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2021 Could Be the Biggest Wedding Year Ever. But Are Guests Ready to Gather?

18 minute read

I was supposed to get married in September. Well, technically, as my husband would be quick to correct me, I did get legally married in September 2020 in the courtyard of our New York City apartment building in front of our parents, a handful of friends who lived nearby and a naked guy standing in the window of the building next door, who, I am told, cheered when we recessed. The 13 people in attendance wore masks I’d ordered with our wedding date printed on them, sat in distanced lawn chairs and sipped gazpacho I’d blended and individually bottled that morning in a frenzy of health-safety panic.

This was not the wedding of 220 people that we had originally planned. A few months into the pandemic, we made the call to delay our big celebration until 2021. We were hardly alone. In a typical year, Americans throw 2 million weddings, according to wedding website the Knot. Last year, about 1 million couples in the U.S. postponed their nuptials, canceled them altogether or, like us, had a legal ceremony and delayed the reception. The wedding industry as a whole saw a 34% decline in revenue, according to an IBIS World report—the drop likely would have been bigger, but many couples who rescheduled their weddings had to pay to keep their venues and vendors for an extra year.

Now, as vaccines become readily available in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosens restrictions on large gatherings and Americans become increasingly bored with their empty social calendars, a glut of weddings is coming. The long-dormant wedding-party text chains have started pinging again. The wedding-planning influencers I follow on Instagram have started posting videos of guests in tuxes and gowns getting antigen tests or showing their vaccine cards. “We expect a 20% to 25% increase in weddings this year and into 2022, and we think about 47% of those 2021 weddings will be happening between July and October,” says Lauren Kay, executive editor of the Knot Worldwide (who happens to be a family friend). “We believe it’s going to be the biggest wedding year ever.”

When you combine the couples who delayed their 2020 weddings or receptions, those who had already planned to get married in 2021 and those who got engaged during the pandemic and scheduled new events, it’s unsurprising that there was a Hunger Games–esque rush for 2021 weekends. By the time my now husband and I tried to reschedule, every summer weekend and most summer weekdays were gone. The venue offered us the only remaining 2021 weekends: one in April and one in November. We chose the latter, hoping that date would give us a better chance of not postponing again. When we looked into renting heaters in case our reception had to take place outside, we found they were already hard to come by for 2021 fall and winter festivities.

Weddings have always been high-stress events. Now they’re coming at a time when every choice can feel fraught. For millions of Americans, weddings will be the first gatherings at which they will be surrounded by dozens—even hundreds—of people after a year of relative isolation. Deciding to attend likely means committing to interactions with strangers whose health status and adherence to guidelines you may not know. It could mean booking airfare and accommodations with little idea of how things will look when the big day finally arrives. While many individuals would like to tiptoe back into normality, doing what they feel comfortable within their own circles when they’re ready, weddings have no patience for such caution. They have a set date, and they need an answer: Are you coming or not?

Illustration by Peter Arkle for TIME

Like me, Kari Post got legally married last year. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer 10 days before Post’s intended wedding date, meaning she was immunocompromised in the midst of a pandemic. Post and her fiancé decided to reschedule their party for 2021 and hold a small ceremony in May 2020, with only a few friends and family members present and everyone distanced. “This sounds bad, but parts were disappointing,” she says. “My husband has pictures with his parents where they’re standing like soldiers. They’re so stiff. It sucks to get married when you can’t hug anyone. I wanted a day when we could actually celebrate and feel safe to relax.”

The couple is planning a June 2021 wedding in New Hampshire, and trying to do so in the safest way possible, starting with a clear requirement: all guests must be vaccinated. Though Post has not asked for photos of vaccine cards, she’s keeping tabs on her guests through a color-coded spreadsheet that she updates every time a friend texts her that they got their shot or posts their Band-Aid photo on social media. “I could tell you the exact date of their first and second doses,” she says. For a while she was texting friends every time their state expanded eligibility. Now she’s just hoping to impart a sense of urgency: “One of my husband’s friends just hasn’t gotten around to scheduling his yet. And I want to be like, ‘Oh my God, what are you doing? Just schedule the damn appointment.’”

