Covid 19 – When will weddings return to normal?
It’s the question we are all asking. The simple answer is that no one knows at this stage. A government roadmap for weddings would be meaningless until infection rates have been brought under control and the vaccine program progresses a little further towards its February target. Meanwhile, the industry is quietly putting plans in place to be ready at the earliest opportunity.
Most couples with weddings in April and May, especially those keen to go ahead with a few compromises, are waiting a little longer to know more. Most venues aim for a final decision 8 weeks before the wedding, so if you can wait until February the picture should be clearer on vaccine targets.
Last July I shared my thoughts on what a “Roadmap to Recovery” for the wedding industry might look like, and as we wait for weddings to return it seems a good time to look at where we are now.
The opinions I am sharing in this piece are my own, but they come from spending many months understanding all I can about the impact of Covid on weddings and looking at all the ways that we could help make weddings happen, including reading through the insights over 6200 couples have shared with us through our recent survey.
If the government hit their mid-February vaccination targets, it should mean that by mid-March, the impact of vaccinating over 80s and extremely vulnerable people will have already significantly reduced pressure on the NHS.
By mid-May all over 50s should be vaccinating, reducing the mortality risk associated with Covid.
We are all expecting a return towards normality in our lives, in line with these two milestones. The same should be expected for weddings. Boris Johnson assured us that would be the case during Peoples’ Prime Minister’s Questions, with “more normality” by Easter and “a different world” by summer.
What is the ideal “safe” number of guests
Weddings with 15 guests are not economically viable and can leave couples and venues vulnerable to contractual issues. However, it is hard to maintain social distancing with more than 15 attendees.
Instead of just reducing the risk of an infected guest spreading Covid, surely the solution is to reduce the risk of anyone attending with Covid. However, vaccines and testing aren’t 100% reliable, so sensible measures will still be needed while risks are monitored.
Infection rates are highest when there is social contact between large numbers. Therefore reducing the amount of social contact or the numbers will reduce infection rates. It would make sense that numbers could be higher at weddings where social contact is reduced.
There is a high level of “social conscience” and guests won’t attend a wedding if there is a chance that they might have been exposed to Covid, nor if they have concerns about being vulnerable. Live streaming is commonplace, making virtual attendance an option.
Is rapid testing an answer for weddings?
The Prime Minister referred to vaccination and rapid testing being a solution for weddings and there is currently at least one petition calling for rapid testing for weddings, so we looked at the options.
According to one biotechnology company we spoke to, the “gold standard” in testing would be in 4 steps:
- PCR test 72 hours before a wedding (very accurate results).
- Isolation until the wedding day to avoid a new infection
- A rapid lateral flow test on arrival (to pick up infections just starting to develop when the PCR was done)
- Another PCR test 5 days after the wedding to check no one was missed on the day, with contact tracing if a positive result is picked up.
However, this would be impractical and expensive, and there are more practical solutions already in place in airports, in work places and for sport events that could all be easily adapted for weddings.
The most likely solution will involve rapid “lateral flow” tests on arrival. As a lot of couples have indicated that they’d like to know that they are Covid-free before the wedding day and that the wedding can definitely go ahead, it would be good to see the option of PCR testing 72 hours before the wedding for those wanting peace of mind, albeit with additional cost as these tests should be carried out privately.
If the government or NHS aren’t able to cover the cost of tests, most couples indicated that they or their guests would pay, rather than venues. By feeding the results back into the NHS Test and Trace system, weddings could help the government towards their targets.
Is there an ideal number of guests?
There has been a call for venues to be limited to a percentage of maximum capacity, in the way pubs and restaurants are. However, the infection risk increases as guest numbers increase. Completely unlimited numbers seem unrealistic until there has been a chance to evaluate the implications of smaller weddings.
There is a strong argument for opening with 50 to 70 guests for April and May in risk-assessed venues with some social distancing measures in place. 50 would be an acceptable compromise to most couples and 70 would become economically viable for most venues.
By the end of May, would it be reasonable for capacity to be increased to 70% of venue capacity up to a maximum of 100 guests, with the maximum number incrementally increasing throughout the summer as testing improves and the vaccination program is extended?
We are all working towards the same goal; significantly larger numbers at weddings, without additional costs or restrictions, so that we have parity for all types of wedding.
Pilot events, with guests being tested before and 5 days after the wedding would enable venues to gather the data to accurately establish the risk of an infected guest attending and the potential infection rate if they do.
While they would be reassuring to couples, pilot events aren’t an essential step on the road to reopening as there are plenty of other ways that the accuracy of testing and the likely impact of socialising are already being tested.
How we can reduce the risks using digital COVID security
- The industry has digital Track and Trace available for all guests and suppliers, incorporating ability to upload evidence of vaccination or Covid test results.
- Guest and supplier list, with vaccination and PCR results, could be supplied to the venue in advance.
- Covid-safe guidance could be sent to guests and suppliers.
- Our hope is that optional PCR tests 72 hours in advance might give an argument for members of the bridal party to be exempt from some social distancing restrictions.
- Those with evidence of vaccination or PCR tests could be supplied with identifying wristbands.
Shielded guests can be protected
Any situation involving interaction with others will remain higher risk than staying at home but there are measures that vulnerable guests could take, including remote participation encouraged through live streaming.
Some couples are planning to encourage those wanting to keep well away from others to wear a particular colour face coverings, wristband or ribbon as a signal to others.
