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With COVID-19 cases rising, super-spreader gatherings multiplying and health authorities asking Canadians to postpone their celebrations, the politics of having a 'pandemic wedding' are fraught.

Wilson Lau/Handout

These days, guests who attend one of Lynn Fletcher’s weddings are greeted by staff wielding thermometers, and later, plentiful bottles of hand sanitizer and cautionary signs (“Spread love, not germs”). Fuzzy, carpeted hearts on the floor remind guests to keep their distance.

“The COVID subject is very visual at our events,” said Fletcher, chief executive officer of Lynn Fletcher Weddings in Calgary.

Eighty of the planner’s nuptials were postponed this year, and the 30 that went ahead looked starkly different than weddings in the prepandemic era. Dinner tables were arranged by household. Hors d’oeuvres arrived packaged, meals covered. Guests were asked to text their drink orders from the table instead of milling around. When families tried to mingle, Fletcher gave them a wink and asked that they “back up.”

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Despite the awkwardness, the planner said couples are relieved her staff enforce the new rules: “They want their guests to be safe and they want to get married.”

The new wedding terrain can feel stilted and strange: gone are the spontaneous hugs and dance-offs, replaced by public health regulations. With COVID-19 cases rising, super-spreader gatherings multiplying and health authorities asking Canadians to postpone their celebrations, the politics of having a “pandemic wedding” are fraught. Many couples have downsized festivities into micro-weddings, rescheduled or eloped. Those forging ahead with their weddings are being forced to think long and hard about marrying through the second wave – not just about how, but why they’d choose to push ahead right now.

How one British Columbia wedding became a COVID-19 superspreader event

From one infected wedding guest...

50 guests exposed and required to self-isolate

15 guests tested positive for COVID-19

One family business affected

One outbreak at a long-term care home

10 households with someone who tested positive for COVID-19

Five employees tested positive

81 people required to self-isolate

37 people required to self-isolate

Three hospitalized

One dead

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: FRASER HEALTH

How one British Columbia wedding became a COVID-19 superspreader event

From one infected wedding guest...

50 guests exposed and required to self-isolate

15 guests tested positive for COVID-19

One family business affected

One outbreak at a long-term care home

10 households with someone who tested positive for COVID-19

Five employees tested positive

81 people required to self-isolate

37 people required to self-isolate

Three hospitalized

One dead

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: FRASER HEALTH

How one British Columbia wedding became a COVID-19 superspreader event

From one infected wedding guest...

50 guests exposed and required to self-isolate

15 guests tested positive for COVID-19

One family business affected

One outbreak at a long-term care home

10 households with someone who tested positive for COVID-19

Five employees tested positive

81 people required to self-isolate

37 people required to self-isolate

Three hospitalized

One dead

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FRASER HEALTH

For some, marrying means joining their families in a way that honours tradition. Others want to wed so they can have children. Some were engaged for years and had to delay their nuptials once already in the spring.

After postponing their July wedding, Roop Dhillon and Randeep Nijjar decided to move forward with their ceremony on Oct. 1 in Peel Region outside Toronto.

“For my husband and me, we weren’t willing to live together until our religious ceremony because we really believe in the importance of our ceremony,” said Dhillon, 29.

The two had been engaged since 2018. After Dhillon’s grandfather died in July, she decided not to put off her vows any further.

Over the summer, the bride and groom held a bridal shower, traditional prayers and a number of small, family gatherings. Using WhatsApp messaging, they set out expectations beforehand about masks and physical distancing. The night before each event, they issued COVID-19 questionnaires. Guests got masks and hand sanitizer and were seated by household outdoors under open tents.

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“We made it very clear that no offence taken if you can’t come. And we made it clear that we’re following the rules,” Dhillon, a lawyer with Legal Aid Ontario, said.

One hundred guests attended the ceremony, a number that fell below their venue’s 30 per cent capacity mark – which was the local gathering limit for such events at the time. Each household stayed within a perimeter marked off with green tape. There would be no singing, dancing or customary luncheon.

Though no one fell ill, there was a close call. A bridesmaid contracted COVID-19 before the festivities but she quarantined away from all of the events and attendees.

The couple postponed their wedding reception until next September, hoping a vaccine will have materialized by then. Melissa Samborski is planning their party for 300-plus guests at Toronto’s Ritz-Carlton next fall.

Like other planners, she now has to keep on top of ever-shifting regional public health guidelines. When infection rates climb, local authorities abruptly reduce gathering limits, including at weddings. That leaves some couples melting down, and Samborski consoling them.

“The phone rings at 11 o’clock at night because somebody’s upset because the new rules came out,” said Samborski, who owns One Fine Day Event Planning and Design Inc., which specializes in big-budget weddings. “I’m like, ‘Okay, we’ll get through this.’”

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While most couples are diligent, some want to bend the rules, she’s found. “We push back and say these rules are mandated by the government: you don’t want to get the $10,000 fine.”

Toronto wedding officiant Cyndy Neilly-Spence tells prospective clients she will walk out of any ceremony that fails to adhere to the latest guidelines. “I’ve had people ghost me,” the officiant said. “They’re determined they’re going to find someone who will marry them the way they want to be married.”

Neilly-Spence thinks rule-breaking couples who host big parties at family cottages or venues hard-up for cash are selfish and irresponsible. “If anybody ever got really sick at your wedding...how would you feel?” she said. “What a place to start your marriage.”

In Toronto, 93 positive cases were linked to weddings held between August and October. Nearby York Region has seen five wedding outbreaks since August, including a multiday celebration that saw 52 people from eight regions infected with the virus. In Calgary, 49 of 63 guests tested positive after an October wedding. British Columbia’s Fraser Health Authority reported 209 cases stemming from 10 weddings. At one event, 15 guests tested positive, leading to outbreaks at a family business and a long-term care home. Three people were hospitalized and one person died.

Public health experts said super-spreader weddings have a pattern in common: guests who lapse on mask-wearing and distancing mixing with guests who show up despite feeling ill.

In response, British Columbia authorities limited weddings to 10 people and prohibited all receptions, be they at home, a venue or outside. Last week, Ontario capped guest counts at wedding receptions to 10 people. Officials in Peel Region banned receptions until at least Jan 7. Manitoba officials whittled weddings down to five people. Toronto Public Health spokesperson and associate medical officer of health Dr. Vinita Dubey urged cancelling “in-person activities that are not essential for now,” or holding them virtually.

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Speaking with clients, Vancouver planner Erin Bishop advocates for elopements over big bashes right now. Recently, she arranged a picnic for two in the woods, with Champagne on ice.

“You can have every safety plan and protocol but honestly, you cannot control people at a wedding,” said Bishop, founder of Filosophi Event Planning and Design.

Breaking up groups of guests trying to talk, dance or do shots together, she’s found the pandemic weddings of 2020 painful to police.

“It feels like kindergarten,” Bishop said. “It’s not the feeling you want to have at your wedding.”

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