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Planning a COVID-19 wedding

By Imogen Shaw
22 June 2021

By Imogen Shaw

My fiancé and I got engaged at the end of 2018 and started planning the wedding almost immediately. Both organisers by nature, we enjoyed about three months of feeling smug that we had managed to plan and book most of a fairly big wedding by autumn 2019, almost a year in advance of our date.

When the pandemic hit and the first national lockdown loomed, “At least it’ll all be over in time for your wedding!” became a common refrain on Zoom calls with family, friends and colleagues. In the midst of all the fear and uncertainty, I was a little surprised, and touched, that people were thinking about my wedding at all. At that point, neither my partner nor I was especially concerned about it. Back in March 2020 I was quietly confident it would all be fine come September, and conscious that as more and more people around me faced personal and professional hardship, putting wedding planning on hold was hardly a personal tragedy – though I did feel for those who’d booked their big days in March and April. 

Looking back, the way other people talked to us about our wedding frames, for me, the earlier period of the pandemic – the point when most people you spoke to really seemed to believe it would all be over in three weeks, in one more month, by summer.

Needless to say, we ended up postponing our wedding, which is now set to go ahead this Saturday. The new date falls after the would-be ‘Freedom Day’ entirely by coincidence – we rebooked with the same venue and suppliers roughly a year ago, when despite the summer lull in COVID cases, we had lost faith that the situation would still be on a positive trajectory by September, and felt like we should hold out for a date when we could definitely have the wedding we really wanted.

As everyone now knows, this too proved wildly over-optimistic. Come spring 2021, as each date in the Prime Minister’s roadmap for easing England’s lockdown rolled around, we waited anxiously for news, along with some 50,000 other couples who had booked weddings in the month following 21 June.

The situation that couples and the wedding industry found ourselves in in the lead up to 21 June was just about as inconvenient for all involved as it could possibly have been. To have steps one through three of the unlocking plan go off without a hitch, only to be plunged back into uncertainty at the final hurdle played havoc with couples’ deposits, venues’ supply chains, and suppliers’ ability to restock. 

Nobody knew whether to risk pushing ahead with their plans or not – an incorrect call either way could have existential financial implications for smaller businesses in the wedding trade. That the wedding industry was told it would have a sector-specific update ahead of time, an acknowledgement of the specific difficulties (and significant backlog) it faced, only to miss out on this as well, added to anxieties.

Despite this, the announcement on 14 June was a massive relief for many. Moving from a maximum guest list of 30 to a rule based on maximum venue capacity with social distancing has meant my partner and I can have 90 more people celebrating our wedding with us, which is wonderful. However, the weddings we and others will have over the next month will not look like the weddings of 2019. 

With no dancing, masked ceremonies and no standing food or drinks receptions, a lot of the weddings coming up over the next four weeks will resemble unusually formal nights out in a pub. We are happy to compromise on this, but many couples for whom being able to dance at their wedding is culturally or personally significant have decided to postpone – often for the third or even fourth time. Unsurprisingly, several online petitions have sprung up around the subjects of dancing and standing drinks receptions at weddings, and the #WhatAboutWeddings campaign, formed to highlight the need for Government intervention to protect the wedding sector, has been running online events to try and help couples make sense of the new guidance.

This is the other, major issue with planning a COVID wedding: the level of agreement on what the new guidance actually means is, to say the least, not particularly reassuring. For example, despite the fact that the guidance now clearly states that there is no requirement for guests to be placed on tables of six in a COVID-secure venue (essentially, all venues apart from private homes and gardens), national media outlets are still publishing articles claiming tables of six are mandatory across the board.

In our case, this has resulted in our venue scrambling to change its whole layout for us in order to comply, my partner and I redoing the whole seating plan in forty-eight hours, and our florist rushing to complete an entire redesign in under a week – only to find out once we had done all this that it was unnecessary and we could go back to the way we were going to do things in the first place!

The restrictions on dancing outdoors are similarly unclear. Dancing outside is ‘advised against’ rather than against the law, and it is not totally clear what the definition of an outdoor dance floor is under the rules. Many venues, understandably concerned about accruing significant fines if they adopt a more liberal interpretation of the guidance, have reacted by adopting a particularly strict version of the rules. 

Our venue, who have been fantastically understanding throughout every stage of the pandemic, were terrified at the prospect of us hiring a DJ to play background music while guests chat and drink, in case it encouraged a few people to start dancing near their outdoor tables. As a result, we’ve decided not to risk hiring anyone for the day and have opted for a trusty Spotify playlist. However, it means a small business has lost out on a contract.

This is very much in line with a broader theme. The ‘reopening’ of weddings is not an equal boon for every part of the sector – the situation for wedding bands and DJs remains virtually unchanged since 17 May, and other vendors are still feeling the squeeze of regulations as people decide to downscale – including make up artists, given that members of the wedding party still have to wear masks for the main event.

Speaking personally, wanting to support our venue and suppliers, who have had to put up with so much over the last fourteen months, is a big reason why we are so keen to go ahead with our wedding now, despite the restrictions. I am also happier than ever to get the opportunity to gather family members in one place for a cautious celebration, after so long spent apart and, as has been the case for many this year, the sad loss of a close relative. Unfortunately, my fiancé cannot quite say the same, given that most of his family live abroad and are subject to travel restrictions that make attending the wedding unfeasible.

We will do something special to mark the occasion with them when we can, but for now, we are ecstatic to be able to go ahead with a wedding we expected to happen almost ten months ago. If everything is fully unlocked on 19 July, we won’t feel bitter and wish we had waited – but we will definitely have an appreciation of how much it will mean for so many people whose livelihoods depend on the return of weddings as they used to be.