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Lots of Weddings, but No Clear Roadmap for COVID Protection

Flood of celebrations have older guests thinking twice about how to attend safely

young couple wearing face masks getting ready to walk into their wedding ceremony

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Cooler temperatures and mild weather make fall an especially sought-after time to get married. But this year, it’s a downright deluge because of weddings postponed from last year and those already planned for 2021.

Navigating nuptials requires lots of choices for the bride and groom that will ultimately have guests pondering the risks. Mask or no mask? Indoor, outdoor or both? Are vaccines required for attendance? And if you’re a guest, do you wear a mask for the ceremony, but take it off for the reception? Do you feel comfortable boogying on the dance floor without one? Will you take a mask off for photos or skip masking entirely?

These are questions many wedding guests are asking themselves.

collage of user submitted photos of couples who have recently attended weddings during the covid pandemic

Courtesy Ron and Meryl Manning Segel; Courtesy Bruce and Molly Beth Malcolm

Ron and Meryl Manning Segel (left) attended a wedding this year; Bruce and Molly Beth Malcolm declined a wedding invitation due to concerns about COVID-19.

Since the pandemic, wedding planning is all about making sure guests feel comfortable enough to show up in person for the ceremony. Health and safety of guests are the most important aspects of the plans, according to more than 75 percent of over 7,600 couples surveyed in spring 2021 by wedding website The Knot for its 2020 Real Weddings Study.

Celebration size and attendee numbers also play into the decision, with either handfuls on hand or guest lists topping 200. As couples plan to share their joy, wedding guests now have more decisions to make than just the gift.

Ron Segel, 74, and his wife, Meryl Manning Segel, 73, attended their first in-person wedding since the pandemic on Sept. 11, traveling from their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Long Island, New York, for the marriage of the daughter of longtime friends.

“They made it clear that nobody was invited who wasn’t fully vaccinated,” says Segel, a retired attorney. “In some ways, it was refreshing and liberating that we were back together in a large group with friends. But things were clearly different.”

COVID safety is the new wedding trend

Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, (a 20th-century author best known for writing about etiquette, manners and social behavior) cohosts a weekly Q and A podcast, on which she says COVID-related wedding questions are routine.

“It shouldn’t be — at this point in the pandemic — an unexpected part of an invitation,” Post says. “It may be your first time receiving one that talks about it. But with this pandemic raging on, it’s expected that there will be some communication about safety measures.”

 If you’ve received a wedding invitation and there hasn’t been a discussion about pandemic safety, it’s OK for a guest to ask, Post says.

The Knot survey of those planning 2020 marriages found just over 40 percent went ahead with the wedding and reception, with the majority held outdoors. Among those who married, about one-third of couples also planned a larger gathering later. Of those planning fall and winter weddings this year, 57 percent are moving ahead with more than 100 guests, says Esther Lee, senior editor and wedding expert at The Knot.

Post says she hears from both sides — the vaccinated and unvaccinated — about how to proceed, with some saying, “I’m unvaccinated and want to go but don’t want people yelling at me” or, “We’ve got family we know aren’t vaccinated and want to know the rules in place for safety.”

Meryl Manning Segel says she received at least four or five emails about safety measures before the September wedding she and her husband attended. The newlyweds married last year in a private ceremony and held a bigger event this year.

Manning Segel says she mostly felt safe to enjoy herself.

“It felt great and everybody took precautions,” she says of the event with almost 200 guests. “The cocktail hour was outside, too. Everybody that was a server was masked. The photographer was masked. Everybody who was employed was masked. The band was masked as much as they could be.”

Manning Segel, a Realtor, says she and her husband had masks on and off during the evening, but says she “was a little anxious when everybody was dancing.”

“You’re dancing and you’re sweating and half [are dancing without masks] and half are dancing with masks. I’d say about 40 percent had masks on,” she says. “The young people did not.”

To allow for greater social distancing, Lee says dance floor size is increasing and many dance floors are placed outdoors under twinkling lights.

But, no matter the protocols, she says, “If a guest doesn’t feel comfortable attending a wedding during this time, it’s more than OK to politely decline the invitation. That’s where a gift comes in handy.”

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It’s acceptable to opt out 

Bruce and Molly Beth Malcolm had to make that choice about his niece’s wedding in Atlanta, originally set for April 2020 then moved to October 2020.

“In April 2020, the thinking was this is going to come and go fairly fast. I thought by October everything will be OK,” he says. “But by October, everything was worse.”

Malcolm, 75, a retired banker in Austin, Texas, had planned to drive rather than fly to avoid COVID exposure. But less than a week before the wedding, he wasn’t sure whether his desire to support his younger brother’s event and represent the family would outweigh his concerns “over other guests potentially not wearing masks.” He and his wife did not attend the wedding.

“It was difficult to make a decision until the very last. The fear factor began to take over,” Malcolm says.  “I justified it by increasing the amount of our check by what we saved by not making the trip.”

Malcolm will be out-of-town next month when his wife will attend her first wedding since the pandemic began. It’s the November marriage of a work colleague in Galveston, Texas.

Molly Beth Malcolm says she was honored to be asked to the small, all-outdoor wedding and feels comfortable going. The event’s website explains: “Protective masks or face coverings will be required as well as social distancing to keep you our family and friends safe. We will be providing masks for every guest.”

“I was included because he gives me credit for meeting his fiancée,” says Malcom, 66, a community college senior executive. “He came to work about six weeks before COVID hit. I took him with me to an event and met an HR person. I introduced them. I had no idea it was going to develop into a relationship.”

Sharon Jayson is a contributing writer who covers health, family, aging and retirement. As a staff reporter for USA Today, she covered behavior and relationships. She has also written for Kaiser Health News, The Washington PostTime magazine and U.S. News & World Report.