When large social gatherings fell to the coronavirus in Canada, so too did weddings. As cases decreased and regions reopened, they returned — though smaller in size and without some of the traditional practices.
But with four weddings in Toronto being linked to 23 new cases of COVID-19, the issue has seemingly rearisen.
Even with substantial safety measures and a shrunken guest list, weddings are still far from an airtight environment, said Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa.
Rules are hard to maintain at intimate events, he said, where family and friends are celebrating and drinking and dancing.
“The danger with weddings is that it’s a joyous occasion,” he said. “Unlike having a dinner party with people who you see regularly anyway, it’s a different set of risks.”
It’s not so much the number of people attending — that can be controlled, according to Deonandan. It’s the risk of new exposures, with friends and family traveling from places outside the town or city where the wedding is being held and then going back home.
“We want to decrease the number of people indoors and avoid the face-to-face thing, but transmission has happened in outdoor gatherings too,” he said.
“It’s not just about where you are anymore. It’s the number of exposures, duration of exposure, and intensity of exposure. You’re likely not at a wedding for an hour.”
Changes and risks
Amid the global pandemic, summertime gave weddings a second chance with the ability to hold ceremonies outdoors.
Provinces have increased allowances for groups as part of phased reopening plans. In Ontario, events can be held with up to 50 people inside and 100 people outside.
However, the province reduced gathering limits drastically this week, to 10 indoors and 25 outdoors, for Toronto, Peel Region and Ottawa, after pinning climbing case counts to private, unmonitored indoor gatherings.
But, according to Premier Doug Ford, weddings and the venues shouldn’t be held to the same standard.
“It is really night and day,” he said Thursday. “It’s a lot different actually, compared to a free-for-all party where everyone’s going hog wild, swinging off the trees and every other thing.”
Ford is only partially right, said Deonandan. The clampdown on private indoor gatherings is motivated by not knowing what’s happening at these events, he said, like whether people are abiding by protocols. At formal events like weddings, “there’s an assumption the measures are better enforced.”
Ford said convention centers and banquet halls are operating under “really strict protocols” including constant supervision, temperature checks, mask-wearing and distancing.
These things are happening more often than people think, said Rebecca Chan, the owner and lead planner of Rebecca Chan Wedding and Events.
“At a wedding, you have a guest list, you know exactly who is going to be there. You can distance your tables, you have control over a schedule, so you know exactly what’s going to happen and when, and how the guests are getting moved from one section to another,” she told Global News.
“It’s a more controlled environment and ultimately a completely different experience.”
There may be more supervision, said Cynthia Carr, a Winnipeg-based epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research, “but the wildcard is our human behaviour.”
“Temperature checks and masks are tools, but we have to remember, at least half of people infected don’t show any symptoms and can still spread it,” she said.
“A venue might provide some potential for assistance, but that’s the same with a bar. A bar is still a venue where there are rules…
“Viruses spread when we give them the opportunity to move from one person to another. It doesn’t care if you’re at a wedding, a funeral, in a meeting, or at a bar.”
Weddings are also multi-generational, she added, which fosters risks of its own.
Carr pointed to a wedding in Maine, to which at least 179 cases and 7 deaths were linked. While it was in violation of the state’s cap for indoor events, the chain of transmission also got into a nursing home and a jail — both more than 160 kilometres away from the wedding.
“We’re an interconnected society,” she said.
Adapting to the rules
Chan said changes to the traditional wedding have come from both couples and venues.
Some couples have purchased masks for all their guests as wedding favours, tying it into the decor, while mandating that they be worn at all times, unless seated for dining — on par with rules set out for restaurants and bars in Ontario.
Some venues have barred cocktail hours and dancing while asking staff to monitor and supervise guests to ensure protocols are being followed. The venues also adhere to far stricter hygiene and cleaning measures, she said, which is likely not the case at private parties held in homes.
“I would say, in some respects, it’s potentially safer than dining at a restaurant,” Chan said. “You don’t know who’s going to be there, you can’t control the flow of traffic like you can at events like this.”
But dining isn’t airtight, either, said Deonandan.
“What you try to do is avoid being near someone else’s mouth. Dining makes that difficult,” he said.
Both Deonandan and Carr agree public health measures — particularly messaging — could be tightened to ensure safety, but that an all-out ban on these types of formal events is likely not feasible at this point.
“We need to look at what is possible. For one, people will misinterpret that as a ban on actual marriages and not just the celebration itself,” he said. “You can restrict the celebratory aspects of a personal union without having to remove the possibility of people getting legally married.”
It ultimately depends on what a couple is looking for, said Carr.
If they value the large celebration, she said it’s best to delay. That was recently echoed by Toronto mayor John Tory, who told CP24 on Friday that couples should consider putting off weddings “until the health situation has resolved itself.”
Carr continued: “This is supposed to be the most exciting and fun day of your life. What if someone gets sick? What if it’s related to the wedding. Factor that in as well.”