If you’re a New York-based couple planning a wedding right now, chances are, you’ve heard the news that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has officially announced that wedding receptions of up to 150 people, or 50 percent of the reception venue’s capacity, will be allowed so long as there is proper testing in place ahead of the event. This is huge and unexpected news for the countless engaged couples who’ve had to cancel, postpone, or put their wedding plans on pause over the last year. In addition to restored hope and anticipation, the recent ruling, which goes into effect on March 15, 2021, gives direction to couples and vendors for how to safely conduct a traditionally sized wedding.
While this news is most certainly a welcomed wave of normalcy in comparison to what weddings have looked like in the past 12 months, it is unfortunately not the finish line of the pandemic, notes Robert Hess III, M.P.H., public health expert and founder and Chief Executive Officer of Hess III Consulting, LLC. “Couples will still need to uphold other COVID-19 prevention measures, even at their wedding receptions, including masks, physical distance, and handwashing, which will definitely make weddings look different this year,” he says. “This doesn’t factor in the new variants which are rapidly evolving and should be heavily considered as part of planning.”
The process of carrying out a wedding that follows all of the stipulations put forth by this government ruling is also incredibly complicated. “Firstly, all events must be approved by the local health department, which means that guest safety will be monitored to ensure these weddings are being mindful of COVID measures and keeping all the guests as safe and healthy as possible,” explains Tory Smith, wedding planner and owner of Smith + James Events in Los Angeles. “It is important to remember that someone will need to monitor all the guests’ test results, making sure they are all negative, as well as the fact that any guests who test positive will need to stay home and quarantine.” Smith also urges the importance of realizing that safety is paramount when it comes to these events. “It’s not just like they’re opening the floodgates back up,” she adds.
If you’re eager to participate in the opportunity to have an actual wedding with 150 or fewer friends and family members, what do you need to consider to pull it off successfully—and safely? Here’s an expert guide to what it will take to have a COVID-conscious wedding under the new stipulations.
What to Do Before the Wedding
Planning a wedding mid-pandemic means more logistics. And with new regulations, such as those recently announced by Cuomo, couples are now required to take additional measures, such as getting event approval and providing COVID-19 testing for an extended guest count.
Get Your Application Into the Health Department ASAP
Before you adjust your plans in the slightest, the smartest move to make is to reach out to your local health department to get approval to host your wedding should the number of people you intend to invite be greater than 50. “Health departments are woefully understaffed and burnt out, so it may take longer than you anticipate to hear back,” notes Hess. If you haven’t heard back within the expected timeframe given upon your application date, he recommends following up weekly. Once you are given the approval, make sure to keep track of whatever approval documents they give you so that you have them handy on the day of your wedding.
Determine How Many People Will Be Allowed
“Reach out to your venues sooner rather than later to confirm the maximum capacity of the reception space that you have booked and divide that number in two to confirm how many people the new maximum will be,” explains Oniki Hardtman of Oh Niki Occasions. As for the number of people: Don’t forget to account for the venue wait staff and all of your vendors. “Ask each vendor how many people will be on their team the day of the wedding – for instance, photographers often have two to four people on staff depending on your package,” Hardtman suggests.
Reassess Your Budget
Before you figure out the intricacies of COVID-19 testing, you want to make sure that your budget will allow you to accommodate the process for each of your wedding guests. “The tests themselves range in price from $75 to $225, depending on the clinic or company offering them, and you will need a nurse or healthcare professional to administer these tests,” explains Chris Debiec, chief operating officer at the Human Health Organization in Los Angeles. “Normally, these costs are in the $125 per hour with a two to a four-hour minimum depending on the number of guests and travel time.”
Hardtman estimates that private testing runs closer to $150 to $200 per guest. “Couples should note that private testing currently comes with a substantial fee per guest and this is not covered by insurance,” she says. “That’s nearly the average price of a wedding dinner per person in the NYC area, so the sound of this sounds daunting.”
