What Will Weddings Look Like in the Age of Social Distancing?

Nine experts weigh in.


 Photo by Hannah Costello

As states begin to ease their COVID-19 restrictions and start reopening, it's almost as if virtual weddings will disappear even faster than they arrived. But, now that couples can slowly start to gather with (a limited number of) guests and say "I do" in-person, it begs us to ask: What will weddings look like in the social distancing era?

What is a Socially Distant Wedding?

A socially distant wedding is a ceremony and/or reception that follows the social distancing measures put in place by state and local governments to mitigate the spread of a contagious disease. Such measures might include a limited guest count and specific regulations, such as no congregating and special seating, to ensure that guests stay six feet apart, at minimum.

While no one knows exactly what the future holds, it's no secret that weddings, as we know them, will be drastically different for the time being. Ohio recently announced its reopening plan and, as of June 1, 2020, venues across the Midwest state can host wedding receptions with up to 300 people—although they must follow a strict safety protocol that includes "no dancing, no mingling" and restrictions such as six feet distancing between tables, to name a few.

"We recognize that there are a lot of weddings and events that are important to people's lives that can and should go on," said Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted in a press conference. "We are just asking that it be done safely as possible to avoid the spread of the virus."

Such guidelines are put in place to protect couples, guests, and vendors alike, but they'll likely force us all to reimagine quintessential wedding elements, such as cocktail hour and entertainment, as we re-plan to meet social distancing regulations. "There are many guidelines in the fine print such as 'no congregating,' which translates to no cocktail hour and no dance floor," explains Lisa Costin, co-founder and creative director of A Charming Fête in Ohio.

Even under new and different circumstances, marriage remains a beautiful cause to celebrate, and we need celebrations more than ever now.

However, despite possible changes in appearance and guest size, Costin says the unprecedented circumstances remind us of the meaning of a wedding, which is to make a commitment to one another and celebrate love. "We are all adjusting to these extraordinary circumstances, and it is understandable to 'mourn' the loss of your original vision," she continues. "Even under new and different circumstances, marriage remains a beautiful cause to celebrate, and we need celebrations more than ever now!"

So, what will a socially distant wedding be like? We turned to planners, caterers, venues, and musicians (many of whom are recreating engaged couples' big days as we speak!) to hear their predictions on this new world of weddings. Below, what socially distant weddings will look like, and the newfound wedding trends that might be here to stay because of them.

Fewer Guests, More Intimacy

Perhaps the most obvious change during this time will be smaller guest lists. (It's the easiest way to limit the number of people at a gathering!) While eliminating loved ones is a challenging ask for couples at any time, Blake Sams, of Gregory Blake Sams Events in Charleston, says a happy consequence of smaller guest counts will be the popularization of more intimate gatherings. "We foresee more intimate gatherings with even greater attention to detail," he says. "Smaller events allow the couple to tailor the event with their guests in mind."

That said, we understand that narrowing down a guest list is not easy—especially if you have to disinvite guests. However, due to the unprecedented circumstances of today, planners predict that guests will be understanding. Also, this decision may not be left to couples—some can blame the call for a reduced guest count on their venue. Venues across the country, such as Florida's Audubon House and Tropical Gardens, are looking to reduce their maximum capacities to ensure social distancing practices can be safely met. Audubon House plans to limit their maximum capacity by more than 40 percent, from 130 people to as low as 75, according to Laura McKenna, director of events.

outdoor venue
 Photo by Eric Kelley; Venue Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards

Face Masks & Extra Precautions

"All considered, I am now telling all my clients that if you proceed with your 2020 wedding, you must be prepared to adjust your expectations," says Eva Clark of Eva Clark Events in Atlanta. "In other words, in addition to a reduced guest count, you will likely need to implement safety precautions such as thermometer scans, masks, sanitizing stations, and, possibly, waivers for guests to sign."

Outdoor venues Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards in Virginia and Cannon Green in South Carolina have already gotten a head start, installing handwashing stations throughout their properties and implementing daily health screenings for employees. "We are in the business of celebration and preparing a safe and secure environment is our focus," says Abbey Venners, sales manager at Pippin Hill.

Sams calls these extra precautions "a new form of hospitality" and already plans to exceed these guidelines to ensure couples, guests, and staff feel comfortable and safe. And the best to keep guests informed of these safety measures? Let them know on your wedding website and invitation.

Outdoor Venues

If you can't let your big wedding dreams go, simply send your nuptials outside. With social distancing measures in place, Costin predicts more couples will choose to bring their "I dos" outdoors. "Outdoor venue locations will be a better bet for large guest counts," she says. "In outdoor locations, guests can spread out and more easily socially distance as they choose."

JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort has already seen an increase in requests for beach weddings, says the resort's director of sales and marketing Amanda Cox. Adding, "Outdoor spaces allow for greater flexibility in creating event designs and floor plans that comply with current guidance."

outdoor venue
Photo by Eric Kelley; Venue Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards

Reimagined Floor Plans

"There are many guidelines in the fine print such as 'no congregating,' which translates to no cocktail hour and no dance floor," explains Costin. "However, for our clients, the dancefloor and bar typically serve as a focal décor point so we don’t see them going away." Rather, these beloved wedding elements are being creatively reimagined. Cocktail hours—and all wedding festivities for that matter—are encouraged to be taken outside where there is "more room to space out and distance per the requirements," she says.

