Does This Maine Wedding Show We Have Communal Responsibility?

A woman died who was not a guest

A news story came across our radar this week about a wedding that has been linked to 53 COVID cases, and one death so far. And here is the kicker: not all of the cases were guests at the wedding. In fact, the person that died didn’t attend the wedding, but was exposed by a guest. This story underlined the argument we’ve been making at APW, and the argument we really wanted to be wrong about: that bigger weddings in the age of COVID put more than your guests at risk.

Since March (back when the wedding industry was suggesting that pushing out weddings till June was a perfectly reasonable solution) we’ve been arguing that big weddings were going to be off the table for a long time—possibly till we get a vaccine or another robust method of preventing spread. “Big weddings” are subjective. And that means there are a lot of ways to still have weddings (many of which have been featured on APW or on our Instagram).

But when planning weddings in 2020, public safety has to come first. And that means all of us have a responsibility to think about the wider community ramifications of our actions. Yes, couples having weddings need to be making smart choices, but guests invited to weddings also are responsible for their choices. And that sometimes means saying no when it’s awkward or painful to do so, or when you’d really rather say yes. That means thinking of people who will not even be at the wedding when we make decisions… something that human brains are not built for.

For months I’ve been afraid of what a wedding super spreader event would look like, and now, we have a real tangible example:

A wedding reception in Millinocket, Maine, has been linked to 53 confirmed coronavirus cases, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That number includes a woman who did not attend the event but died Friday; officials believe she was later infected with COVID-19 from a guest, the Portland Press Herald reported.—Business Insider

According to the Bangor Daily News, that number has risen to 59, so far. This is exponential math, and what it looks like:

Millinocket Regional Hospital has reported that it tested 366 people who attended the reception or came in contact with those who did. Of the 53 cases linked to the reception on Saturday, 13 were secondary and 10 were tertiary, Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said Saturday evening. Those affected range in age from 4 to 98 years old, with a median age of 41. A woman who did not attend the reception died on Friday after contracting COVID-19 from a person who did attend the event, health authorities said. —Portland Press Herald

But it’s 2020, and we live in a world with COVID. And that means outbreaks will happen. Getting COVID isn’t a moral failure, and we all have to take calculated risks to survive. But the question is: which of those calculated risks are safe(er) and which are less safe? Which decisions in wedding planning are responsible, and which feel over the line? While this decision is going to vary from person to person, from couple to couple, from wedding guest to wedding guest, it’s important that we have open conversations about when things go wrong.

This is what happened in the Maine wedding:

Sixty-five people went to the August 7 reception, which was largely indoors, Maine’s CDC director, Nirav Shah, said in a press conference on Thursday. Shah said the venue, Big Moose Inn, exceeded the state’s limit on indoor gatherings, which is 50 people. … Nearly half—23—of the cases linked to the wedding are among people who didn’t attend, according to the Press Herald.—Business Insider

Public health officials are pointing out:

What I think is really important about this situation is that it is another reminder that Covid-19 exists everywhere in Maine and it can spread really quickly when large groups of people gather,” Shah said previously about this case.—CNN

But yet. Life goes on. Marriages need to happen. We’re learning more every day, and trying to make good decisions. And that means redefining (and redefining and redefining) what weddings look like. It also means thinking about what our collective responsibility looks like when it comes to gatherings… not just responsibility to the people in the room, but responsibility to the people outside the room as well.

Because having people get sick or die after your wedding might not be your fault, but I think we all can agree it would be a nightmare, and something that would stay with you forever.

What is the collective responsibility we all have as we think about weddings in 2020 and beyond? How do we assess what risk is safe(er) and what is less safe?

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