She thinks most guests will comply, but across the U.S., only 61% of adults have received their first dose, and experts say the country will likely never reach herd immunity. “If there was anyone on our guest list who was offended by us asking them to be vaccinated so that they could enjoy an event where our high-risk parents would be, and they somehow felt that their freedom of choice was more important than our parents being able to be at our wedding and enjoy themselves safely, I have no interest in maintaining that friendship,” says Post. “You don’t like our rules, don’t come. Totally fine. We will rent less chairs and order less food.”

After Tamra Van Hausen and Matthew Feige, who are getting married in August in Asheville, N.C., wrote on their invitation that all adults must be vaccinated, Feige’s father, Herb Feige, let them know he was opting out of the shot and therefore the party. “I still have a lot of questions,” he says, noting that we don’t know yet how long shots will be effective and whether we’ll need boosters. “When my son insisted everyone be vaccinated, I wasn’t going to go against his word.”

His presence was so meaningful to the couple that they considered changing their rules but ultimately decided to keep the original plan in place. Feige, they agreed, would attend the outdoor ceremony but not the indoor reception. “And that hurt,” Van Hausen told me shortly after her fiancé’s initial conversation with his father. “But also I could not live with myself if someone got sick. I have grappled with the idea of making people come to a party that is all about me and risking themselves in some way. And that really freaks me out still.”

Landis Bejar, a licensed mental health counselor, says such anxiety is now common. She founded AisleTalk, a company that specializes in counseling couples as they plan their weddings, in 2018. She saw a 33% uptick in business from 2019 to 2020 and is on track to see an additional 25% bump this year, which she attributes in part to the pandemic sabotaging people’s wedding plans. Many of her patients are struggling to accept the fact that anyone who attends their wedding is consenting to some degree of risk. “There are no 100% guarantees,” she says. “Our job is to ask our clients, ‘If you put all these precautions in place, can you live with whatever uncertainty is remaining?’ We have a lot of people who identify as perfectionists, so this idea that they can’t guarantee that everyone will be perfectly safe causes a lot of guilt and anxiety.”

Herb Feige changed his mind about getting vaccinated. “I’m 80 years old, and now that the mask mandate is off, I’m not sure who is vaccinated and who is not,” he says. “I wanted to be able to protect myself.” He will be able to attend all the events at his son’s wedding. But many couples still harbor fears about their guests’ susceptibility to the virus. Several I spoke to mentioned a 55-person wedding in Maine last August that turned into a superspreader event: 177 COVID-19 cases were linked to the nuptials, and seven people died, none of whom actually attended the wedding.

Brides and grooms have been forced to become amateur public-health prognosticators. Until recently the CDC had recommended that vaccinated people continue to wear masks indoors in most settings. Then on May 13, it announced that vaccinated people could shed their masks, indoors and out, with a few exceptions, like at hospitals and airports. Some prominent epidemiologists pushed back, pointing out that it’s impossible for businesses to discern who is vaccinated and who is not. A New York Times survey of 570 epidemiologists, conducted in the two weeks before the CDC announcement, found that 81% expected Americans to need masks indoors for at least a year with people whose vaccination status they don’t know.

And state regulations for weddings are ever-changing and often inscrutable. As of publication of this piece, New York caps indoor weddings at 250 people (including vendors) and mandates 6 ft. of distancing unless the couple requires proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test from guests. California employs a tiered system based on case counts, which means a couple in one county might be able to host four times the number of guests as a couple in the next county. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser banned dancing at weddings, prompting a bride-to-be to file a lawsuit against the mayor in May. (Though that moratorium may sound like a grim rule torn from Footloose, the U.K. government has also advised against dancing at parties.)