Creative Seating Arrangements

Gone are the days of the long banquet tables packed in a single small room. According to social distance guidelines, tables are required to be set at least six-feet apart, with no more than 10 guests seated together. To ensure this spacing is met, venues and planners are turning to digital tools to rearrange room layouts. "We are spending more time than ever in Social Tables, which is an online platform we use for seating configurations and table layouts," explains Anna Griffith, senior event sales manager at Cannon Green.

For ceremony seating, consider swapping rows of benches for smaller clusters of chairs surrounding the altar. This will promote social distancing practices and keep guests spread out.

Another way to comply with these guidelines? Spread festivities across multiple spaces in one venue! What used to be a party hosted in a single ballroom will now consist of drinks, dinner, and dancing in ballrooms, courtyards, and adjoining rooms simultaneously.

<p>Reception dinner venue</p><br><br>
Photo by Hannah Costello

Thoughtful Food Presentation

"Cocktail hour will also look a little different," explains Griffith of Cannon Green. "We are working on the presentation of canapés so that they can be served in individual containers."

That said, Denise Vu, senior director of marketing and innovation at Occasions Caterers in Washington D.C., says couples won't have to sacrifice their ideal menu to meet these new health guidelines. "You can serve a lot of different food items as long as you’re being thoughtful about the vessel and how it’s being passed," she says. "What we’re most known for is taking ideas and customizing these menus for clients. We’re always coming up with a compelling but also thoughtful, and in this case, particularly safe way of serving it."

Take, for instance, a scallop ceviche that's presented in an elegant oyster dish, imagines Vu. "The oyster shell is what the guest actually picks up," she says, meaning the presentation itself will limit contact and sharing.

Fewer Self-Serve Buffets, More Plated Service

The wedding dinner will see a change as well, with couples steering away from self-serve buffets and instead opting for staffed food stations or plated dinners. "Over the years, there was huge popularity in family-style meals, buffets, and this more communal eating experience at weddings," claims Vu. "I think that that's probably going to go away for a while and we're going to see a return of really elegant plated course meals."

To create a communal eating experience while following social distancing guidelines, ask the chef to carve meat or fish tableside while a single waiter serves the freshly plated dish to each guest at their seats.

However, even couples who crave that shared meal experience—and, perhaps, feel seated dinners are too traditional—can still modernize the plated format, according to Vu. "It’s not really necessarily about retooling your entire menu," she says. "Start with your dream menu, and then work with someone that you trust to come up with creative solutions."

dinner table
Photo by Eric Kelley; Venue Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards

Virtual Streaming

Even as couples begin to gather with family and friends again, virtual wedding technology is still critical in this age. Both Venners and Griffith agree that "weddings will be streamed so that those who are unable to attend in person can be there virtually."

Streaming capabilities are already part of Marriott's plan, too, and are included in "turn-key" wedding packages specifically designed for couples who have had to quickly alter their plans. "All of these packages include live video streaming solutions to ensure that our couples can still have everyone near and dear to their hearts witness their wedding in real-time," explains Cox.

A Different Dancefloor

According to Jordan Kahn of Jordan Kahn Music Company, dancefloors and wedding entertainment aren't going anywhere—they'll just look a little different. Whether that's adjusting the layout of the stage so bands can spread out or even installing smaller dancefloors throughout the space to encourage social distancing, "everything we do is customized," says Kahn, "and that will include how we keep everybody safe. We’re just going to do our best to deliver great music even if people have to dance in their chairs. That's our job."

McKenna, of Audubon House and Tropical Gardens, also believes the dancefloor can simply be redesigned. "There are ways that the design of the dancefloor can encourage social distancing whether there are small barriers like high top tables throughout or markers on the ground to show where [guests] should stand," she says.

Shorter Parties

"Overall, celebrations may be a little bit shorter than in the past," believes Vu. Without crowded dancefloors, some parties could end earlier but that allows couples to put more energy into another aspect: favors. "The thought is then, 'What is the experience for each of your guests after they leave your wedding?'" she poses.

Multiple Celebrations

Another trend that will flourish in the socially distant wedding era? Multiple wedding celebrations. We've seen plenty of couples opt for a civil ceremony followed by a traditional reception on a later date but in the coming months, that so-called "unconventional" celebration could become the standard. "A lot of people aren't wanting to sacrifice the moment on the dancefloor with their friends, and they’re choosing instead to postpone and to wait until they know that there's a time that they can have the wedding of their dreams," explains Kahn. "Some couples are getting married by law now and saving the party for later."

If you say "I do" in the era of social distancing, we encourage you to get creative and come up with solutions that will make your wedding unique, memorable, and safe for all—even if you are cheers-ing from six-feet-apart.

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