A few days before her July wedding, a bride-to-be came down with COVID. The telltale positive test showed up in a routine screening at work. She hadn’t even felt sick.
“We have saved for years and years to have our wedding,” she wrote in an online forum, according to Newsweek. With a steep price tag, no help from the insurance provider, and a nearly 200-person guest list, the U.K.-based bride had to make a call: Bail and forgo a dream wedding she’d saved for years to have, or show up and potentially infect her friends and loved ones. She decided to go ahead with the original plan. It was July 2022, after all.
While this story is a little bit extreme, you may well have heard others like it: The employee who shows up at work before isolation is over, the small gathering that continues despite a few sick guests, the person who gets on a plane after a positive test. This has been happening in certain pockets of the U.S. for months (years?) now, but it seems increasingly common everywhere else, too.
And here’s the thing: No expert will tell you that fudging COVID isolation is OK. Scientists are still figuring out the long-term effects of an infection on the body. Even as many have moved on, people are still dying—at a recent daily average of 435.7 in the U.S., according to the New York Times. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends isolating after a positive test for at least five days—a compromise that is still garnering criticism for being too short.
The bride was in the wrong, public health-wise. But the calculation is more complicated than that.
Earlier in the pandemic, having a wedding was a very big risk. A Maine wedding led to at least seven deaths; so did a celebration in Washington State. A story in Texas Monthly led with an anecdote about a groom showing up positive to his ceremony, before Pfizer and Moderna had seen FDA approval. (It was met with plenty of outrage: Truly—how could he?) Today, thanks to vaccines and antivirals, we’re less likely to see super-spreader events that kill people. “At this point in the pandemic, we have to accept that infections will keep occurring,” Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor, wrote in the Washington Post following the Gridiron Club dinner in April, after which dozens of attendees reported COVID infections. (She garnered a lot of criticism for this statement, including in these pages.) If you’re attending even a medium-sized event, chances are, someone will have COVID—according to the Georgia Institute of Technology’s risk calculator, if there are 50 attendees at a party in New York City, the likelihood of one of them bringing an infection is 65 percent.
Still, attending a large event knowing that there could be someone there who is COVID positive is different than knowingly showing up while infected. For one thing, that’s one of the points of testing—to bring the chances of a COVID-positive attendee way, way down. But that’s assuming the sick person will stay home. Of attending one’s own wedding while positive, “I think it’s moderately unethical,” says Robert Wachter, the chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, of her choice.* (In this case, the bride-to-be may have lucked out: she reported on the forum testing negative before the day-of.) He added that in this assessment, it matters what steps the wedding hosts take to ensure guests are safe and informed, like alerting them of the positive test and holding the festivities outside, masked, and distanced. Honestly, a “responsible” COVID-positive wedding just does not sound very fun, even if it could, in some specific situations, be a workable compromise.
But we have to acknowledge that the price of completely avoiding risk can be high, even unreachable. Cancelation insurance purchased after the start of the pandemic generally won’t cover COVID. “I usually request clients to go into soft isolation before the event,” one wedding planner told Brides; a couple of other wedding experts I spoke to echoed this advice. But that request is impossible if you need to show up for work in person or generally have responsibilities that require your bubble to be permeable. It’s made all the more challenging as variants become more transmissible and mask mandates drop. Amy Shack Egan, who runs a wedding planning company Modern Rebel, told me that while couples may be able to negotiate a little bit with vendors in the event of a COVID cancelation, those vendors are themselves small businesses that may not be able to take a hit on already-prepared flowers and cake. The only thing to do, says Shack, is accept that cancelation “could be a reality, and go ahead and swallow the pill now.”
Things didn’t have to be this way. I keep thinking back to a Slate piece titled “Pay Americans to Wear Masks” that Gregg Gonsalves and Joshua Barocas wrote back in November 2020, a time when they admitted that even as experts they found keeping up with public health practices “frankly, depressing.” The public needed more support than it was getting, they said: “People need comprehensive health programs, like paid sick leave.” (Incidentally, the U.K.’s National Health Service ended special COVID leave for employees just this month). Even if we’re never going to live in a world in which brides who canceled weddings due to COVID got a stipend from the government for rescheduling, it feels at least possible that consumer demand could eventually push venues and vendors into creating some kind of COVID insurance.
In one sector, this frictionless reworking did happen, if briefly: Through July 2021, airlines waived change fees on flights, which had previously been $200. This is no longer the case—airlines now offer a refundable ticket option, for about $50 on top of the lowest price tier. It’s better than before, but “at the end of the day it’s a for-profit business,” says Zach Griff, a senior aviation reporter at the Points Guy. “They’re not willing to give that up just for good will.”
It’s not as dramatic as testing positive before your wedding, but testing positive while on vacation, before your return flight, is an increasingly common experience. Wachter and his wife found themselves in this situation while traveling in Palm Springs. His wife came down with COVID. “We chose to do something that was really hard and expensive—that was renting a car and driving nine hours with the windows down.” The other option in this scenario (the only option, if you are an ocean away) is to pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars to stay put for your sickness. On Twitter, Wachter polled his followers and found that many people said they would have just gotten on the plane while wearing a well-fitting mask. The CDC’s absurd solution to this is “private or medical transport,” which by air can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s not just easier to get on the plane—it might not be at all financially realistic to do anything but that.
There is a cost to spreading COVID—but there is also a cost to always, always perfectly isolating while sick with the virus, no matter the circumstance, particularly if you can now be infected multiple times a year. Sure, individual actions can in the long term be remade a bit by the pandemic: Gabriella Rello, the editorial director of Brides, told me that she sees the trend to smaller, less COVID-prone weddings continuing. I will probably start springing for the changeable airline tickets.
But a hard line on following public health rules is in the long-run untenable, if it ever was. Flexibility can allow people to gather information, and then reduce their risk to those around them. You can imagine someone choosing simply not to test before a flight to avoid dealing with the outcome—or, you can imagine them planning to test, and then, should the result be positive, being extremely stringent about wearing an N95. In the case of a COVID-positive bride, at least knowing that’s what’s happening could let guests make their own risk calculations surrounding the wedding (though, yes, people working the event may not have a choice). We are sliding into a world where COVID protocols and norms are becoming increasingly lax. Especially when it comes to protecting people who are high-risk for medical complications, encouraging a world with both more testing and more honesty could actually help keep everyone safer.
When I asked Karen Jacobson, an infectious disease researcher at Boston University School of Medicine, when we would stop needing to isolate for COVID, she responded by essentially noting that the answer might be “never.” “There are a number of diseases where we do try to break the chains of transmission,” she said. The advice if you have, say, the flu is to stay at home: The CDC recommends 4-5 days, or at least 24 hours after your fever is gone—and no cheating with a Ibuprofen— whichever comes second. The thing is? Very few people do this. And I especially wouldn’t expect a bride to.
Correction, July 21, 2022: This article originally misstated that Robert Wachter is the chair of UC–San Francisco. He is the chair of the university’s medical department.