The wedding photographer had already spent an hour or two inside with the unmasked wedding party when one of the bridesmaids approached her. The woman thanked her for still showing up, considering “everything that’s going on with the groom.”
When the photographer asked what she meant by that, the bridesmaid said the groom had tested positive for the coronavirus the day before. “She was looking for me to be like, ‘Oh, that’s crazy,’ like I was going to agree with her that it was fine,” the photographer recalls. “So I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And she was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, don’t freak out. He doesn’t have symptoms. He’s fine.’ ”
The photographer, who has asthma and three kids, left with her assistant before the night was over. Her exit was tense. The wedding planner said it was the most unprofessional thing she’d ever seen. Bridesmaids accused her of heartlessly ruining an innocent woman’s wedding day. She recalls one bridesmaid telling her, “I’m a teacher. I have fourteen students. If I’m willing to risk it, why aren’t you?” Another said everyone was going to get COVID eventually, so what was the big deal? The friend of the bride who’d spilled the beans cried about being the “worst bridesmaid ever.”
After the photographer left, she canceled her Thanksgiving plans with family, sent her kids to relatives’ houses so they wouldn’t get sick, and informed the brides of her upcoming weddings that she’d be subcontracting to other shooters. A few days later she started to feel sick and, sure enough, tested positive for the coronavirus. She informed the couple. “But they didn’t care,” she says. They didn’t offer to compensate her for the test, nor did they apologize for getting her sick.
Weddings are complicated events, and reorganizing them, as many have in the face of COVID-19, is no simple task. Couples must take into account the schedules of the venue, the caterers, the bartenders, the DJ, the florist, the photographer, and often many more cogs in the wedding machine, all of whom are coordinating schedules with a dozen other couples trying to plan what should be the best day of their lives in what is likely the worst year of their lives. And rescheduling a wedding is not just a logistical nightmare: deposits are at stake.
The question of whether to reschedule is also an emotional one for many couples. “Postponing a party is one thing,” another photographer told me. “Postponing getting married is another.” Maybe that’s why so many couples are moving forward with their plans, telling themselves that it will be fine; if other people are doing it, why not them?
Many couples have rescheduled and/or significantly downsized their guest lists. They made adjustments when Greg Abbott said wedding venues could hold events only at 50 percent capacity (now 75 percent). But in many cases, that just meant that what was once a 500-person wedding became a 250-person wedding. And even at much smaller weddings, precautions quickly fell by the wayside.
One quick spin around the frenzied dance floor that is the Instagram hashtag #texaswedding reveals hundreds of posts from recent nuptials from across the state. In these photographs, there are usually neither masks nor Purell pumps, nor any other visual indication that the celebrations are taking place amid a global pandemic. Some events do seem safer than others—they take place outside, and they’re small—but it doesn’t take long to find a carousel of images of a wedding with a two-dozen-person bridal party and a bustling (and maskless) indoor reception.
Wedding photographers find themselves in a tight spot. They need to shoot weddings in order to make a living, but that means consistently spending time in large groups. Six photographers I spoke with said they carry hand sanitizer and wear masks when they’re working, and some even double up with face shields. But because they’re serving a couple on their special day, once they’re at the wedding, photographers can’t do much, if anything, to enforce any pandemic guidelines.
“I think most people’s intentions are good,” said one photographer, who, like most who shared their stories, asked to be anonymous because she didn’t want to risk losing more work than she already has this year. “It’s just when you get a group of people together with alcohol and socializing, at a certain point, everyone just kind of lets loose, and it gets a little dicey.” She recalls one event when the groom approached her at the end of the night, shouting his gratitude over the sounds of the DJ. “He was excited and happy and saying thank you,” she told me, “and I just felt spit land on my face.”
Photographers’ experiences shooting weddings during the pandemic have run the gamut. Several photographers described couples who were cautious, respectful, and understanding. But many were not. “I would say about fifty percent of the weddings I’ve shot, there’s been no masks at all. It’s like we’re living in the pre-COVID parallel universe,” one photographer told me. “I’ve been in hotel ballrooms inside, and it’s been packed like sardines, and everyone’s having a great time. No one’s wearing masks. I’m there as the photographer documenting the reception, and there’s sweat flying, and it’s hot, and the music’s blaring, and the fan’s on, and I’m just like, ‘Well, the odds are that one of every ten people here have COVID and don’t realize it.’ ”
One now-disillusioned photographer shot a wedding in South Texas with roughly a hundred guests, including one who told one of her co-shooters, “Oh, you don’t have to wear a mask. You don’t have to worry. None of us have the ’rona.” During the reception, hundreds of guests lined up for a non-COVID-compliant group dance. The guests, old and young, arranged themselves for a traditional grand march, and the photographer was horrified to see “tunnels of people running through with each other, high-fiving, and yelling at each other and touching.” The photographers and catering staff, she says, were the only attendees who seemed to be taking precautions. “Not even the bartenders were masked,” she told me.
Another photographer, also sounding a bit incredulous, described a wedding where at least six out of the fourteen or so people in the bridal party ended up testing positive. “I’m pretty certain there were people in the wedding party who just didn’t get tested because they didn’t feel any symptoms,” he said.
He added that not all of the weddings he’s attended have been reckless, such as one over the summer where at least half the guests had masks on for both the ceremony and reception. (I suppose it’s too much to ask that all the guests mask up?) He was one of the more upbeat and forgiving photographers I spoke to. But even he was shocked by what he’d seen. At plenty of weddings, he said, guests in their eighties and nineties walk around maskless. “I saw a guy with an oxygen machine. He was carrying around an oxygen machine to breathe, but he didn’t have a mask on.”
The photographer who got sick after shooting the COVID-positive groom said her experiences throughout the pandemic have left her a little depressed. She recalled one conversation from that wedding, before she left the reception. “I have children,” she told a bridesmaid. “What if my children die?” The bridesmaid responded, “I understand, but this is her wedding day.”
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