Weddings in the Age of COVID

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Peter Silvia Photography

Bars, buffets and dancing are out. But weddings can still proceed if you follow some precautions.

By Paula M. Bodah / Newport Wedding 2021

If things had gone as planned, Mackenzie Robb and Ryan Stanley would have gotten married in August 2020 at the Chanler at Cliff Walk. With the ocean as a backdrop, the couple would have said “I do” in front of 220 happy guests.

COVID-19 has kept pretty much everything from going according to plan, however, and like so many other couples, Robb and Stanley had to rethink their nuptials. As it turns out, the two became husband and wife on schedule after all, but the oceanfront hotel was swapped out for a summer house on New York’s Lake George. And instead of friends and family from far and wide, the party maxed out at 11 people, including the bride and groom.

“At the time, it felt like such a disappointing decision to make,” the new Mrs. Stanley says. “But with all that’s going on now, it’s such a relief. We wanted to go ahead and take this next step in our relationship.”

The virus has stopped all manner of celebrations, from birthdays to graduations to retirement parties. But the idea of not being able to gather longtime friends and extended family to witness a couple’s pledge of love seems especially poignant. Still, people will fall in love and want to get married, pandemic or not. Love may not actually conquer all, but it can rise above social distance rules, mask mandates and limits on crowd size.

Katie McLoughlin, a wedding planner with the Newport firm Leila Ryan Events, says of the 26 weddings she had on the books for 2020, several have been canceled altogether and most have been postponed to 2021. Among her clients were the Stanleys, who now plan to throw the party they dreamed of (including a repeat of the ceremony) at the Chanler in July 2021.

Newly engaged couples hoping for a big Newport wedding complete with a cocktail hour and dancing should be prepared to wait, largely because so many people who originally planned to marry in 2020 have postponed to 2021, locking up a lot of the year’s weekends already.

According to Katie Wilkinson, resident co-manager of Portsmouth’s Glen Manor, “We’ve had more than 65 couples move to next year. Right now, for my season — the end of April through the beginning of November — every Friday, Saturday and Sunday is booked for 2021.”

With attendance limited, consider live-streaming your event, like Emily and Kenneth Larson did. Penny Souza Photography

A little creative thinking can make a difference, though, Wilkinson says. How about a weeknight wedding with a small-but-elegant sit-down dinner? Under the state of Rhode Island’s Phase III reopening regulations, an indoor venue can have up to 50 people if a licensed caterer is providing the food, or if, as in the case of a restaurant or hotel, the venue itself provides the food. To check on the current regulations, go to

Whatever venue you choose, be aware that it has to follow social distancing guidelines, meaning that there must be at least 8 feet between tables. That could further limit the number of guests you include. (Venue or catering staff doesn’t count in the 50-person limit.)

Outdoor weddings or those under a tent with open sides may accommodate up to 100 people. But in no case — even your own backyard — can a wedding include a bar that guests can walk up to. Also a thing of the past, at least for now, is the cocktail hour where guests can mingle. Beverages must be served to people after they’ve been seated, by waitstaff.

When it comes to food, forget tasting stations, passed hors d’oeuvres, buffets or dessert tables. All food has to be delivered to each guest by waitstaff.

At present, dancing the night away is also no longer an option, although that doesn’t mean you have to skip the entertainment entirely. A small jazz or classical music trio, or a sound system playing a selection of standards, can keep the atmosphere festive. Current state regulations allow a couple to have a first dance, as well as the traditional mother/son and father/daughter dance, as long as each twosome is alone on the dance floor.

A photographer or videographer is welcome, but they and wedding guests need to observe the 6-foot social distancing requirements. And state regulations say that everyone should wear masks unless they’re eating, drinking or being photographed.

One area where restraint isn’t necessary: flowers. “We have found that because weddings are smaller, brides can expand their budgets a bit when it comes to the flowers,” says David Urban of the Secret Garden in Jamestown.

Of course, before the big party you need a ceremony, and that — like everything else these days — comes with its own set of rules. Churches are currently allowed to hold 66 percent of their capacity for services of any kind, including weddings. The Rev. Kris von Maluski, pastor at Newport’s iconic St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy tied the knot back in 1953, notes that although his church can seat as many as 700, social distancing requirements reduce that capacity to about 100 people. At St. Mark Church in Jamestown, the Rev. Douglas Grant tells engaged couples the church can accommodate 70 to 80 people, instead of the usual 500. Masks and social distancing will be part of the ceremony for the foreseeable future, both men say. “It’s a very different feel and look,” says von Maluski.