We are working on a WeddingSafe industry standard as we understand how important it is to couples to know that Covid-safety guidance is being followed.
Adjustments for safer Ceremonies
The “seemly and dignified” nature of most wedding ceremonies makes social distancing easy for this part of the wedding.
Temporary legislation to allow legal ceremonies to take place outdoors or in marquees at Approved Venues could protect officiants and guests. 62% of 2021 couples said they could move their ceremony outside if it were permitted.
- Social distancing during the ceremony could enable guests to safely attend the ceremony while lateral test results are processed, making logistics easier for the venue.
- Seating already tends to be in households, and with fewer guests it is easy to maintain space between households.
- Could those with negative PCR tests interact as one household to allow for important rituals including walking up the aisle? We have heard how important this is to many brides.
- For ceremonies taking place outside or in open sided marquees, masks wouldn’t be needed which would allow couples to see the expression on their guests’ faces..
- While the law requires the couple to be inside the Approved Venue for the contractual words, the ceremony could start and end outdoors, with just the couple, the witnesses and Registrars going inside for a short time, in the same way a Church wedding is conducted.
Can we reduce pressure on Registrars?
75% of weddings are civil ceremonies or civil partnerships, using Registrars whose responsibilities also include registering births and deaths.
- Allowing couples to Give Notice in any district, or for Registrars to deputise for others, would ease work flow in busy districts. This would help couples who are concerned about not being able to Give Notice in time. It will make it easier for new or postponed couples to confirm venue bookings.
- Additional fees could be waived by all Registry Offices where Notice of Marriage has expired due to current restrictions. The policy seems to vary between districts.
- If the Superintendent Registrars had discretion over the marriages allowed under “Exceptional Circumstances” in their district, depending on local capacity and availability, more weddings could take place during lockdown that would otherwise be high priority as soon as the lockdown is lifted.
What sort of adjustments could keep guests safe at the Reception?
Most receptions involve socialising and alcohol, which makes social distancing more of a challenge. If attendees are Covid-free, staff and vulnerable guests can keep themselves safe, and the NHS is no longer under pressure, could social distancing be relaxed at receptions?
- To keep everyone safe, it would make sense for all guests – or those not yet vaccinated – to have a negative test result before attending the reception.
- Drinks receptions could be outside or in well ventilated areas with plenty of space.
- Dining areas could be well ventilated with guidance to seat households together where possible.
- As the meal tends to be the only prolonged contact period between guests, seating plans would enable more accurate contact tracing if needed after the wedding.
- Seating vulnerable guests away from others would keep them safer.
- Only permitting table service would reduce people gathering or queuing at a buffet or standing at the bar.
- The volume of background music could be minimised to reduce guests projecting their voices.
Photos, speeches, cake cutting and other rituals
- Photos could be in household groups, or with social distancing between households, or outside.
- Guests already tend to remain seated for speeches, cake cutting and any rituals that only involve the couple.
Could we have music and dancing but without crowded dance floors?
Music and dancing is an important part of most weddings. 80% of couples said they’d agree to half the number of guests if it meant they could have dancing at their wedding.
It’s unrealistic to expect full social distancing on a dance floor, however the risks can be significantly reduced.
- Dance floors would have more space for guests by using the original size dancefloor but with 70% of the usual guests.
- Wedding guests already tend to dance in household groups or with those they regularly mix with.
- Guests singing on the dancefloor could be discouraged; a good DJ knows which songs to avoid.
- Music volume moderated to avoid shouting.
- Live music or singers who may add a risk of aerosol transmission could be 4+ metres from guests or behind a clear screen.
- A lounge or suitable area could be provided for more vulnerable guests to keep them further away from the dance floor.
- Some venues are able to move the dancing outside or into a marquee, however sound restrictions can make this a challenge in some areas, unless receptions end at 11pm.
Receptions in marquees at home or in unregulated buildings
Government guidance has required weddings and receptions to be in Covid-safe venues. These are typically venues inspected by the local authority.
These venues are already familiar with health and safety legislation for food safety, employee safety and fire safety. They have risk assessments in place for every event, with someone responsible for ensuring that the guidance is followed. Covid is simply another risk to add to their considerations.
However the same system doesn’t exist for venues where no one has overall responsibility, such as village halls, private houses and barns, or for marquees on private land.
Possible solutions for the many couples planning wedding receptions in venues that aren’t classed as Covid-safe may include employing Health and Safety specialists to carry out risk assessments before the event and to ensure those risk assessments, along with government guidelines, are followed during the reception.
These “Covid Angels” could be the answer to larger weddings too, making it easier to manage large numbers of guests.
However, in the meantime, for those planning a marquee wedding at home or have booked a venue that won’t be classed as Covid-safe, it is worth having a contingency plan in place, especially when you take into consideration the challenge you’ll have getting the insurance you’ll need in order to go ahead. For marquee receptions the simplest option may be to be prepared to move the marquee to the grounds of a Covid-safe venue.
Reassuring your guests
Your family and friends will be as excited as you are about your wedding going ahead. It’s understandable that they’ll want the same reassurances that you’ve had about the measures your venue and suppliers have gone to in order to keep everyone safe.
More than half the couples we surveyed feel that simply ensuring that government guidelines are followed, rather than testing and shielding guests and suppliers, would ensure their guests feel safe at weddings.
Whatever guidelines are in place, your venue and suppliers will take them in their stride and give you a day to remember. They are used to making things happen, now let’s make your wedding happen!
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