On March 20, Kyle Niemer and Mallory Raven-Ellen Backstrom had the wedding of their dreams: intimate (around 40 guests), in a spacious venue with a dance floor, great food — and PCR tests on demand to check unvaccinated guests, administered by a doctor and nurse in the bridal party.
For two weeks, the couple was on edge. Niemer said he had “CNN dreams, where we were that wedding party with a covid outbreak.” “I was afraid,” agrees Backstrom, who announced she was pregnant at the wedding. “We had literally gone to every length to protect our guests. It was nerve-racking.”
While 2020 was marked by canceled or postponed weddings, 2021 is seeing a resurgence — albeit with ones that are smaller than pre-pandemic bashes. Couples like Niemer and Backstrom are navigating a tricky quagmire of ethics and etiquette to ensure the safety of their big day. While some are hosting on-site rapid testing, others — who can afford it — are requiring proof of vaccines, along with bouncers and “covid safety officers.”
The relaxation of state restrictions has helped weddings return, along with the widespread use and accessibility of PCR tests, considered the gold standard in detecting covid-19. Socially distant weddings were the first to emerge in the wake of lockdowns last spring and summer, along with “microweddings” and “minimonies” (pandemic-ese for small weddings of about 10 guests). Now vaccinations are offering the possibility of making weddings bigger, but they are also complicating the planning. The question remains: how do you keep guests safe? And how do you navigate the tricky etiquette around the topic of vaccination and testing with your guests?
The ethical questions
Those questions turn up almost daily on one of the internet’s biggest wedding channels, the subreddit r/WeddingPlanning, which has nearly 150,000 members. The usual queries of where to find dresses and how to handle a meddling future mother-in-law have been interrupted by questions on how to traverse mixed vaccinated/unvaccinated weddings. “Does anyone have good wording for how to communicate to guests that we’re transitioning to having a child-free wedding because kids won’t be eligible for vaccines yet?” one asks. “Bonus points if you show examples on how you worded it on the invite!” another says.
Elisabeth Kramer, an Oregon-based wedding planner, says couples should be not only trying to figure out how to talk to their families but to their vendors as well. She’s created Google doc templates to help clients speak to caterers, florists, even the officiant about their vaccination or testing plans for the day
Radhika Graham, a wedding planner in Canada, says state-mandated gathering limits mean that couples are using wedding sites like Minted or questionnaires on SurveyMonkey to ask both guests and vendors how they were feeling and urging them to get (and record) vaccinations. But there’s no sugarcoating it: asking invasive health questions can rub guests the wrong way, and can dampen the celebratory mood of your wedding.
Julie-Ann Hutchinson and Kyle Burton, Baltimore-based health care professionals, went to extraordinary lengths to ensure their 40-person St. Louis wedding last September ran smoothly. They hired a “covid safety officer,” a nurse who, for $60 an hour for five hours, checked temperatures, asked guests how they felt, and handed out sanitizer and masks.
“My father came up with this idea, simply because he didn’t want family members to have to monitor the group and tell them to stand six feet apart,” Hutchinson said. “He wanted there to be an impartial neutral party.” That made sense to the couple but Hutchinson admits she thought, “He’s being ridiculous. Like what do I Google, ‘bouncer’? You can’t hire on TaskRabbit for this role. How do you even Google this?”
In the end, Burton’s aunt worked in the local military veterans hospital and knew someone who could help out, and the couple found themselves relieved of having to police their relatives. “I thought we were pandemic extra,” Hutchinson said (their wedding was profiled in the New York Times). “But it was a relief. She [the covid safety officer] would stare them down if they [guests] positioned themselves too closely.”
Neither Hutchinson nor Burton would change anything. “The conflict we faced was that we wanted to make the most of our time with our loved ones,” Burton says. “We had the option to delay the wedding entirely but we wanted to celebrate our love for each other and we wanted our family with us.”
