The unholy union of wedding receptions and the coronavirus has public health officers pleading with Americans to say "I don't" to pandemic nuptials.
Between the Pacific Northwest and the forests of Maine, all across the country, joyous expressions of love have become Covid-19 superspreaders, fueling the fall season's deadly coronavirus spike.
"Weddings are so dangerous in this day and age. Quite honestly you're just asking for trouble," said Ali H. Mokdad, chief strategy officer for Population Health at the University of Washington.
- In Millinocket, Maine, a wedding Aug. 7 at the Big Moose Inn has led to the infections of at least 177 people and seven deaths.
The general manager of a resort in Virginia said last month that 20 staff members were forced to quarantine after some tested positive after a wedding at the resort.
- A wedding with 83 guests in Cincinnati on Oct. 7 led to 32 guests' getting infected, not to mention people the guests might have contacted outside the event.
- More than four dozen people in eastern Washington were sickened in an outbreak traced to a Nov. 7 wedding in Ritzville, Washington, which included more than 300 guests.
"This is the perfect example of what we don't want to see," said Karen Potts, director of the Adams County Health Department in eastern Washington. "It's just a real risk right now."
While restaurants across America are open with limited indoor dining, weddings present a specific risk because guests mingle with their fellow revelers — unlike in typical restaurants, where customers interact within only their own small parties.
"Weddings are very dangerous at this time, especially as the infection rate is higher and weddings now are happening indoors and not outdoors," Mokdad said.
"And you hug your friend, you hug your family members, you do that. In many cultures, we kiss. We kiss each other. You come close to them, especially people you haven't seen in a long time. You want to catch up. You're laughing, you're joking and, yes, you're spreading the virus more than ever."
The threat posed by pandemic weddings is only made possible by basic human psychology — believing that contact with loved ones can't possibly be harmful.
"Many people don't believe that you can actually catch it from your family and friends. They feel safe when they are around people that they know," Potts said. "And I think that's why this sort of event happens. People just feel safe, and they go to the event, and it just spreads so rapidly."
The false sense of security in the tightly knit communities near Ritzville, about an hour from Spokane, opened the door for a wedding that was the source of at least eight Covid-19 cases in Adams County and 40-plus more in neighboring Grant County, officials said.
"Especially in a rural area, people think, 'Who's going to know?' And they're not going to get caught. And if people hadn't started getting sick, they probably would not have," Potts told NBC News Now. "The consequences are huge."
The threat of staging a superspreader event hasn't deterred all couples from going forward with their big day this fall.
Lucas and Kathryn Young got hitched in September in Mercer, Pennsylvania, with guests wearing color-coded wristbands showing how comfortable they were with socializing.
"It was easy to tell who would be comfortable with you coming up to them and who was like, 'Oh I'm more hesitant toward that,'" Kathryn Young said.
Michael Masi, a wedding planner in Miami, is still going forward with ceremonies for clients, insisting that the business is following local and state guidelines and doing what's "responsible and safe."
He and his wife, Jessica Masi, who jointly run Masi Events, said they're urging lovebirds to stage dramatically smaller ceremonies now and then blowout bashes later, when the pandemic is finally under wraps.
"And what we find interesting is a lot of them have made the choice to still move forward with their original wedding day," Michael Masi said. "But they've done so in a responsible manner and moved to a 'micro wedding' now, with 16, 20 or less of their most intimate friends and family, and then still having their big celebration next year where they can celebrate with everybody for their one-year anniversary."
But even get-togethers just above Masi's "micro wedding" standard have proven to be disastrous.
The Maine wedding superspreader event had a mere 55 guests, yet it became so notorious that it warranted a report to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and could lead to a flurry of lawsuits.
Loved ones of Mary Hughgill, 82, who died at a nursing home from a Covid-19 infection traced to the wedding, have already hired a lawyer who has filed notice of a possible civil action against the elder care facility.
"For months now, you couldn't turn on the TV, read a newspaper or scroll through social media without hearing about these safety precautions," said the estate's attorney, Timothy Kenlan. "Sometimes individuals and businesses make bad decisions."
It's believed Hughgill was infected by an employee at Maplecrest Rehabilitation and Living Center in Madison after the worker came in contact with a wedding guest.
"These were people [wedding organizers and guests] not taking it seriously in the middle of a pandemic," Kenlan said. "That's a relatively small subset, a small subset of people not taking it as seriously as they should, and it led to tragic results."
CORRECTION (Nov. 22, 2020, 8:40 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated that a Virginia nursing home reported at least 16 cases of the coronavirus linked to a wedding near Richmond last month. Officials did not say the outbreak was related to a wedding; they said they were also investigating a separate outbreak related to a wedding. The article also misstated the name of the government's primary health agency. It is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not the Centers for Disease Control.