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What are the rules of a pandemic wedding? It depends on whom you ask

The cover photo for the private Facebook group “Four Weddings and a Virus” is a snapshot from the 2011 comedy “Bridesmaids.” The image is taken from a scene where Maya Rudolph’s character gets food poisoning while trying on wedding dresses, runs away in a futile attempt to suppress her symptoms and ends up losing her lunch all over herself and a bright, white dress outside the swanky boutique. To the more than 8,000 members of this Facebook group, made up of would-be brides lamenting their best-laid plans, the unsavory scene provides a fitting analogy of what planning a wedding feels like for many couples right now: yes, this messy, unpredictable situation is actually happening, whether you like it or not.

Even in the best of times, wedding planning is rarely stress-free. At the heart of it, a wedding is a life milestone where culture, social status, family expectations and a person’s individual ideal’s converge into one chaotic intersection. A pandemic doesn’t really change that. Most people still want what they wanted before and just feel guilty about it. But what the coronavirus pandemic has done is make this crazy intersection infinitely more chaotic. It has heightened the stakes. Instead of worrying whether an unruly uncle will have one too many at the bar, it’s whether a deadly virus will crash the party.

As one New Orleans wedding planner named Valerie Gernhauser put it, ”You’re talking about putting a lifetime of anticipation of joy and happiness in a box and putting it on a shelf for yet another year or more.”

But despite the risks, there are some couples who have decided to move forward with their full-fledged wedding celebrations now that weddings and gatherings are legal again in most states.

So what makes a wedding during a pandemic legal? Well…it depends.

In North Dakota, a 500-person indoor wedding is legal, while in Los Angeles County, California gatherings are only allowed between members of the same household.

Coronavirus restrictions in the U.S, governing all aspects of public life, have been described as a patchwork, but in practice it’s more like opening a set of Russian nesting dolls. That’s especially true when it comes to weddings.

Erin Curtain getting ready for her wedding ceremony in Chicago. The June nuptials were attended in person by immediate family and broadcast to friends and family via Zoom. Photo by: Darcy Demmel Photography

Early on in the pandemic, states set their own coronavirus restrictions based on their local infection rates. But some states, like California and Florida let their individual counties decide. And then there are cities within counties large enough to make their own rules. Once jurisdiction is established, the restrictions vary according to whether the wedding is indoors and whether the venue is considered a restaurant or a bar. And since these restrictions are designed to react to a surge in infection rates, these rules could change.

But the surreal reality of pandemic weddings really comes to the fore in the fine print.

In New Orleans, the city’s guidelines require a “safety control officer,” trained to control social distancing and enforce mask wearing, for every 50 guests.

Couples in Arkansas can have a wedding of up to 100 people, but the venue must follow a long list of requirements, such as providing hand sanitizer stations at every entrance and exit. Salad bars and buffets are expressly prohibited.

Sometimes, these restrictions end up clashing in ways that don’t make sense. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an proclamation that allowed judges and mayors the ability to limit outdoor gatherings to 10 people to prevent huge parties during July 4th weekend. But higher-risk indoor weddings with hundreds of people were still legal as long as the venue did not exceed 50% capacity.

The risk for a wedding venue flouting these restrictions is getting nabbed with a health code violation or having a liquor license suspended. But there is also a fear within the $74 billion wedding industry of a years-long pause on weddings all together.

“The wedding industry is going to take longer to bounce back than other industries because we have a complication that other businesses don’t have. People go to a restaurant to eat food, they go to church to worship but the entire point of a wedding is togetherness and how do you do that while social distancing?” said Claire Duran, a wedding planner in Washington, D.C., who has recently pivoted to micro-weddings. But there are indications that in order to keep business flowing some wedding venues are turning a blind eye to these restrictions altogether.

A wedding photographer based in New Orleans said she was shocked at how openly regulations were flouted at a large indoor wedding she photographed over the July 4 weekend in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.

The photographer, who asked to remain anonymous because she feared speaking out would hurt her professionally, said that someone made an announcement at the start of the reception and asked guests not to post images from the party on social media. The wedding planner for the couple later explained to the photographer that the announcement was made because the venue “did not want to get mixed up in all the COVID stuff.”

There were temperature checks and masks being handed out at the door, but the photographer said she only saw two of around 100 guests wearing them. Under the state of Louisiana’s coronavirus restrictions venues can request a permit for live entertainment, but all performers stay a minimum of 12 feet away from guests since loud singing can emit aerosols in the air similar to a cough or sneeze, elevating the risk of spreading infection.

But that did not stop the band’s saxophone player from jumping over the roped partition during the dinner performance, and nuzzling up to guests around the dance floor as he played a breakout solo.

Outside, guests packed into an enclosed patio to partake in a cigar bar. A masked server was stationed there too, shucking oysters surrounded by plumes of smoke, the photographer said.

“As a wedding photographer, I was like, ‘let’s encourage people to have weddings’ because I wanted to go back to work. And now, after actually going to a wedding, I am in a different head space … things are not normal now, so why have a normal wedding?”

Moving forward with a large wedding in the midst of a pandemic is an odd mix of trepidation and the kind of enthusiasm you see at an overdue family reunion.

“People don’t know how much fun they should be having,” said June Abro, a wedding planner in West Bloomfield, Michigan who has overseen a handful of larger weddings since Michigan’s governor had deemed them legal. (They’ve since been restricted again). “Like, can I hug you, shake your hand? People were so excited to see other people after so long. It was nice and refreshing to see people interacting again.”

