If you live almost anywhere on earth outside of New Zealand, the past few months tend to look as though someone has taken a pressure washer to your social calendar. Concerts, parties, vacations, family reunions, and—God help us—cruises have all fallen away, replaced with an anxious void of indeterminate length. Unless, of course, you are one of a number of people who have decided their weddings simply cannot be canceled, in which case the distressing and highly specific world of COVID-19 wedding swag awaits.
In the United States, a bungled governmental response to the pandemic combined with an environment where even the simple act of wearing a mask has become violently politicized has pretty much ensured that a lot of people will continue to get sick, and die, for many months to come. But as VICE’S Rachel Miller noted in May, a lot of people will still find ways to convince themselves that their specific, in-person, many-people-present event is somehow fine. And so, invitations to “socially distant” weddings abound, as do planning tips about how to make such an event happen: after all, who wouldn’t want to sign a liability waiver clearing the happy couple of any responsibility for your highly possible sickness and/or death before heading out onto the dancefloor?
And with weddings, of course, comes wedding swag: A search for “COVID wedding” and other related terms on Etsy turns up hundreds of items designed for this moment. Some, of course, are related to wedding postponements: Mugs with the original date crossed out and a new one penciled in, or a sympathy card for the disappointed couple in your life reading, vividly, “Well, shit. There’s always one ‘C word’ that ruins the party.”
But other COVID wedding merch, on Etsy and elsewhere, is the kind that indicates the wedding is going right on ahead, perhaps with some wishful thinking thrown into the mix. “Distance makes the heart grow fonder” placards, for instance, urging guests to maintain social distance at an event very much not designed for it; or beer koozies with upbeat bon mots like “Coronavirus can’t stop this wedding” or “I’m essential to this wedding (I made the cut)”; or, perhaps most fittingly of all, “What virus?” (One of the reasons that reopening bars seems to be particularly linked to an uptick in COVID cases is that it’s simply very hard to maintain the spatial awareness necessary for social distancing when you’re hammered. In Colorado, for instance, the governor halted alcohol sales after 10 p.m., announcing at a news conference, “The state of inebriation in a public place is inconsistent with social distancing.”)
There are different ways of looking at these items, of course. If a couple insists on having a big, in-person wedding on their original date—maybe they can’t afford to lose their deposit, for instance, or live in an area with so few cases, and so few people traveling from elsewhere, that the risk truly is low—then perhaps it’s reassuring that they’re considering hand sanitizer as a party favor or personalized face masks for the wedding party. (Consider, after all, the alternative, like the bride who told The Cut, “I spent $1,500 on a wedding dress, and I want to look a certain way. A mask is not included in that look.”)
From another light, though, the wedding swag looks a lot like establishing shots from the opening of a horror movie about illness ripping through the people you love the most. Across the U.S. and the world, weddings have been linked to large coronavirus outbreaks. After a large wedding in India, the groom died and at least 79 guests tested positive for the virus following the festivities. Allegheny County in Pennsylvania says they’ve seen an uptick in cases linked to weddings and funerals, with a wedding officiant telling WPXI, “I have officiated 20 weddings during COVID. A few people here and there will wear masks. Most people don’t. A lot of people are hugging. You can tell they haven’t seen each other and they give each other a big hug.”
And there’s plenty of evidence that some weddings continue even when people understand that it goes against the public health guidelines in their area. An event in San Francisco described by an NBC affiliate as a “large covert wedding" at a famous church reportedly resulted in the bride, groom and at least eight guests testing positive for the virus, despite the fact that a city public official crashed the 100-person event midway through and warned that the gathering was illegal. The festivities were moved outside to a basketball court, but—perhaps due to the fact that a rehearsal dinner had already taken place the night before—people still got sick. (The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the attendees were told they could choose to socially distance at their discretion, which isn’t how that works.)
In light of all this, one of the more revealing pieces of wedding swag on offer is the “Corona Bride” shirt, available from multiple Etsy sellers. It verbosely describes the bride as “An exemplary, strong woman about to be married or just married who is forced to plan, postpone, and/or cancel her wedding due to a global pandemic that ruined everything. Slightly crazy, but completely justified.”
That framing paints every choice—planning, postponing or cancelling—as morally equal, all choices that can be made by “an exemplary, strong woman.” But at this particular moment, one couple’s choices aren’t neutral, and they aren’t purely personal; choosing to scrap the big day for now is not the same as having a 300-person indoor wedding with a buffet and a flimsy framed placard urging guests to keep their distance. The cost of your big day can be spread from your carefully planned seating chart onto the larger community, people you’ve never met, people who didn’t get to make the same, self-justifying safety calculus. Some choices cost more than others, and while a shirt for your bridesmaids reading “The 2020 Quarantine Couldn’t Stop Us #justmarried” will only set you back 15 bucks, other decisions quite literally can cost a life.