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With capacity restrictions loosening, couples hope for larger weddings. But they'll have to navigate tricky vaccination questions first.

Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Dating Advice

CHICAGO — When Nicole Bowles and Hosein Heidari sent out invitations to their August wedding, postponed by a year from the original date, Bowles couldn’t stand the thought of trimming the guest list to fewer than 50 people.

So Bowles, 33, of Albany Park, sent invitations to the full 120-person group and hoped Chicago’s COVID-19 capacity restrictions would ease. Those hopes got a boost Thursday when the city announced it would no longer count vaccinated people against the limits.

She plans to talk to family and friends about their vaccination status closer to the event, but many have already let her know they got their shots, she said.

“I feel like my doubts are slowly creeping away,” she said. “I’m crossing my fingers we don’t move backward.”

This year’s weddings will still look different, but progress on the vaccine rollout and Chicago’s move to loosen restrictions offer a path to weddings that would have been off limits last year, when couples who didn’t postpone stuck to microweddings, minimonies and elopements.

Capacity limits on social events like weddings in Chicago now match the rest of the state: Weddings are limited to half the venue’s capacity, with no more than 50 people indoors or 100 outdoors, but fully vaccinated guests two weeks past their final dose do not count against those limits. Once the state and city move to the bridge phase, up to 250 people will be allowed indoors and 500 outdoors.

On Thursday, city officials predicted that could happen in two weeks if COVID-19 metrics continue improving. In the meantime, the exemption for vaccinated guests gives those hoping for big celebrations a strong incentive to start quizzing friends and family about whether they’ve gotten a shot.

The exemption went into effect Thursday. At Walden, an event venue with wedding planning services in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, partner and sales director Maria Erickson said she only wished the city gave more notice.

One couple with a wedding in the coming days is considering inviting a few more guests and checking who has been vaccinated, while another is sticking with the current list. Both weddings will be significantly smaller than originally planned, but “they are focusing on the marriage and celebrating with their nearest and dearest,” Erickson said in an email.

Couples in the suburbs, where the exemption went into effect earlier, have already started adding a question to their RSVP cards asking whether guests planned to be vaccinated, said Alexis Alvarez, CEO of Lillian Rose Events. She advises including a “prefer not to answer” option and asks guests to provide copies of their vaccine cards in advance so she can bring a binder with their records to the wedding in case the health department shows up.

At events taking advantage of the vaccine exemption, the city’s guidelines say event organizers are responsible for maintaining records of vaccinated guests’ names, the date of their final dose and declaration that they are fully vaccinated.

Requiring vaccines, rather than simply asking guests to share their status, is a trickier question.

Wedding planners said most of their clients are not requiring vaccines, though some are encouraging it. A client at Second City Stationery is sending notes with the invitations asking those who would not be vaccinated by the wedding to quarantine ahead of time or test negative for the virus, said owner Savannah Whitlock.

Clarisa Czekajlo, 28, of Madison, Wisconsin, who tried on dresses Friday at Bella Bianca Bridal Couture in Chicago, said she didn’t want to make vaccinations mandatory. “I think that’s a personal choice,” she said.

Czekajlo and her fiance Tony Paccello, 31, who got engaged in 2019, are waiting until next summer to get married, near Paccello’s family in Colorado. Czekajlo is a perfusionist, operating heart-lung machines during surgery, and worked in a COVID-19 unit.

“Being in thick of it made me a little more apprehensive and cautious, would we be ready in 2021?” she said.

Taryn Goodge, 27, of Park Ridge, said knowing her friend’s September wedding will be vaccine-mandatory made her feel more confident about attending despite not yet knowing details about the event, like how many people will attend.

“I’m low risk and vaccinated, but I don’t 100% know I can’t transmit it to anyone else,” she said.

The changes come ahead of what is shaping up to be an unusually busy wedding season. Some couples with May and June weddings pushed back or canceled their celebrations thinking the 50-person limit would remain in effect, especially those who already held small ceremonies last year, said Susan Cordogan, owner of Big City Bride.

But many are moving ahead with weddings planned later this summer and fall. Of couples who had a wedding date set in 2020, 32% had the ceremony in 2020 but pushed the reception to a later date and 15% postponed entirely, according to a survey by wedding planning website The Knot in February. Meanwhile, many couples who got engaged during the pandemic set dates in 2021.

 

Jordan Cloch, 27, and Taylor Hoch, 28, toured Walden Thursday, just a couple weeks after getting engaged. They don’t plan to get married until the fall of 2022 but figured there would be competition for dates from pandemic-delayed weddings.

“We wanted to get started right away,” said Hoch, of the West Loop. .

Companies in the wedding industry said couples seemed optimistic about larger events even before Chicago announced the new rules.

Natalie Bauer, who co-owns Bella Bianca Bridal Couture, with locations in Chicago and Oakbrook Terrace, and a Bella Bridesmaids store, said she’s seeing groups with eight or nine bridesmaids.

At ECBG Cake Studio, in Edgewater Glen, owner Erin Martin said people planning fall weddings have started requesting four- and five-tier cakes, after a year when most wanted only one or two.

Stationery shops and planners, meanwhile, say many couples are ordering invitations for everyone they hope can attend and sending them out in phases.

“It’s kind of like the Hunger Games … if someone declines, you invite the next person on the list,” Alvarez said.

Even if weddings can be larger, planners and couples are still coming up with creative solutions to navigate restrictions that can change at any moment. Wedding planners said they encourage couples to share plenty of information about how they’re handling COVID-19 precautions on invitation inserts and frequently updated wedding websites.

That helps people who are still being cautious decide whether they’re comfortable attending and warns those who may be more cavalier about masking and social distancing what to expect, said Lauren Kay, executive editor at The Knot.

Couples are also considering hiring a person at the venue to help monitor masking and distancing so the couple doesn’t feel pressured to confront friends and family, she said.

Whether couples consider extra precautions, like conducting rapid COVID-19 tests at the wedding, will likely depend on whether the event is indoors or outdoors, how large the group is, or whether attendees have health conditions that make COVID-19 particularly risky, Kay said.

Cordogan, at Big City Brides, has had a handful of clients hire testing companies.

Others have offered guests wristbands signaling their preferred degree of social distancing: one color for those happy to hug, another for elbow bumps, and yet another for people who want plenty of space, Cordogan said.

Couples using the wristbands have typically had family members who are elderly or immunocompromised attending, but Cordogan said she thinks it could work for any group, as people gathering for the first time in months may not know how cautious their friends and family are feeling.

One key wedding feature still off-limits: a packed reception dance floor. Whether dance floors will be allowed in the bridge phase is still being discussed, the Illinois Department of Public Health said in an email.

Bowles, who said her DJ was among the first people she hired for her wedding, is crossing her fingers that restriction lifts before August. “It’s a dancing crowd,” she said.

Erickson, at Walden, said some couples have brought in alternate, socially distanced entertainment like board games or dueling pianos. Photo booths remain popular, though props are off limits, she said.

“Everybody’s holding their breath,” Cordogan said. “And even if they have to dance at their tables, they will dance at their tables.”

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