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Kim didn’t know what to do. She knew she needed to have a tough conversation with her sister, but she, a 33-year-old whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, didn’t know how. When her sister got engaged several years ago, she agreed immediately to be in the wedding party. She thinks the fiancé is a great guy, and she loves her sister. They had always been there for each other, and she was excited to stand by her side on this big day.
But then COVID-19 hit.
Attending the wedding, which is taking place in a barn across the country, would require her to take three planes from her home in Maryland. During the wedding, she would have to get her hair, nails, and makeup done in an indoor salon. The bride had already made it clear she wanted no one to wear masks in photos. She was nervous about getting COVID-19, and it isn’t a farfetched possibility. During one of the traditional pre-wedding events, a bridesmaid, who had flown in from a high-risk state, hid the fact that she had tested positive for the virus. She only told attendees after she flew home.
It took Kim a few days to muster up the courage to tell her sister she wouldn’t be able to attend her wedding. “I had a list of reasons I couldn’t go and had them written out so I would not forget,” she says. She still feels anxious thinking about it.
Kim is far from alone. Across the country #covidcouples, bridesmaids and groomsmen, and wedding guests are navigating difficult discussions about COVID-19. Especially as stories of socially-distant weddings gone awry are the talk of the town—and news cycle.
While couples want to focus on a happy occasion, they are forced to navigate family members and friends with varying comfort levels about social distancing, quarantines, and masks. While they might want to have dancing at their wedding, for example, older parents might feel that is risky behavior. Guests are trying to figure out how to be supportive of the couple while keeping themselves safe. They need information about who is coming in front out of state, how safe other guests have been, and what protocols will be followed at the ceremony and reception. But they also don’t want to burden the couple. The ones who have decided not to attend at all must figure out how to tell their loved ones without splintering relationships.
To assist, we interviewed wedding planners and therapists across the country to get advice on what exchanges everyone should be having about COVID-19 and weddings, and how to have them as kindly and peacefully as possible.
How to Address the Topic When You're the Couple Planning
Sure, it's your day, but there are others to think about. Below, a guide to how to communicate with guests and keep your emotions (somewhat) in check.
Landis Bejar, Founder of AisleTalk, a wedding therapy practice, says couples can avoid uncomfortable conversations by getting ahead of the issue and offering information to all guests, including the wedding party, upfront. “The best etiquette right now is honesty and transparency that allows guests to make the most healthy and smart decision for themselves,” she says. “You’ll want to outline expectations very clearly with your guests, what you expect from them and what they can expect from you.”
In advance of the wedding, she says couples and their parents should be disclosing all safety measures they will be taking as well as expectations from guests. A few examples of what to spell out:
- Where mask-wearing is required and where it is optional. (Maybe masks need to be on in the church but can be taken off at the outdoor party?)
- What contact vendors will be having with food and beverage. Will they be wearing gloves?
- How seating will be spaced out; and how many guests will be at the wedding and who, if any, will be coming from high-risk states.
To make communication as easy as possible, Bejar recommends laying out the information on the website in a FAQ section.
Delegate Additional Tasks
Jennifer Ghartey, a wedding planner whose company Events by Lady J is in Owings Mills, Maryland, says she’s found it helpful for the couple to assign a family member on each side to help share information. He or she can be the point person for any questions as well.
The couple can also pass off uncomfortable topics to the wedding planner, says Jillian Smith, owner and managing director of One Touch Events in Atlanta. “Our job is to help navigate conversations with guests and vendors, on how to celebrate safely, and doing so tactfully with facts, not personal opinions or emotions," she adds.
Be Confident in Your Decisions
Once the decisions are made, we want to encourage couples to feel secure in their decision-making and not feel like they have to rationalize the decision to anyone, says Bejar. “If someone feels it's political or can’t understand your decision making for some other reason, that says more about them than it does about you. COVID or not, you have the right to design the day the way you feel most comfortable.”