Many questions facing those planning weddings are less about the science and regulations and more about how quickly we all get over the ick factor of partying in close proximity to other people: Will guests feel comfortable nibbling on passed hors d’oeuvres? Can you seat strangers at the same table? What if the adults are vaccinated but their young children are not? Will people really want to crowd together on a dance floor? Do you require those who are not vaccinated to wear masks? Meanwhile, unless guests talk through their every concern with the engaged couple, they must decide whether to RSVP yes with at least some questions unanswered.

Of course not every attendee brings the same degree of worry. Jamie Sanderson recalls being one of a few guests wearing a mask at a relative’s September 2020 wedding, where she says two different people asked her if she was a communist. She left before dinner. “I couldn’t do it,” she says. “It was another peak of COVID in Florida where we never really cared about COVID in the first place, apparently.”

One way for couples to skirt these issues would be to delay their weddings another year, but that’s not an option for everyone. Many brides and grooms have sunk a significant amount of money into rescheduling their events. And, as Post points out, the timing matters for those hoping to start a family. “We put off trying to conceive because I didn’t want to be nine months pregnant at our wedding or three months postpartum and leaking on my dress,” she says. “That’s hard for us because I’m 35. The narrow window became even narrower.”

Illustration by Peter Arkle for TIME

Couples have begun to express what Bejar calls “postponement fatigue,” the inability to get excited about a wedding date because of the fear they’ll have to reschedule and replan for a second, third or even fourth time. “It just feels like it could be taken away from them at any moment,” she says. Post concedes that she’ll be relieved when her wedding is over: “It’s a horrible thing to say about your wedding, but there’s so much anticipation and planning and disappointment and what-if, and eventually I feel like there’s just going to be comfort in getting to the point of, ‘It’s past. It’s done.’”

The good news for brides and grooms is there’s an end point to the decision-making. The bad news for guests—a group not mutually exclusive from the brides and grooms, especially those of a certain age who find themselves on the wedding circuit—is there may not be, at least not for a while. The flood of 2021 weddings means that many people will have to run through their cost-benefit analyses again and again. And for those who are in their loved ones’ wedding parties, as Sanderson was for the September wedding, the events multiply: bachelor and bachelorette parties, shopping for the bride’s dress, showers, envelope-stuffing parties.

Sometime in March, when the first of my friends began to get vaccinated, a friend’s maid of honor sent a group text: “Would people feel comfortable attending a May bachelorette?” I opened Instagram to investigate the other invitees. How social had they been during those months I spent secluded in my apartment interacting only with my husband? Was that girl drinking martinis maskless in a bar or her own home? It took me hours to work up the courage to say I’d really rather know that everyone was vaccinated first. It took me another several weeks to politely say I felt comfortable attending outdoor events but not indoor ones. The issue would come up again with a bridal shower, another wedding reception to be held indoors, and in trying to plan my own bachelorette party.

Those who say no to events can feel as if they failed their friends. Chris Banker decided not to attend his friend’s wedding in January because of health risks, a particularly agonizing decision considering the same friend will be the best man at Banker’s wedding in October. The wedding was in New Hampshire, so indoors was the only option at that time of year. “If I’m being completely honest, it was a long conversation that kind of went over multiple days with my fiancée and I talking about the pros and cons. Obviously we wanted to be there. But at that point, there was still a lot unknown about how this thing was kind of exploding in terms of the winter surge,” he says. “You always talk about that moment, being there for your buddy when he’s getting married. I think we made the right decision given the information we had at the time, but that day I felt awful.” His friend was extremely understanding, he says, “but it was the toughest part of the pandemic for me.”

It’s not just health concerns that may deter guests from attending wedding-related events. At a time of massive unemployment, there’s also the question of money. Sanderson’s husband lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic and spent six months without a regular source of income. When it came time to buy a bridesmaid dress for her relative’s ceremony, Sanderson had to broach an awkward topic: “I told her I’m not buying a $200 dress from David’s Bridal. I’m sorry. I love you. But we’ve drained our savings. We’ve maxed out our credit cards.”

