Planning a Summer Wedding? Here's How to Tie the Knot Safely and Joyfully, According to the Experts

Increased vaccinations, loosening nation-wide restrictions, and a new mask guidance mean weddings are on their way back to normal. Celebrate to the fullest with these tips from a public health expert and leading event planners.

outdoor floral ceremony decor with wooden chairs
Photo: Hunter Ryan Photo

For the thousands of couples and vendor teams across the country who were forced to push last year's full-scale celebrations into 2021 and beyond, this summer marks a new dawn. They have an ambitious, effective vaccination initiative, new CDC-sanctioned mask guidance, and state re-openings to thank—just like that, weddings, in so many ways, are back.

The resurgence of mask-free indoor events with dance floors, however, should be contingent upon on the most crucial safety factor, says Dr. Summer Johnson McGee, Ph.D,. CPH, the dean of the School of Health Sciences at The University of New Haven: a vaccinated majority. "Fully vaccinated individuals can safely be indoors without concern about the vaccination status of others or masking—even at very large events," the nationally-recognized expert on COVID-19 tells Martha Stewart Weddings. For unvaccinated attendees, pandemic-era guidelines—including social distancing and face coverings—should remain in effect, which is ultimately why Dr. McGee believes couples should feel comfortable "asking friends and family for their vaccination status or testing to ensure everyone can enjoy their special day without worry about exposure to COVID-19."

As brides, grooms, and their vendors cross the threshold into this new period of the pandemic, safety should continue to remain the top priority, notes Dr. McGee, who adds that outdoor events are still the gold standard; physical distancing, regular hand-washing, and no-contact food service are other key protections, she adds, especially if the guest lists' inoculation status is largely unknown. To pinpoint ways to best execute these safety measures in the face of shifting, often less restrictive regulations, we checked in with leading wedding planners from all over the nation, who are—quite literally—in the thick of it. Ahead, what this new landscape looks like and how these experts are pushing forward and prioritizing safety to finally (finally!) get their clients married and celebrate to the very fullest.

Guest counts are getting larger—that's a fact.

According to Brooklyn-based wedding planner and event designer Jove Meyer, guest counts are trending up. "My couples who are hoping for larger weddings of 150 to 250 guests are feeling better and more hopeful that it can happen legally and safely later this summer and for sure by this fall," he says. "Previously, we had weddings with the couple only, 18 guests, and 35 guests—our next wedding is for 175." This appears to be a nation-wide pattern; Darci Greenwood of Colorado-based Greenwood Events cites the same sweet spot (150 to 200 attendees), noting that their postponed events have larger numbers than originally intended. "People are ready to be together and socialize," she shares. Lea Stafford, who is currently preparing events for 175 to 200 celebrants, affirms this is also happening in Northern California; her duos are "excited, but remain cautious," she says. So Happi Together's Nancy Park, who is based in SoCal, agrees: "We definitely have a handful who are planning for 200-plus," she tells us. "The only hesitation we see is with destination weddings that may require international traveling or long flights."

In New Orleans, Michelle Norwood, owner of her eponymous firm, has noticed more of a range (between 50 and 150), while Wendy Kay, based in Texas, shares that Birds of a Feather Events will be planning celebrations that range between 125 on the lower end of the spectrum to 300 on the upswing when they resume their season this fall. According to Laura Ritchie of Grit & Grace, the Washington Metropolitan Area is taking it more slowly—guests have a "more positive outlook," she says, but "we have seen a much greater RSVP rate of 'no' than in the past."

Look to state laws and consider your personal preferences when interpreting the CDC's new mask guidance.

Per the Centers of Disease of Control and Prevention's latest update on mask use, Dr. McGee says fully vaccinated individuals can resume many aspects of pre-pandemic life—attending larger weddings sans face coverings, included. As state regulations shift to reflect this new guidance, couples and their vendor teams should work together, say our experts, to navigate the often-confusing landscape and find solutions that feel right for them. "Even though the CDC has made their statement, every couple feels differently; some may still want to require masks, whereas others may not. I will take the lead from the couple and their family," says Meyer, adding that local and venue rules are still at the forefront. With that said, "the new mask guidance is hard to navigate," notes Ritchie, "when we don't have a way of outwardly knowing who is vaccinated." If this is a concern, take her lead and convey to your loved ones that "an RSVP of yes means also saying yes to getting vaccinated."

