New York State Will Allow 150-Guest Weddings—Is This Safe?

We polled local vendors to get a sense of how weddings may go.

reception

Photo by Cinzia Brushchini

In January, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo made an announcement that had wedding vendors across the state popping bottles of Champagne: He will allow weddings with up to 150 people, provided that everyone on site has proof of a negative coronavirus test.

On April 28, 2021, the governor announced he was loosening restrictions around catered events, including weddings, even further. Beginning on May 3, previous guidelines like strict “dancing zones” and 1 a.m. curfews for events will be lifted as the vaccine rollout continues. 

The news came as a surprise to many in the wedding industry in the New York State area. Until now, there have been few guidelines on live events, with weddings falling under a vague umbrella category of large gatherings, which permits only groups of 50 people or less, outdoors. For weddings, that meant the max of 50 people was inclusive of guests and vendors. It left couples scrambling to determine who was VIP enough to attend and what vendors to cut, such as having a virtual DJ or no assistant on the photography team. Several wedding professionals were out of work. 

Despite industry professionals pushing their government representatives for months for more guidance, many felt the industry was looked over, and have been proceeding to the best of their abilities with small weddings, micro weddings, and elopements, where guests get tested, wear masks, and sanitize, well, everything. But the shocking jump in capacity allowance begs as many questions as it does cheers of joy for these pros, which is why we spent the weekend polling local wedding pros to get the pulse of the industry. And it’s very divided—here’s what they had to say.

What Exactly Are the Restrictions?

Effective March 15, 2021, New York will allow wedding receptions with up to 150 people, with a few restrictions. Local health departments must approve all weddings. The guest count will be limited to either 150 or 50 percent of the venue’s capacity, whichever capacity is smaller. Everyone on site must prove a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours before the wedding or a rapid test within six hours.

On April 28, the Governor also announced that as of May 17, the 1 a.m. curfew would be lifted for catered events, including weddings, so long as all of the attendees have been vaccinated or provided proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Beginning on May 31, the curfew will be lifted for all catered events in general. 

The statement also said that beginning on May 3, catered events can resume at residences above the state’s residential gathering limit of 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors “as long as the events are staffed by a professional, licensed caterer, permitted by the respective locality or municipality.” Additionally, these events must strictly adhere to the health and safety guidelines that are still in place, including masks and social distancing.

Will Dancing Be Allowed?

In February, the state announced that "ceremonial and socially-distanced dancing" will be allowed under "strict guidelines." Specifically, wedding guests were required to stay within their own "dancing areas or zones” that were at least 36 square feet in size and positioned at least six feet apart from other dance zones and tables. However, as of April 28, 2021, the Governor announced he was relaxing the guidelines for dancing at catered events to align with neighboring states. Starting on May 3, wedding guests will no longer be confined to fixed dancing zones, but masks and social distancing will still be required.

What Do Industry Experts Think?

The most common reaction from wedding pros: surprise. Despite calling for action by the state, many pros had given up hope of guidelines for weddings.

“I had not expected the gatherings to increase so significantly until we were closer to herd immunity in New York with the vaccine rollout,” explains Tzo Ai Ang, of Ang Weddings & Events. “We have to be thoughtful about how we plan and execute these weddings.”

After surprise came joy, knowing that business may be coming back. Instagram was full of happy posts about opening bottles of wine and pictures of guests dancing at receptions. Some felt their companies may be saved from going under; others were excited that their couples could finally have the dream wedding they have been postponing. For those who have put on ceremonies and receptions, it was evident that the precautions they have been taking were proving worthwhile. Planner Michelle Rago brought up a great point: People are hosting them anyway, so codifying what is necessary to do it safely and having consistency across vendors increases the odds that weddings won’t be unsafe gatherings.

But not everyone feels so ready to celebrate. Wedding planner Sonal Shah called the news “exciting but not realistic,” noting that it brought forth big questions. Event designer Jove Meyer feels that it’s just a starting point to come up with a detailed plan of how to execute events safely. The current guidelines, he says, need more clarity. Many pros were looking for a website or other official statement with guidance, only to find nothing. Rebecca Shenkman of Pink Bowtie Events felt it was a stretch to draw a comparison between an outdoor football game at a stadium and a wedding, which generally has more interpersonal interaction and may involve indoor components for vendors, like caterers. And anyone who has followed the trials and tribulations of restaurants in New York City knows that it’s all volatile: The rules can change at any time.

“I am very interested in seeing how long this lift on restrictions will last,” says photographer Phillip Van Nostrand. “We have seen in the restaurant industry a closing, reopening, then closing again, with lots of uncertainty and lack of information. Based on Cuomo’s cautious decisions, this could be a short-lived opening.”

Is It Possible to Avoid a Super-Spreader Event?

New Yorkers know that Gov. Cuomo has been playing a hard line with coronavirus restrictions, and he won’t hesitate to shut down weddings if coronavirus outbreaks are pegged to a gathering. But what exactly will stop the wedding from being a super-spreader?