Aside from testing, there are other safety elements, including hand sanitizer stations, additional tables and barriers for social distancing, and live streaming components, which will require additional expenses, notes Gary Guerin, florist, and owner of STEM SWAG in Phoenix. “Know that some vendors may also have ancillary line items assigned to COVID adherence tools, so any proposals or cost estimates generated pre-COVID should be re-examined,” he says. “I’d suggest 10 to 15 percent of your total budget as a start for your COVID contingency plan.”
What to Know About Testing
After discussing the budget and logistics mentioned above, you’ll need to make several decisions: Will you require guests to test on their own or will you provide testing for everyone? What type of tests will you offer or require?
Rapid Antigen vs. PCR Testing
There are two types of tests to confirm COVID-19 status: PCR testing and rapid antigen. True to its name, the rapid test will provide results ASAP, while the PCR testing typically takes a few days or longer based on the volume of where the test is given.
According to Niket Sonpal, M.D., a board-certified internist and faculty member at Touro College of Medicine, the safest way for a couple to have a wedding of the size that Governor Cuomo is allowing is to ask guests to quarantine for five days before getting a PCR test within a 48 to 72-hour window of the wedding. PCR testing is considered the “gold standard” when it comes to detecting COVID-19 infections. Although they take one to three days for results, unlike the more convenient rapid tests, which take a matter of minutes, they tend to be more effective at detecting COVID-19 in people who are sick but don’t exhibit symptoms, according to Marisa Cruz, M.D., and head of clinical affairs at Everlywell, an at-home testing company. During those 72 hours, guests would need to quarantine until they receive their results on the day of the wedding. Each guest should be required to bring their negative PCR test result to the wedding.
In addition to a negative PCR test, Cruz encourages the use of an additional mail-in test. “Because no test is perfect, simply getting one test before a large gathering is not enough,” she warns. “Additionally, in order to avoid breaking isolation, I highly suggest using a mail-in test kit, such as Everlywell’s option.” Their FDA-authorized test for COVID-19—priced at $109, including free shipping both ways—allows you to collect your own sample at home and overnight it to a certified lab to get digital results in as little as 24 hours of your sample arriving at the lab.
It’s important to note that testing is not foolproof. “A COVID-19 test is simply a snapshot in time,” Cruz explains. “Even with the more accurate PCR test, a negative result does not mean an individual is not infected. A negative result means only that, at that particular moment, the sample did not show viral levels high enough to be reliably measured. The individual could test positive even just hours later.”
Private, Off-Site, and On-Site Testing
“COVID-19 testing has expanded over the last few months and it’s easier to get tested than it was when the pandemic first started,” explains Debiec. “An efficient way to procure testing is to reach out to friends and family that may have been tested through work or somewhere else other than waiting for hours in line.”
Private Testing: If a couple is able to foot the bill for testing all guests, there are boutique testing agencies that offer both PCR and rapid tests (this is what movie studios have been using for months on set!). In these instances, Hardtman says the following approach is common: “One to two days before your guests enter your wedding, they will pass through a dedicated station set up by licensed clinicians,” she explains. “Then, 24 to 48 hours later, the couple will receive a full list of all the people who tested negative. If you need to guarantee a test sooner, the price point increases.”
Off-Site Testing: According to Hardtman, the most economical way of getting tested is through state-approved sites that are open and available to the public. While cheaper, this approach does make it more difficult to confirm guests’ test results in advance unless you’re able to set up an “efficient system to have them send their results in the day prior to the wedding.”
It’s rumored that states will be releasing a system to ensure that all guests are accounted for and tested (similar to contract tracing) but details are not yet known, says Hardtman. For now, this burden will likely fall on the couple and/or their planner. “At this point, we honestly need to wait and see but any couples that are not working with a planner should get very comfortable with spreadsheets to account for guests and their testing status,” she says. “Your wedding planner or venue coordinator may need to dedicate a coordinator specifically to keeping track at the door of who has confirmed their testing status.”
It’s no secret that off-site testing can be a challenge to organize. “This is a new level of stress for couples to manage but will be necessary for areas requiring these extra steps,” she says. “On the bright side, everyone in attendance can rest assured knowing they will not be in a high-risk environment.”
