contracts probably don’t have a pandemics clause, they are faced with possible legalities if they don't give deposits back to their clients,” she tells Yahoo Life.

She adds, “Technically weddings are not essential, but they’re essential for me and family.” Most of Lang’s clients postponed their weddings, with two exceptions.

“I have also seen couples push through [their wedding plans] because contracts don’t cover pandemics so they can't use force majeure to get out of their obligations,” says Lang. “But that was more in the beginning [of the pandemic] and more [are choosing] postponement, which I fully support.”

Lang explains that “each vendor has their own clauses for postponements; if a couple decides to postpone one month before the wedding, they may still have to pay 50 or 100 percent of their balance to their caterer if food was ordered and staff booked to service the event. Or to the venue, which can’t resell its space on that date.”

Couples that pinned happiness to their wedding day could hesitate to accept another loss. “Weddings symbolize a glimmer of hope and new beginnings,” Maggie Rodriguez, the founder and CEO of Inspired Events in Miami, tells Yahoo Life. “We often say, ‘Love is not canceled’ and [for couples] it’s a thread of happiness.”

Russell Pinto Jr., the founder of Little Red Bean Productions, an event firm in Brooklyn, N.Y., says family dynamics can influence wedding decisions. “Couples in New York might have family members from areas that haven’t been targeted that hard by COVID-19 and may think it’s all fine,” he tells Yahoo Life. “I tell my clients to blame me [for their decisions].”

A recent WeddingPro survey of more than 4,000 wedding vendors showed that 83 percent are communicating safety policies to clients, but that can take creativity. Lang has seen “faux cakes” to stage cake-cutting photos, quickie receptions and creative photography that minimize the appearance of masks. Rodriguez says she hired a therapist to join an hour-long Zoom call to help 50 couples cope with wedding-pandemic stress — while Pinto has straddled the line between “psychiatrist” and “best friend” during the postponement process. In May, he launched Doorstep Events, a virtual division of his company, to offer immersive gift packages to Zoom wedding guests, like care packages and cocktail kits, to enhance social distance celebrations.

Baltimore-based wedding photographer Alicia Wiley tells Yahoo Life she rescheduled 30 weddings this year and shot seven “micro-weddings” that met health guidelines. The bulk of her clients were conscious of health risks, but she turned down inquiries for weddings between July and November with large guest lists (100 to 150) that exceeded Maryland’s social gathering limits (the state Department of Health recommends that no more than 25 people gather indoors). “There are people who don’t want to modify — they want the wedding that they planned and paid for,” she tells Yahoo Life. “What I’ve noticed is, they scramble to find vendors willing to risk the liability.”

Even the best-planned weddings can unravel, and photos don’t tell the whole story. Lang says reading a social media comment questioning why a fellow planner didn’t post pictures showing guests with face masks “makes you think twice about what you [should] post” from a professional perspective.

This year, Pinto executed just one wedding, formerly a 250-guest bash at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden trimmed down to a 15-person October ceremony in Central Park. “We did it without a permit and organized dinner on a private outdoor terrace,” he says. “It was one of my most special weddings and a true representation of love. The bride couldn’t have been happier.”

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