Many pandemic-era wedding protocols should still be in effect.

For Kay, this means skipping buffet and food stations and photo booth props ("I never realized how gross this actually is until COVID-19!" she says); serving covered passed appetizers; providing hand sanitizer; encouraging hand washing; and recommending masks for the unvaccinated. Norwood is finding ways to elevate these here-to-stay efforts: "We're offering hot hand towels before dinner—guests love it and it's a nice touch," she notes. Park agrees with this approach, adding that choosing a contactless seating chart, as opposed to escort cards, is another way to eliminate an otherwise high-touch hotspot; Champagne walls and charcuterie boards are also out, she says. For Greenwood, keeping events outside, in open air, is a mainstay precaution (and a preferable one, considering the beauty of her region!), as are open floor plans, with lots of space between seats or benches during the ceremony or tables come the reception. All our experts agree that staff should largely remain masked ("Masks will be part of my wedding kit moving forward," notes Meyer) and that members of food service teams should also be gloved—vaccinated or not.

Offer guests nonverbal ways to communicate their personal comfort levels to others.

While an RSVP of "yes" typically indicates that a guest is ready to mingle in a larger setting, especially now, there are several ways to help your loved ones convey their personal preferences on the big day; Meyer advises offering color-coded stickers, bracelets, or necklaces to all celebrants, so they can express whether they are open to handshakes, hugs, or dancing in a nonverbal way. "I think those who are not comfortable should wear something that signals that, and everyone else can be as they are," he says. "I find too many options, colors, or signs can get confusing after a drink or two!" Another option? COVID-cognizant signs, says Stafford. "Signage with encouraging words about respecting boundaries is also another way to make everyone feel comfortable," she says. "We want all guests to move at their own pace and feel respected."

More important than a color-coded system or signage, however, is proper guest preparation. "We are caring for all guests' level of comfortability by, first and foremost, sending out a note within the invitation suite that lets them know our intentions for the event and the precautions we are taking—and also gives them the ability to decline without guilt," says Ritchie. Park affirms this: "The key is to make sure attendees know all these details before arriving, so that they can decide for themselves if they are okay with the situation—or if we need to make special accommodations for them."

If you feel better about a smaller event, stay the course.

A smaller event, says Park, is not a lesser one. "I have always been a fan of intimate weddings, and don't think an intimate party has to be 'small' in scale," she says. "Some of our most over-the-top events have been for guest counts of 50 or less. I think that this past year has really shown us that life is about who you spend it with—and whether that is 20 or 200, be intentional with your design." And if you are still feeling torn between the surer safety of a smaller event and the allure of something larger, with more loved ones by your side, consider waiting another year, notes Kay. "I would focus on choosing a date in 2022 when I think we will be in a much better place with herd immunity and COVID-19 will hopefully no longer be a factor in deciding on a guest count," she explains. Stafford agrees, noting that there is no harm in "scaling back and partying with the masses later." If celebrating your marriage in 2021 just doesn't feel right, a further-off replan is certainly possible.

Be ready to pivot in both directions.

After a year of big-day sacrifices and slashed guest counts, many couples are now faced with the opposite problem: They can often go bigger than their replans accounted for. If you're faced with pivoting towards a larger celebration, "practice patience," says Stafford—with yourself, your loved ones, and your vendor team. "We are still in a time of uncertainty and we are all experiencing different levels of comfort as we make this transition out of the pandemic," she adds. Next, ensure your budget can withstand the inflation, Kay points out. "Make sure your wallet can sustain that. Look at your current per-person budget and start doing the math on what it would take financially to host more guests," she says. But even if your budget can accommodate a larger event, you should still be prepared to go small if you need to, agrees Greenwood, Meyer, and Ritchie. "Keep pushing forward. Whatever 'Plan C' or the worst-case scenario is should be your focus and something you feel good about. That way, if life pivots in a positive direction, that's just the cherry on top," says Ritchie.

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