Keep Emotions Out of It
Bejar also says couples should let guests make up their own minds about whether they feel comfortable with protocols. "If you outline the expectations clearly, guests can make informed decisions about whether they can comply or would prefer to opt-out,” she says. If they decide the latter, be understanding. They are worried about their safety, and it has nothing to do with how much they love or support you.
How to Address the Topic When You're an Invited Guest
It's an honor to be invited to a wedding—but what if you're not sure that you want to attend the wedding? Let the following advice inform your RSVP.
Wedding guests are in unprecedented territory, Bejar acknowledges. “Weddings have historically been moments in a couple’s life where they plan a day that revolves around them, their preferences, and their experience,” she explains. Now guests have to consider their own health and safety, even above the desires of the bride and groom.
There are ways to have discussions with the wedding hosts that can ease the tension, she says. “Try approaching the bride/groom from a place of compassion and empathy,” she says. “Start with saying something validating like, ‘Ugh I can’t imagine having to think about this when planning your wedding,” and then introduce your concern: “But have you thought about how you’re going to deal with (insert concern here.)”
Another gentle approach, she says, is to use an example from someone you know who went through something similar: “I know ‘my cousin Alice’ has decided to have guests wear masks indoors but not outside. Do you know what you’re going to do about masks?”
Only if those strategies don’t work should you be more direct, she says. “I have been thinking about your decision to not have guests wear masks, and I really don’t think I'm comfortable with that. Would you consider making that a requirement?”
Talk to the Event Coordinator
Ghartey says guests should speak to the event coordinator if they don’t want to burden the couple or are worried about offending him or her. “The planner does not mind answering questions,” she says.
Contribute in Another Way
If you don’t feel you will be safe at the wedding, you need to cancel. “In this case, you would give a heartfelt apology and say that because you can’t guarantee your own health and safety, you cannot be there for the day,” explains Bejar. “You can help in other ways such as planning or arranging the Zoom set-up.”
How to Address the Topic When You're in the Wedding Party
Being part of the couple's VIP squad is what being a bridesmaid and groomsman is all about. However, along with the honor, this role comes with more group gatherings, photo ops, and responsibilities. Below, how to navigate your job amid coronavirus concerns.
Take Extra Precautions
It’s difficult to screen or test all wedding guests for COVID-19, but it’s doable with the wedding party, says Smith. Because the wedding party will be spending a lot of time with one another, in close proximity, it’s important to ensure everyone is virus-free.
She recommends that the couple ask if anyone has contracted the virus or potentially been exposed. The wedding party should not be offended by these questions. “The last thing you want is for your wedding to go viral as the latest super spreader event due to being polite verse direct,” she adds. The maid of honor and best man can also take the lead on this.
Ask Helpful Questions Early
Because bridesmaids and groomsmen will also be in the middle of the action, it’s OK for them to ask very detailed questions, says Jason Kite, Founder of Faded Poppy, a wedding planning company in Charlottesville, Virginia. “At this time, and with people’s futures and lives at stake, nothing should be off-limits,” he says. Also, it might help other guests for the people closest to the bride and groom to do the digging. Below, some questions to ask.
- Are you and your guests and venue going to be following social distancing, mask-wearing, and sanitizing guidelines?
- Should we bring our own masks and sanitizer or will these be provided?
- Will we be seated only with close family members or will seating be amply spread out?
- What proportion of the wedding is taking place outdoors?
- If I become uncomfortable inside, will there be somewhere I can go outside?
Kite recommends asking these questions as early as possible. “If items come up too close to the wedding day there may be inadequate time to react,” he says. “Not to mention, the couple will already be under a lot of stress at this time, and this could be a breaking point.”
Show Your Support in Another Way
Any couple will feel disappointed if a member of the wedding party backs out of the wedding. Soften the blow by offering something else. Maybe you can take them out to dinner before the festivities to congratulate them? Or meet as soon as they are available to go through pictures and videos. Assure them of your love and support and remind them that nothing is more important than health.
Because, at the end of the day, that is what's most important: your health. No matter which of the above situations you fall in.