The uninvited guest
I have been following, with some interest and horrified fascination, stories of coronavirus “superspreader” weddings in the United States, a country now famous for divided views and practices on mitigating COVID-19 cases. A couple who got married in October with 83 guests present led to at least 177 confirmed novel coronavirus cases with seven deaths. Another reception in Washington hosted a whopping 300 guests and led to several positive cases; another wedding in Long Island with 91 guests led directly to 30 positives. The weddings, news outlets say, were skating on thin ice by allowing a large number of guests, seats in close proximity, and loose guidelines on donning of masks. We’re able to get these numbers of positives only because of serious efforts at contact tracing across states and counties. The consequences have been dire: some towns which were previously free of the coronavirus are now under quarantine or curfew. Vulnerable persons who didn’t even attend the wedding caught the disease, like an elderly couple who happened to be in contact with a guest of the Maine wedding, and came down with COVID-19. Only one of the pair survived.
To be a bride or a groom during the pandemic can be a bewildering and frightening experience. I wrote here about the stress and cost of wedding preparations in mid-February, and since then, with the advent of lockdown, the wedding and events industry has taken huge blows before slowly trying to rebuild itself. Now the wedding planning scene we’re moving around in is an entirely different beast. Industry giants used to catering to million-peso weddings have had to scale things down. The wedding gown aesthetic has changed too, with many now favoring simple affairs like tea dresses and pantsuits. Smaller aspects of wedding preparation I had once worried about, including lush cardstock for invitations and elaborate animated monograms, now seem like overkill in the face of toned-down, intimate receptions. Bride and groom entourages and guest lists are being whittled down to the bare minimum.
I haven’t heard of a superspreader event among the wedding ceremonies and receptions held by friends and fellow couples during the pandemic. It’s possible that Filipinos, who have been shown by surveys to be more convinced about the importance of wearing masks and face shields compared to, say, the United States, may have been displaying better mask-wearing and sanitation behaviors. Moreover, Filipinos are still fairly conscious of the limited number of guests: surely any local couple would think twice about the backlash before holding a wedding of 300 guests, like the Washington affair. The other possibility is that these gatherings may have spread the coronavirus, but we haven’t been equipped with the resources to track and report their spread well.
Nonetheless, the now infamous US superspreader weddings should be a cautionary tale for us, too—not just for intimate weddings but for activities before and during the holidays. As it is, strict social-distancing protocols and lockdown, once the source of so much worry and hand-wringing, seem to be a thing of the past. People have started dining out and going to malls more often. A peek into the trains on weekday mornings will clearly show that one-seat-apart protocols have been thrown out the window.
Now the holidays are around the corner, and with it December, which is a peak month for weddings in the Philippines. Last weekend, photos of shoppers and vendors in Divisoria went viral, with Filipinos starting their holiday shopping early amid a lack of social distancing and poor ventilation. Earlier this month, researchers have already predicted an increase of coronavirus cases over the holidays, with Filipinos crowding malls, discreetly holding Christmas and wedding parties, and heading home to the provinces. While Filipinos can’t be blamed for falling victim to pandemic fatigue and striving to uphold traditions under new-normal protocols, the superspreader weddings should be reminding us that it takes only one event for catastrophe to unfold. Dr. Nirav Shah of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention put it succinctly: “What we have learned about COVID-19 is that it can be the uninvited guest at every single wedding, party or event.”
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