You may be better off sticking to Zoom nuptials for the time being.

By Korin Miller
May 26, 2020
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My cousin was scheduled to get married in early April, not long after COVID-19 forced most states to go into lockdown. His wedding was postponed until July—my family assumed that life would go back to normal by the time summer hit—but now that we're about a month away, life still feels decidedly abnormal.

Right now, most major health organizations still recommend staying away from big crowds, and my cousin's 300-guest wedding definitely qualifies as such. But the decision to skip a family wedding isn't necessarily as easy as deciding to forego a concert or vacation. On top of that, my husband and I have taken the pandemic very seriously. He's an essential worker, but I've stayed home with our three young kids since mid-March—even before our state went into lockdown. We also only very recently started seeing our parents again, having been hardcore social distancers.

My family isn't the only one in this situation: I have other friends who are similarly stressed about rescheduled weddings—ones that were pushed back due to the pandemic that are suddenly back on. This all begs the question: Is there any “safe” way to go to a wedding right now? Here’s what experts say.

So, is it safe to go to a wedding right now?

Like many things right now, the answer is complicated. And, depending on who you talk to, the advice may be slightly different.

But first, it’s important to dive into some basic information on how COVID-19 is transmitted. COVID-19 mainly spreads through person-to-person contact, like an infected person coughing, sneezing, or talking within six feet of you, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s also possible to get COVID-19 from touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your mouth, nose, or your eyes, but the CDC says that this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. The virus can also be spread by people who are asymptomatic, which is a huge potential issue.

Also worth noting: the CDC explicitly says that people should avoid gathering in groups, stay out of crowded places, and avoid mass gatherings.

Still, many infectious disease experts recognize that people want to live their lives. “The word ‘safe’ doesn’t apply right now. Nothing is 100% safe when you talk about COVID-19 risk,” William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Health. “With any decision these days, it’s instead important to think about what are the risks and how can we reduce them?”

Weddings are usually considered high-risk events for transmission of COVID-19, Dr. Schaffner says. “A wedding is one of those occasions where there will be an epidemic of hugging and kissing that goes on,” he points out. “Can people try to be restrained? It’s unlikely.”

Details matter when it comes to making the decision to go (or not go) to a wedding, Prathit Kulkarni, MD, an assistant professor of medicine-infectious diseases at the Baylor College of Medicine, tells Health. Are you planning to go to a wedding where everyone but the bride and groom are spaced at least six feet apart during the wedding itself and the reception? That’s safer than a traditional wedding, where everyone is packed together for the ceremony and reception, he says.

“A large event with plenty of people…at this point, based on the current transmission dynamics, it’s not recommended,” Dr. Kulkarni says. What classifies as “large” varies from state to state, but some recommend having no less than 10 people gathered in one spot, while others allow for up to 50. Even then, enforcing this is usually on an honor system. Having a wedding and reception indoors is also tricky, Dr. Schaffner says, because people are closer together and there’s more shared air.

Still, the decision is ultimately yours. “It’s all risk tolerance,” Dr. Schaffner says. Dr. Kulkarni agrees. “It’s more of a case-by-case assessment situation rather than an absolute yes or no,” he says.

How can you stay safe if you do go to a wedding?

If you decide to go to a wedding and want to be as safe as possible, Dr. Schaffner says the standard rules of COVID-19 prevention are still important. That means trying to stay six feet away from others, wearing a mask, and regularly washing your hands well with soap and water. “You should still be following all the guidelines, and they still apply, even though it’s a wedding,” Dr. Kulkarni says. So, try to avoid giving hugs and kisses, and do your best to stay at least six feet away from people you talk to.

Of course, you might find yourself in some situations that aren’t explicitly spelled out by the guidelines. So, keep this advice in mind to help keep you from having to scramble in the moment:

  • Try to avoid using the bathroom when other people are in there. People tend to be pretty close together when they’re in a public bathroom, and that’s a prime opportunity for the virus to spread, Dr. Schaffner says. If you can, wait until other people leave before you go in, and don’t linger after you’ve used the bathroom.
  • Sit with your immediate household or inner circle. Whether it’s at the ceremony or the reception, try to surround yourself with the people you actually live with. Keep in mind that six feet applies to people to the side, front, and back of you.
  • Steer clear of popular spaces. If there’s a buffet line, you don’t want to be jammed into the queue with everyone else. So, if your stomach can take it, try to wait until everyone has gotten their food and there are only stragglers at the buffet to get your meal. Ditto for the bar and first dance crowd.
  • If you want to dance, stay on the perimeter. “If a couple dances and they live together, that’s not going to increase their risk,” Dr. Schaffner says. “But if there’s a lot of mixing of partners, that’s not ideal.” Think: People huffing and puffing while they bust a move, which could potentially send out plenty of infected respiratory droplets. Gah.

What are you supposed to say if you decide not to go to a wedding over COVID-19 fears?

Asking for a friend who happens to be me here. Telling someone you decided not to go to their wedding over COVID-19 fears pretty much conveys to them that you don’t agree with their way of handling the virus—and that’s a hot button topic right now. Plus, you’re voluntarily making the decision not to be there for their special day, when they so clearly want you there.

“This is very hard,” Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of “Personology” podcast from iHeartRadio, tells Health. “You can only control the clear message you give to someone, not their reaction which will be impacted by their own desires, wishes, and viewpoint.”

She recommends telling your friend or family member that you love them and that you really wish you could be there in person. “You can ask if there is any way to Zoom (or other technology means) into their wedding so you can at least be virtually there,” she says. You can also write them a special poem (if that’s your thing), craft a meaningful message for the wedding day, or send a gift to let them know you’re thinking of them.

“Most importantly, use your words to say you love them, support them, care about them, and wish them every happiness,” Dr. Saltz says. “This is a terribly hard decision for you to make but that, for health reasons—exposure to travel, guests, etc.—you know you cannot come.”

An important element of this, Dr. Saltz says, is to allow your loved one to feel disappointed. “Don’t insist they say, ‘Of course, that’s fine!' Give them time to digest it,” she says. “They may fear no one will come and they may be mourning the loss of the long waited-for wedding they thought they would have. You don’t want to push them to be fine right away, they probably aren’t, and pushing will be insensitive to their loss and just encourage anger.”

So, state your plan clearly and how sad you are about it, and then move on. Eventually, the hope is that your loved one will understand it’s not your fault—it’s the pandemic’s doing, Dr. Saltz says.

As for me, I know that, short of a vaccine being made and widely distributed before the wedding date, there’s no way I’ll be there. I’m also planning to distance myself from my family members who do go for two weeks afterward, just to be safe. And I know it’s 95% likely that my decisions are going to cause some tension. I haven’t told my cousin about my plan not to go to the wedding just yet. But I know the moment is coming—and I’m dreading it.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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