In the summer, my fiancé and I made a difficult but obvious call: We postponed our planned September wedding until next year, for a date we’ll probably have to change a second time. The pandemic wasn’t over, and wouldn’t be for many months. We’re inconvenienced, disappointed, even a little depressed. But we can reschedule a wedding. We can’t resurrect anyone who dies because we decided to throw a plague party. If you think your wedding should be a celebration of love and community, then COVID-19 narrows your options. You either postpone, or you go the Zoom route. Less death, more joy.
But as six wedding photographers told Texas Monthly in a wildly popular story this week, many couples are going ahead with their events, and some aren’t bothering with basic safety standards. One woman found out that the groom was positive for COVID after she’d shown up to photograph his wedding. When she decided to leave, guests and vendors alike berated her for ruining a woman’s special day. “I have children,” she complained to a bridesmaid. “What if my children die?” The bridesmaid was not sympathetic. “I understand, but this is her wedding day,” she responded. The photographer later tested positive for the virus.
The case of the COVID groom is extreme, but superspreader weddings aren’t as unusual as they should be. Donald Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, hosted a 70-person indoor wedding for his daughter in May. The Atlanta event violated local restrictions on gatherings, and in photos, masks were absent, but everyone looked fantastic, so really, what else matters? A wedding in Maine is responsible for 178 cases of COVID and at least seven deaths, CNN reported in November. After an Ohio couple went ahead with their wedding, nearly half the guests contracted COVID. The bride got sick. The groom got sick. Three of their grandparents got sick. They provided masks, the bride told the Washington Post, but people didn’t wear them. In San Francisco, a couple flouted local health orders with an assist from Saints Peter and Paul Church, which hosted almost 100 people for their wedding. Ten fell ill, including the newlyweds. Vogue magazine removed a wedding feature from its website after local health officials traced the event to a COVID outbreak on Martha’s Vineyard.
And in what may be the COVID wedding to end all COVID weddings, 23 nursing-home residents died after staff attended a 300-person wedding in Washington state. Local health officials are still investigating the link between the wedding and the deaths, but it’s already a confirmed superspreader event, responsible for dozens of cases of COVID. I have not seen pictures. Maybe the wedding was beautiful. Maybe it even seemed vital, a celebration of life amid so much death.
But illusions are flimsy by definition. We have been living with COVID-19 for around ten months, and we are familiar, collectively, with cause and effect. If you cram the people you love into an indoor space, and then add alcohol and dancing, you are hosting a feast for the virus, too. A traditional wedding isn’t worth causing an outbreak; the moral logic of a choice rarely advertises itself so clearly. Why have so many couples prioritized a party over human life?
This is difficult to answer. Social problems are not reliably monocausal, and that is what COVID weddings are: a social problem, not a mystery. I do not always understand why people do the things they do, especially in this case. Though my fiancé and I are sad we couldn’t get married this year, the wedding always felt secondary to our partnership. Neither of us grew up dreaming of our wedding days; for me, the product of a hyperconservative religious background, marriage only recently stopped feeling like a trap. We only decided to have a wedding because we wanted to see our friends and family in one place. If the point of a wedding is to celebrate community, why risk killing someone off? Canceling caused a pang, but only for a moment. The choice was too obvious to cause us much grief.
But with effort, I can imagine why someone would feel differently about the whole affair. Maybe love makes people do dumb things, or maybe the line between love and self-obsession isn’t as clear as we’d like to believe. And there are other factors to consider. Misinformation about the virus proliferates. In some areas of the U.S., wearing a mask is a partisan choice. Nor can we ignore the influence of rigid gender roles. Even in our post–Lean In utopia, women learn as little children that their heterosexual wedding day is the most important event that will ever happen to them. An entire industry exists simply to reinforce this lesson, which is why the experience of being an American bride is so thoroughly undignified. Someone is always trying to sell me something for my special, special day, and the products are, nearly without exception, horrible. If the algorithm ever shows me another ad for underwear that says “bride” in curly font on the ass I will reach inside my laptop and strangle it. Grooms aren’t entirely free from suffering, either. Families have expectations, they want grandchildren, the surname to continue. If you’re religious, the pressure is even greater: If I still believed God would punish me for premarital sex, I’d probably feel a bit more desperate to wed. Out of this abyss rises the wedding-industrial complex, and it is a ravenous beast.
But what produced the wedding industry in the first place? The same thing, maybe, that convinces a couple to have a big wedding in the middle of a pandemic. Combine social pressure with pathological consumerism, and the results are toxic. American culture accommodates death. We endure shooting after shooting because enough people with money and power decided that mass homicides are the price we must pay for our Second Amendment rights. The Trump presidency itself was a four-year-long experiment in expanding the public’s tolerance for death — in migrant detention facilities, in the nation’s execution chambers, and eventually in our own neighborhoods, as COVID claimed the people we loved.
Call the weddings stupid, or selfish, if you want. I can’t argue with either characterization. But they aren’t aberrant. There’s nothing more American than a gaudy, expensive party that kills people. The very stories America tells about itself encourage us all to be selfish, to shift the costs of our actions onto others. Take the land you want from whoever was living in it; that’s Manifest Destiny. Invade that country or this one; that’s how we spread democracy. If you have workers, steal their wages; that’s entrepreneurship. We have been stacking up the bodies for centuries. Why should anyone care now? After all, it’s someone’s wedding day.