The couples who are choosing to go ahead with large weddings right now tend to fall into two major categories. First, there are couples who feel financially forced into it. In states with loosened rules on large gatherings, there are venues that argue that since weddings are technically legal, contractually-bound couples must honor their original wedding date or pay up. “It’s very much that businesses are trying to protect their revenue because the industry has already been hit so hard from the pandemic. We’re seeing a lot of full rebook fees for a handful of vendors that we’re trying to avoid,” said Molly Rasmussen, a wedding planner based in Dallas, Texas.

Then there are couples like 28-year-old Michael Nafso and Mary Jabiru, 24, who did not see postponement as an option for personal reasons. (Full disclosure: the groom is the writer’s family friend).

Nafso and his fiance’s families are both Iraqi Christian and living together before marriage is frowned upon. “For us, getting married is about experiencing those big life moments for the first time. I don’t want to wait any longer on that. If we postpone, it delays our lives, we are delaying everything,” Nafso said.

Nafso said that after consulting with both their families, and getting the blessing of his father who had a heart attack in March, they decided to move forward with a scaled-down version of what they had planned, culling their 600 person guest list down to 250 in order to meet the state guidelines for indoor events at the time. Michigan’s guest limit on indoor gatherings has since changed to 10 people).

Per church policy, every other pew would be left empty. And at the reception, inside a country club ballroom, servers would be masked, with every table — restricted to households who already live or socialize together — spaced 6 feet apart.

When we spoke Nafso was unsure if dancing was even legal.

When it comes to hosting large gatherings right now, public health experts are very clear: It is not a good idea.

The fear is that a large gathering provides more opportunities for the virus to spread. Early research indicates that 10 percent of infected people may drive a whopping 80 percent of cases.

A common exercise these days and most especially among couples choosing to move forward with a large wedding is an attempt to quantify the odds of a COVID-19 exposure. But public officials say that there is always going to be an element of chance and what couples are really betting on is being spared chance’s bad side.

Fernando Taveras and Kevin Dalton’s March 14 dream wedding in the Dominican Republic was as beautiful as they had both dreamed despite the COVID-induced panic. “I don’t think many people realized the seriousness of the situation until like literally the week of our wedding,” Dalton said. Despite the fact that Taveras, Dalton and many of their guests flew in from New York City there were no COVID-19 cases linked to their wedding. But a wedding on the same day just an hour’s drive away in the resort town Punta Cana was blamed by health officials for being the main source of the coronavirus outbreak in the Dominican Republic. The outcry at the time was so strong that both the venue and the couple’s family had to issue a formal apology. “We are deeply sorry that an event that was organized out of love has become a matter of national dismay,” the family’s statement said in part.

Taveras and Dalton heard about the Punta Cana wedding while they were still in the Dominican Republic on their honeymoon. “We went back and forth like, ‘Oh God, did we do something really irresponsible? Are we the worst people ever?” Taveras said. “We would have felt very guilty and we now know the risks that were involved. We just feel really lucky.”

Dallas, Texas wedding planner Molly Rasmussen tested positive for COVID-19 while planning a large wedding for a client.

Just two days before learning she was exposed to someone with the virus — and while she would have been actively contagious — Rasmussen met with a bride and groom to finalize the details for their upcoming 250 person indoor wedding. Rasmussen said they were both surprised at the number of people who agreed to attend. “We sent out invitations thinking we would get a maximum of 100 people. We definitely didn’t think we would have 260 people who would RSVP ‘yes’ in the middle of a pandemic, but we did,” Rasmussen said.

After learning of her exposure, Rasmussen said she immediately called the couple to let them know.“I mean, honestly, the worst part of all of it was I had to call my client and not only tell them I couldn’t be there for their wedding, but basically say, ‘Hey, you guys all have to go get tested now.’”

Ultimately, the couple decided to cancel, but the decision was made so last minute that the flower order for their 250 person wedding was already on the way. On what would have been their wedding weekend, the couple and their families enjoyed their negative test results and a small dinner surrounded by 4,500 stems of roses and hydrangeas.

The week of their July 17 wedding, Nafso and his fiance got a surprise in the form of a statewide mask mandate for Michigan. For the ceremony, the church already had a compulsory mask policy but they hadn’t anticipated guests having to wear them at the reception. After the announcement, Nafso said he made a late-night run to the drugstore for a box of masks to give to any forgetful guests. He thought things were set.

But the day before the wedding, he got a call from the venue warning that the wedding may be cancelled. The woman on the other line seemed shaken and was fuzzy on details. “We got a visit from the health department,” she told him ( Some county health departments in Michigan have been upping inspections of banquet balls and large venues including after hours and on weekends to ensure compliance with coronavirus restrictions).

It wasn’t until late into the evening after multiple calls and an in-person venue visit that he would learn for certain that the wedding was still on.

“We did not realize how heavy the weight was on our shoulders until we woke up the day after the wedding,” Nafso said in a phone call.

For his wedding in Michigan, Michael Nafso’s groomsmen got custom masks made for his wedding reception in July.

“There is still a little bit of weight on my shoulders,” he added.

That’s the other thing about pandemic weddings — they come with a 10 to 14 day incubation period, leaving everyone in attendance wondering whether the risk will be worth the reward.

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