On average, it cost $430 to attend a wedding in 2019, according to the Knot. That number jumped to $1,440 for weddings that required air travel. And Wedding Wire estimates it costs an additional $1,200 for bridesmaid dresses, groomsmen suits, bachelor and bachelorette parties, and other events if you’re in the wedding party. “I wouldn’t travel for a wedding right now,” Sanderson says. “That’s way outside of our budget because we were hit so hard for the first six months. That killed us, literally took all of our money.”

Spend any time perusing the comments on wedding sites, and you will find plenty of couples outraged at a friend who is skipping their wedding for safety reasons and many guests who consider being asked about their vaccination status rude. Bejar suggests that these people are outliers. “At least one client was able to say, ‘One of the silver linings is I have more understanding if people say they can’t come. It could be psychologically that they’re not ready. It could be medically. It could be financially,’” she says. “People have been through a lot this year, and the RSVPs might not look the way we anticipated. But there’s a lot of grace and understanding.”

After all, we’re all a little traumatized. Psychiatrists have dubbed fears of returning to normal life “re-entry anxiety,” and the American Psychological Association reports that about half of all Americans feel anxious about resuming in-person, indoor interactions. Sheehan D. Fisher, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, says that “we have been taught to avoid large groups. They signal danger. And danger provokes fear and anxiety.” He equates going from quarantine life to attending a 200-person wedding to being “thrown into the deep end of the pool.”

Fisher has been advising his patients to take small steps to overcome their fears: a meal with friends, perhaps, followed by a small group gathering. “It’s almost like minor exposure therapy,” he says. “The good thing is that humans adjust -relatively quickly. As things start opening up, people will get comfortable at the new level.”

For now we’re in limbo. Couples have tried to find creative ways to put everyone at ease. Several weddings have gone viral for offering guests red, yellow and green wristbands. Red tells other guests to keep 6 ft. of distance and masks on; yellow means an elbow bump is O.K.; green signals hugs are welcome. Bejar and Fisher note that thoughtful touches like this spare the guests the emotional strain of having to set boundaries with each new person they encounter.

And guests, Fisher says, need to exercise empathy too. “It’s helpful to think about what you want to accomplish. For a wedding, you’re there to support the couple,” he says. “What is the true value of what you are doing? That’s the carrot that will draw you toward ‘O.K., it’s worth it for me to feel some level of anxiety and try to adjust because I’m here for a larger purpose,’ rather than thinking, ‘I’m here because I have to socialize.’”

By the time I get married (again), my husband and I will have celebrated our first anniversary. Looking back at photos from our legal ceremony, I’m drawn to a black-and-white snapshot of our friends, a married couple sitting alone on a bench. They’re isolated, and the way the picture is shot, darkness is creeping in on them. They’re dressed for a formal event, masks on, staring straight at the camera. They’re surrounded by hand sanitizer, water bottles with their names printed on them, and other trinkets that will, when our children one day look at our wedding album, signal that 2020 was a strange and difficult year, but we threw a tiny party anyway.

Now, as we plan for November, I remain skeptical that we’ll be able to gather hundreds of people together. Maybe it’s my “postponement fatigue” talking, but I worry another variant will emerge that will once again make our reception an act of irresponsibility. I try to devise backup plans based on unknowable factors—whether young children will be vaccinated by then, whether it will rain that weekend, forcing us to move certain festivities inside—and I wonder if it will all be for naught. But with each passing day, I grow more optimistic. In June, I’ll attend a friend’s wedding taking place in an open tent. I’ll see one of my own bridesmaids for the first time in more than a year. I have to admit that I’m excited.

“I am hopeful, in a way, that this is the beginning of the end of the bad thing,” Post tells me, “and that it’s that chance for people to be like, O.K., life can go on. We can celebrate again. There are things to look forward to.”

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com