Restrictions lifted, but expert says weddings remain high-risk events

Restrictions lifted, but expert says weddings remain high-risk events

Mini bottles of sanitizer, monogrammed with the newlyweds’ initials, lined a table outside the venue of Royston and Rachel Grosjean’s July 4 wedding so guests could clean their hands before the festivities began.

The 50 people invited — much less than the 220 the couple had originally planned for — spaced themselves out over long pews in a Langley, B.C., church, and again at the backyard reception, where tables were spread far and wide along the grassy exterior.

Dinner was replaced by individually-packaged desserts, and the bride and groom FaceTimed absent friends and family members throughout the night.

What would have been considered strange wedding customs a year ago have become commonplace for nuptial celebrations amid the COVID-19 pandemic, where risk of transmission needs to be mitigated at every turn.

But even with substantial safety measures and a gutted guest list, the Grosjeans still worried about pulling it off.

“It was ridiculously stressful,” Rachel Grosjean said. “Planning a wedding is hard enough without a global pandemic.

“It ended up working out but it was tough not knowing what would happen day to day.”

The Grosjeans had initially cancelled their reception months ago, but went ahead with a scaled-back party once gathering restrictions began lifting in their province.

And while many Canadian couples are starting to do the same, an infectious disease expert warns that sizable celebrations remain high-risk affairs.

Rules may allow for larger gatherings now, but physical distancing can be hard to maintain at chummy events.

“All the coronavirus needs is an avenue in. All it takes is one (infected) person there,” said Dr. Anna Banerji, an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in Toronto.

“When you have a wedding, people are going to be drinking, they’re going to be socializing, maybe hugging, especially if they haven’t seen each other for a long time.”

Most of Ontario has entered Stage 3 of reopening, which allows gatherings of up to 50 people with physical distancing measures in place, according to the province’s COVID website. That same limit is in place in B.C., Alberta, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Quebec, though the latter permits only 10 people in private dwellings.

Saskatchewan’s limit is 30 while Manitoba allows more than 50 if space permits — up to 30 per cent of a venue’s capacity. Nova Scotia will allow 50 per cent venue capacity up to 200 if physical distancing can be maintained.

Banerji has her doubts that weddings and other large gatherings can be pulled off safely right now, but ensuring there’s enough space for attendees does help.

“You can have 50 people in a stadium or 50 people in a tiny church. What’s more important is really the density,” said Banerji, adding that an outdoor party is much safer than one indoors.

“But weddings become more high-risk because I doubt (guests) are going to be wearing masks and physically distancing.”

Some couples have been supplying face coverings to their guests, however.

London, Ont., couple Jason Goncalves and Michael Halliday had masks and sanitizer stocked on a table for the 24 invitees at their outdoor wedding last weekend.

The ceremony, streamed to an additional 70 people online, was held on the grounds of an event venue in the city and was followed by a small indoor gathering with family at Goncalves’s parents’ house.

Friends across the globe who couldn’t attend sent in videos of themselves partying along — some raising coffee mugs instead of champagne flutes, given time zone differences.

“It was weirdly intimate, even though it was so distant,” Goncalves said.

The couple was originally slated to get married in May but had their plans pushed back due to the pandemic. They settled on their July 25 date once London entered Stage 3.

“One of the things that we kept turning to was: we’re going to get married, we’re going to get married,” Goncalves said of the stress of trying to plan a wedding amid a pandemic. “But we also needed to do it safely, because at the end the day, we cared more about the health of everyone there than actually getting married.”

While the Goncalves-Halliday ceremony was food- and drink-free as an extra safety precaution, they did order in dinners from their favourite restaurants for the small party that followed.

Banerji says couples need to figure out how to safely provide food and drink service if they choose to do so.

“That could mean bigger tables, people spread out, maybe limiting the amount of alcohol to (make it easier) for people to respect physical distancing,” she said. “Because it’d be horrible to have a wedding and then have people get sick.”

Buffets remain prohibited throughout the country, but some couples, like Shandie-Lyn Stockill and her fiance prefer plated service anyway.

Stockill is planning a full-service dinner for 20 guests at her Aug. 14 wedding in Elora, Ont. The couple didn’t want to postpone, and instead scaled back the invites significantly.

Stockill doesn’t mind having a smaller wedding than originally planned, but the lack of dancing — still prohibited at Ontario gatherings — may feel strange. She figures the festivities will end shortly after dinner, rather than extending into the night.

“It’s a little big disappointing because my family is really fun,” said Stockill. “But it is what it is….It’ll be interesting.”

As a nurse, Stockill is tested regularly for COVID-19 and her fiance will also be tested before the wedding. She feels confident in the safety precautions they’re taking to minimize risk to their guests.

“We’re keeping it small,” Stockill said. “Anyone who’s coming is already in our bubble, basically.”

Not every region of the country will have the same risks when it comes to weddings, Banerji said. A rural town that hasn’t had an active case in months will be safer than an area with evidence of community spread.

But travel also needs to be taken into consideration, she added. Will guests be coming in from another region, possibly bringing the virus in, or taking it back with them?

The concerns Banerji has for well-attended weddings also extends into any type of large gathering, especially one indoors.

She was disappointed but not surprised to hear of a party in Brampton, Ont., over the weekend that had upwards of 200 guests. Brampton, part of Peel Region, has not yet entered Stage 3 of the province’s re-opening plan.

“I think a lot of it is the corona fatigue that’s going on, and we’ve been locked down and told we can’t go out for a long time,” Banerji said. “I think there’s a lot of denial.”

“It’s important to remember that people might be able to have a wedding or big party and not have any consequences,” she added. ”But if you look at the way the virus is behaving, it really takes every opportunity it can to spread.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28.

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press

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