Meet the covid concierge
The two couples—Niemer and Backstrom, Hutchinson and Burton—were lucky: They were able to use a connection to find a person on short notice at a relatively low cost to monitor their wedding. But for couples who don’t find such a monitor adequate nor have healthcare connections, “private covid concierge testing” is now a service you can buy in for your big day.
Asma Rashid’s boutique medical office in the Hamptons offered 35-minute turnaround testing for clients wanting to party last summer in the area’s beach houses. She’s already received requests for weddings this summer, including one she is helping a couple plan where vaccinations are explicitly required. “You’re not allowed to enter the party without proof of vaccination,” she says. “It’s not an honorary system.”
Rashid did not provide her rate, but similar services are popping up quickly online and aren’t cheap, ringing in at around $100 per test. One company, EventDoc, offers a deal for $1,500 testing for 20 guests in New York and Florida. Veritas, a Los Angeles-based startup, is gearing up for a busy wedding season outside its usual core clientele of film production crews who are required by law to be tested regularly. The company offers rapid tests for $75-$110 depending on the size of the group.
“We’ve been approved to do vaccinations by California,” says cofounder Kristopher Sims. The firm aims to eventually offer vaccinations at pre-wedding gatherings like bridal showers so guests are vaccinated in time for the wedding day—for a fee.
The demand for covid concierge services is not limited to weddings; summer graduations, bar/bat mitzvahs, quinceaneras, and any other gathering is fair game. But weddings are the most lucrative and dependable, spawning an emerging industry of rapid testing and verification services for those who can afford it. For a wedding list of even 10, those costs can quickly add up.
“That’s where the challenge is: Big tech is creating a solution for the rich but in reality, it’s the masses that need it,” Ramesh Raskar says. Raskar is a professor at MIT’s Media Lab and is in the process of launching PathCheck, a paper card with a QR code that proves you are vaccinated. “It’s like a certificate,” Raskar says. When a person arrives at a venue, their QR code is checked along with a form of photo ID; if both check out, the person is permitted to enter.
On the surface, PathCheck ticks a lot of boxes: It’s pretty secure and, because Media Lab is a nonprofit, it is free—so far. And PathCheck is a paper product rather than a digital one, making it especially attractive for undocumented immigrants, the elderly, and those without internet access.
Tools like PathCheck are one possible route toward opening up safe, large gatherings to a person without much economic means in the United States. But it has drawbacks: PathCheck has to gain traction for people to trust and use it. And, as Veritas’s Sims and Capello note, there is currently no straightforward, national way to verify a person vaccinated in one state in another state. Even if there was—vaccine passports are far from an uncontroversial option.
Weddings have been another example of how the pandemic has exacerbated inequity. The decision to have a safe wedding—any gathering, really—this year has been dictated by wealth and access. Some couples can afford to have a medical professional moonlight as a covid bouncer or send at-home PCR tests. Others can’t and have to make the difficult decision to either cut their guest list down and hope for the best—or just wait until the summer and hope enough people have been vaccinated.
That won’t change soon. Sure, President Joe Biden has said every American adult is eligible for a vaccine by April 19, but children will remain unvaccinated for some time, and the April 19 date does not account for the bottleneck of people wanting vaccines but unable to access them because of demand. While it might be safe to assume most people are fully vaccinated by June, it will be hard to actually know—unless, of course, you have the money to find out.
On the other hand, wedding season might be a boon for pushing those who are vaccine hesitant toward getting a vaccine simply because of FOMO. In Israel, life is mostly back to pre-pandemic normality after its massive vaccination campaign, helped along by incentivizing vaccine skeptics to get the vaccine so they can be part of social activities, according to a recent JAMA article.
Similarly, Niemer and Backstrom said that the expected presence of two vulnerable people—Backstrom’s father, who has stage 4 lung cancer, and her 90-year-old grandmother—may have guilted people into getting the vaccine. “They [guests] knew the stakes,” Backstrom says. “Everyone was pretty much on their best behavior. We didn’t have guests who were stubborn and resistant.”