For the time being, smaller weddings may become the norm.
Brooke Brady Photography. Flowers by Young Designs

Grant says that he, the bride and groom, and the wedding party can remain maskless. “I would ordinarily walk right up to the couple, but I keep my distance so I don’t have to wear a mask,” he says. The maid of honor and best man must observe the 6-foot rule too, he says, and guests are required to wear masks throughout the ceremony.

Churches follow the same sanitizing rules as any other public venue, both priests say. Following any service, including a wedding, pews and any touch points are thoroughly disinfected. The Rev. Andrew Simon of St. James Lutheran Church in Barrington says he has yet to hold an in-church wedding during the pandemic. “However,” he says, “I had five weddings scheduled over the summer with couples at venues throughout the state. Two of those couples opted to continue with their original date, but scaled the ceremony back to around 15 people or less. The remaining couples have rescheduled their weddings for 2021.”

Among those couples are Mackenzie and Ryan Stanley, who are pleased that Simon and all the vendors they enlisted for their wedding have agreed to make themselves available for the couple’s 2021 re-do. Wedding planner McLoughlin says she has found vendors to be flexible and accommodating, and she advises couples to ask any vendors how they will respond if the pandemic continues and the wedding has to be postponed or canceled.

The pre-wedding makeup and hair session has become a standard part of the festivities, but Allison Barbera, of Allison Barbera Beauty, says that’s one more thing that — at least for the time being — has changed. “We used to make up everyone in the same room,” she says. “Now we can’t do that.” She and her staff set up in a different room; the members of the wedding party come in one by one and makeup artists and stylists wear safety goggles and masks.

Until this pandemic is over, the pull-out-all-the-stops wedding is being replaced by a quieter, more intimate experience that many couples are embracing. “We secretly wanted to elope in the first place,” confesses Annie Patterson of Pawtucket. She and her new husband, Danny Ike, planned to marry at Boston’s Arnold Arboretum with lots of family and friends as witnesses. They weren’t willing to let COVID-19 interfere with their plan to spend their lives together, so eloping to Newport was Plan B.

Ike’s mother, a Newport resident, enlisted former Newport mayor Steve Waluk to act as officiant. “We actually went on the grounds of a really nice hotel that was closed and had the ceremony on their lawn,” Patterson says. The group of six — bride and groom, officiant, mother of the groom, and two friends who acted as witnesses — went to Stoneacre Brasserie for dinner, then the new couple spent the weekend at the Inn at Castle Hill.

“Everyone wants the experience of being a bride and professing your love in front of everyone,” Patterson says. “But at the end of the day it was harmonious and peaceful and romantic and all the things a wedding should be.”

If COVID-19 has an upside where love is concerned, it may be that couples are acknowledging that marriage, not the wedding, is actually the point.

Guests must wear masks except when eating, drinking or being photographed.
Peter Silvia Photography

Frequently Asked Questions

These are Phase III reopening regulations. While some of these rules may change in Phase IV, it’s best to check for current guidelines.

How many guests can I have at my reception?
Indoors: 15, or 50 with licensed catering
Outdoors: 15, or 100 with licensed catering
(If the professional venue is providing the food, it counts as licensed catering.)

Is the staff included in the number of attendees?
Staff (e.g. event planners and servers) are excluded from the event size limits.

Are masks required?
Masks should be worn at all times, except when eating, drinking, or being photographed.

Can I have a receiving line?
Receiving lines and other traditions that involve congregating of guests should be avoided.

Is dancing allowed?
Dancing is not permitted, except for the wedding couple’s first dance, or a mother/son or father/daughter “performance.” In those cases, only the couple dancing is permitted on the dance floor; all others must remain seated.

Is a cocktail hour or walk-up bar permitted?
Walk-up bar service is not allowed under any circumstances. Drinks must be delivered by waitstaff to guests seated at their assigned tables. You can also place buckets of canned or bottled soda, beer or water on each table, or wine or cocktails in lidded containers, as long as they’re not shared with other tables.

Are passed hors d’oeuvres, or hors d’oeuvre or dessert tables permitted?
No. All food (including wedding cake) must be served to seated guests by the waitstaff.

What are the rules regarding table seating?
No more than eight guests are allowed at a single table; guests should be seated by household whenever practicable.

Can I have a buffet-style dinner if the event staff serves the food from the buffet?
Guests may not serve themselves unless the food is prepackaged, wrapped, or in some way protected. Otherwise, all food must be delivered by waitstaff to guests seated at their assigned tables. Family-style dining (e.g. bread baskets, shared salads, etc.) is not allowed unless the table members are all from the same household or the food items are individually wrapped.

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