On-Site Testing: When planning an event during COVID-19, Smith recommends having guests test on their own accord and then, if possible, providing on-site rapid testing and temperature checks at the event. “On-site testing can be very costly, but it’s important,” she adds.
If you’re able to offer on-site testing, all guests will need to arrive early, each in their own car, to conduct efficient rapid tests. Consider staggering arrival times so that guests aren’t waiting too long. “Make sure this is incredibly organized, keep directions clear and remember that every guest is taking a pretty big extra step to come celebrate you safely,” explains Smith. It’s also important to keep in mind the fact that some of your guests may test positive. Smith suggests having a plan in place for anyone who might test positive on-site to ensure that they’re able to evacuate the premises safely without coming in contact with any other guests.
If you do on-site testing, stagger guest arrival times. You don’t want guests waiting in a long line to get tested.
What to Ask of Your Guests
While this is your wedding, every person in attendance will have to abide by the rules you and your state set in place.”If you have decided to require testing or if your area requires testing to attend events, no guest or vendor should be able to attend without providing clear negative results,” Smith says.
Set Clear Expectations
For this reason, it is important to be direct with your guests. “Make sure you are very straightforward in what is required in order to attend the wedding,” Smith says. “It’s a big ask but it’s important to protect all your loved ones and the vendor team. Be sure you are giving plenty of time, do your local research on options for testing, make the time window clear, and require each guest to forward on their negative results.”
Distribute Cohesive Messaging
To help organize and mobilize guests getting tested prior to the event, the more information you can give, the better, according to Smith. She recommends sending out an informational email as well as putting thorough testing instructions and detailed safety measures on the wedding website. “Answer as many questions as you can so you’re not inundated with a flurry of questions from your entire guest list,” she says. “The more information you give, the fewer questions you’ll have to answer and the less overwhelmed you will be.”
If Necessary, Encourage Safe Travel
Cruz recommends encouraging guests to attend remotely if they would need to travel from out of town. However, if travel is essential, there are extra precautions that can help limit the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 on the way to the wedding. She adds that if guests test before traveling, their tests are essentially void because they risked exposure during the travel process. “Remind guests that they will need to quarantine in advance of the event and near the destination to mitigate risk, then test for the most accurate results,” she says.
Travel should be well thought out and planned well in advance—at least three days prior to the event, according to Hess. “Driving is ideal since you can minimize human contact, but if flying is required, guests should review their airline’s travel guidelines and bring hand sanitizer and wipes in their carry on so they can wipe down surfaces,” says Hess. He also recommends renting a car versus relying on ride-sharing services and staying in a hotel versus staying with family. “Hotels have strict guidelines they follow and air conditioners for each room, which means you won’t be sharing air with everyone else in the building,” he says. “Home-sharing services, like Airbnb, are more difficult to ensure the host is the cleaning and sanitizing effectively, but of course is another option.”
What to Do on the Wedding Day
After all the pre-planning and approvals, additional safety measures will need to be taken on the day-of. You’ll want to discuss these in detail with your venue and team but we have one key message for everyone: Even with extensive testing, it’s critical that couples enforce safety measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing at a gathering of this size, especially if it’s indoors.
“It may be a good idea for the wedding party to ask someone to be what we call a ‘Covid Compliance Officer,'” suggests Debiec. “Imagine a groomsman or bridesmaid just for COVID—this may not sound like a very unpleasant job but all they would be doing is making sure everyone follows the rules of masks and possibly wiping down all things that could be touched quite a bit during the wedding.”
A few other recommendations? Creating punny signage that outlines any sort of guidelines, adding COVID-friendly items to swag bags, and acknowledging that just by showing up, your guests have done a lot of work to be part of your special day. “Lean on your vendors for expert advice as to what is realistic and best practices for bringing your as-close-as-possible vision to life while executing a seamless, safe event,” he says. “Breathe, be patient, embrace creativity, and wash your hands.”