“There is no guarantee that it is completely safe to hold events, but we can take great measures to create the safest events possible,” says planner and event designer Norma Cohen. She has been producing events during the pandemic that include rapid tests and temperature checks at the door, masks on staff, food guards around culinary stations, socially distanced tables with wedding “pods” (sitting family and close friends together rather than people they don’t know as well), and even requiring dancing at tables only instead of on a central floor. She believes you can host successful and safe events, especially as more people are vaccinated.

Similarly, Rago has built filtration systems for tents that regularly change out the air and has worked with couples to overly communicate safety protocols. The worst thing one can do, she says, is not to have a plan that has buy-in from everyone involved.

However, there are red flags to watch out for. Robin Selden, who helms catering company Marcia Selden Catering, noted that it’s difficult to “police guests after a wedding is in full swing and cocktails have been flowing,” alluding to alcohol consumption. Meyer also noted that a few drinks can make a guest act irresponsibly and accidentally spread COVID-19. 

Some wedding pros find this all happening too soon. With the vaccination rollout, some think that it would be safer to wait until the positive case numbers decrease later this year to allow such a large number of people in one place. It might not be as great for business, but it will save lives if even one wedding turns out to be a super-spreader. 

What Does Testing Actually Entail?

The crux of the new allowance is testing, but testing is not a guarantee, despite people wanting to believe it so. “A test is just the start,” Meyer says. “Event production is made up of many moving pieces and vendors, deliveries, and each step needs to be tested, and have safety measures in place for setup, event day, and breakdown as well.”

It’s not explicitly stated, but anyone near the event would likely need testing as well as guests, like those setting up ceremony backdrops and stocking the bar. Vendors can’t necessarily quarantine from their families before every event, putting more people than the guests at risk for the spread. The people involved in a wedding are many more than those there on the dance floor. There needs to be a protocol to ensure their protection as well as the guests.

Lots of questions surround the time between the test and the actual event, especially if on-site testing is not provided. In those few days since the negative result, did guests quarantine? If a guest traveled to the wedding, even locally in an Uber, that changes the risk level. The ambiguity of it all causes even wedding pros to pause: photographer Clane Gessel has shot weddings during the pandemic and admits in crowded receptions, he hasn’t felt safe at all, despite wearing a mask and the “smoke and mirrors” of testing.

There are companies that offer on-site testing, like Bindle Systems, which Selden has seen at events that her team catered to in 2020. However, on-site testing is expensive, for the tests and the square footage, meaning the couple is on the hook for the additional cost for the service and the extended hours renting the venue. Shenkman noted that this creates two hurdles for the couple: Higher fees to host the celebration and the difficult task of tactfully asking people to leave if the tests are positive. And that’s all assuming there is enough supply. DJ Brian Buonassissi, who performs under DJ Brian B, asks just how available tests are. “If the availability dries up, that could get tricky,” he says. 

Will Grandma Come?

Planner Jung Lee of Fête NY believes the future of these weddings will still be hybrid events, gatherings that include both an in-person and a virtual element. “It will be a self-selecting process; those who are not comfortable, should not attend,” Lee says. “High-risk people, of course, would not be attending.” 

Just because a couple can invite more people, doesn’t mean they will come. There will likely be a mix on the invite list between those who are okay in a space with up to 150 people and those who are not. Vaccinations are helpful but do not ensure it is a 100 percent risk-free activity. It could easily divide families too if a close family member does not want to come. Are couples prepared to have those conversations and live with the decisions? If not, it might not be worth jumping into a big event. Vikram Panicker, the principal designer at Elegant Affairs, says that most of the couples he spoke with after the news are waiting—they aren’t ready to invite so many people to one place.

How Does the Approval Process Work?

Gov. Cuomo said that weddings must be approved by local health departments but declined to list actionable steps for applying for the permit. Vendors across the board have questions about how—and more importantly, how long—it will take for a wedding application to be given the greenlight. Many don’t even know who the point person is to apply to. This all means that the timeline for planning a wedding may be much shorter than before, such as organizing everything in one month. It’s not easy to plan an event of this magnitude in a few weeks, but it can be done. If it’s not approved, couples and their vendors must be prepared to cancel plans and communicate the change to guests. That could also incur more costs for couples.

Will It Last?

While there are various opinions on Gov. Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic, everyone we asked agrees that if a New York state wedding becomes a super spreader, he will stop them immediately. Selden says that no one wants their client to be “that couple” with the super-spreader event. It’s with the utmost caution that the industry wants the rules to be written.

“It would be smart and useful for our trip-state area authorities to call upon the local Events Coalition groups to actively participate in the process,” Shenkman says. “With a consolidated effort, we can start to work toward getting back to work for all and doing it safely. There is a lot of value in letting those that produce these events help to set up the safety infrastructure and guidelines that they see would work in practice and be easily communicable to clients.”

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