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- A wedding reception in Maine with 55 people led to 177 COVID-19 cases, including seven deaths.
- Following COVID-19 prevention guidelines at a wedding goes against our social instincts, making weddings inherently dangerous during the pandemic.
- Before RSVPing yes to a wedding, ask the couple for details on safety measures to determine how risky the event may be for you and the community.
Once one of life’s joyous occasions, weddings have taken on a new meaning as dangerous, sometimes illicit affairs during the pandemic.
Case in point: A wedding reception with 55 people in a rural Maine town in early August. A lack of physical distancing and mask wearing at the event led to a total of , including seven deaths, within just 5 weeks.
At an Ohio wedding, dozens of people contracted coronavirus infections, including the bride and groom after the big event.
Despite multiple examples of weddings linked to outbreaks of new infections, a survey of 10,000 couples with weddings scheduled through January 2021 found that 41 percent still plan to move forward with their original wedding dates.
Could these weddings become superspreader events as well?
Absolutely, infectious disease experts say. Here’s why.
Many couples who’ve had weddings in recent months have tried to make the event safer by providing hand sanitizer, requiring vendors to mask up, and encouraging guests to spread out.
But those efforts might not be enough to prevent a reception from turning into a superspreader event.
By their very nature, weddings are supposed to be a time of celebrating love and bonding with friends and family, who may have endured crowds while traveling in from other states.
That, in turn, increases the risk of COVID-19 for everyone at the event.
Our social instincts also increase the dangers at weddings, says Debra Goff, PharmD, FCCP, an infectious disease expert and founding member of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“It’s such a happy event, and when the bride and groom come up to you, you say, ‘I’m just going to give them one hug.’ Telling people not to come near you, stay 6 feet away, goes against our normal human behavior, and that’s what makes weddings so dangerous,” she explained.
The dangers of a wedding increase once everyone sits down to eat and removes their masks.
Even if each table only includes people from a single household, a large group of guests gathered in one space without their masks on creates an environment where infections could spread easily, Goff said.
What’s more, drinking impairs people’s judgement, making them more likely to take risks they would otherwise avoid. Dancing draws people physically closer too.
“That’s just the perfect recipe for spreading COVID,” Goff said.
If just one person at the wedding has an infection, they may transmit it to dozens of other guests who then take it back home, potentially transmitting it to others and thus creating a superspreader event.
Couples may have been able to reduce the risk of COVID-19 by moving their receptions outside last summer.
But now it’s getting “increasingly challenging to have a safe wedding as the weather gets colder,” said Dr. Shobha Swaminathan, associate professor at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and medical director of the infectious diseases practice at University Hospital in Newark.
Gathering with others outdoors tends to be safer because the constantly moving fresh air disperses aerosol droplets that contain the virus, making it less likely that someone else inhales them.
It’s a lot more challenging to provide adequate ventilation indoors.
“You end up pushing around the COVID-infected air, and that’s how everyone downstream of a person with the disease at the event gets infected,” Goff said.
Venues can install HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters to help remove around 99 percent of viruses from the air and make weddings a lot safer.
With that being said, not every venue has these filters. And even those that do can’t eliminate the risk of COVID-19 entirely.
While infectious disease experts warn against attending weddings during the pandemic, they know that turning down an invitation from a loved one can feel like an impossible thing to do.
“If I had a brother getting married, I would want to be a part of that. We are human beings, and we want to be part of these events,” Swaminathan said.
Before RSVPing yes to a wedding, experts recommend asking the hosts about the safety measures they’ll have in place, the number of expected attendees and where they’re coming from, the ventilation system at the venue, requirements that guests wear masks, whether alcohol will be served, and how far apart tables will be spaced.
The more you can understand about the event, the better you can assess how risky it will be for you to attend.
Also take into account any underlying health conditions you have that may put you at higher risk for severe COVID-19 should you contract the virus.
As for couples on the fence about whether to move forward with wedding plans in the coming months, consider postponing until 2022, when it’s likely that many people will be vaccinated, Goff said.
“The risk of having events in closed environments is incredibly high right now,” she said.
“You need to be socially responsible to your fellow citizens, including your family members. Do you really want to be the one that causes your best friend or parents to die from COVID? That’s an individual choice we need to make,” Goff said.