Weddings a coronavirus super-spreader worry in US

After a brief pause, wedding season is back in full swing across the country.
After a brief pause, wedding season is back in full swing across the country.PHOTO: AFP

HOUSTON (NYTIMES) - Jo Ellen Chism, 57, a retiree who lives in The Woodlands, Texas, about an hour outside Houston, was nervous about attending her stepson's wedding on June 20.

"They were going to postpone it, but then the Catholic church decided they would open and would have up to 75 people," she said.

"Seventy-five people seemed like a pretty big gathering to me during this Covid time."

She went to support her family. She was inside the church for an hour-long service that included a processional and communion.

At the reception, at Haak Winery, she sat indoors at a round table with other guests, some of whom were from out of town. While everyone started the day in masks, they took them off for photos and never replaced them.

Her symptoms started four days later. With a runny nose, sore throat and bad headache, it could have been a sinus infection. Two days later she tested positive for Covid-19 along with 12 other guests, including her 10-year-old grandson and the groom's 76-year-old grandfather. He is still recovering after a trip to the emergency room with double pneumonia. She said 13 additional guests had symptoms but did not get tested.

Chism's oldest son kept track of all the sick guests through the seating chart, on which he marked who was positive, negative and untested. Still, like most super-spreader events, without sophisticated contact tracing, it is impossible to identify patient zero.

"I could just kick myself because I probably shouldn't have gone to that wedding," she said. "I am really thankful I was not terribly ill." She missed the birth of two grandchildren because of her need to isolate.


After a brief pause, wedding season is back in full swing across the country. Couples are working within the confines of state laws to carry out their nuptials during the pandemic.

But despite precautions coronavirus has swept into many of these events, both large and small, infecting guests and vendors.

The situation is so dire, some wedding planners are self-quarantining after events and even subcontracting their duties at the reception, the part of the weddings where people mingle more closely.

Some brides and grooms are having guests sign liability forms upon arrival. Others say they are losing sleep for two weeks after their wedding, wondering what unintentional harm they might have caused to people they love.

In June, a wedding planner in Arkansas who wished to remain anonymous to protect her business predicted weddings would become the next super-spreader events.

"Weddings are so different from going into a store or sitting in a restaurant for 45 minutes," she said.

"These receptions last for three, four hours, and everyone is in an indoor space, breathing the air. They aren't wearing masks and they are dancing. And when they start drinking, it's like there is no pandemic."


Six months ago her anxieties were about the weather or tight schedules. Now they are much heavier.

"I am scared there is going to be an outbreak at one of my weddings and someone is going to die."

The problem, she said, is that she, along with other vendors, are helpless at controlling guests' behaviour at a private party.

"All the vendors are masked up, and I am cracking the whip on the vendors, but I can't do anything with the guests," she said.

That vendor, despite her nervousness, pointed out that she is contractually obligated to carry out terms of the contract signed with the couple.

Sarah Bett, a wedding planner in Houston, said even if vendors had power to reign in rowdy guests, the bride and groom could just move their event to a less strict venue.

"Some venues make the bride wear masks, while others say those walking down the aisle are exempt," she said. "It's a little lawless down here."

Without universal standards she is at the mercy of her clients, many of whom want their festivities indoors, without masks, with out-of-town friends and with dancing.

"I have a grandmother who is 90 who I am around a lot," she said. "I haven't had my first wedding yet this summer, but when I do, I am going to self-quarantine after."


State laws vary when it comes to weddings. Some wedding spaces are governed by the same rules as restaurants, meaning they can accommodate a certain percentage of their overall capacity.

In Arkansas, for example, you can fill venues to 66 per cent capacity. So an event in a 1,000-person ballroom can legally host 666 guests. In other states events are limited to the size of the group. In parts of New York, for example, gatherings are limited to 50 people regardless of the space.

Bett said many of her clients feel safer with smaller affairs.

"I have clients doing private, intimate ceremonies, because no one is making a big stink about those," she said. "No one wants to be the new epicentre of the outbreak."

But even weddings with the tightest guest list are not immune to the coronavirus.

Sunshine Borrer, 26, a veterinary technician in Houston, attended her sister-in-law's wedding in Crockett, Texas, which has a population of 6,000.

"It was a real small town," she said. "Covid wasn't something I was super concerned about." The 30-person wedding was held outdoors, but the after party was in a small bar area of an indoor restaurant.

It took about a week for her symptoms to develop. She tested positive for Covid-19, along with the bride and groom, another couple, and the bride's daughter. Fortunately all cases were mild.


Some couples are acutely aware of the fact that their wedding could turn into a super-spreader event.

Kate, 31, a social worker for the state of New York, married her husband, a 30-year-old engineer, in a boutique hotel in central New York during the July 4 weekend.

She did not want to give her full name, because "there's a lot of judgment for people who went through with weddings, even with precautions".

The event had less than 50 attendees, including vendors. Masks were on the entire time even outside and in photographs. There was no dancing - not even a first dance for the bride and groom.

"We didn't want to leave room for interpretation," she said.

Some couples are turning to waivers to protect themselves from liability in case of an outbreak.

The wedding planner in Arkansas said she uses her clients' fears about liability to drive them towards more protective measures.

"I tell them, 'Listen, we don't know where liability is going to fall, and you are the host of this event,'" she said.


"You want to say at the end of the day you did everything you could possible to keep your guests safe."

Bett said, "I tell my clients, 'If you really feel you have to push this form, why are we having this wedding in the first place?'"