Guideline revisions in 2021 are making it easier to host weddings in New York during COVID-19. But there are still some mandatory restrictions that could impact your wedding day. Here's a summary of the regulations, plus some pointers to consider as you adjust your planning to ensure a smooth wedding day.
Note: This post was originally published in late February and has been updated as regulations change. I'll continue to update this post ASAP when any changes are announced.
Updated April 5: Cleaned up interim limits that took effect during late March. Clarified that weddings are subject to "catered event" limits, rather than the general "gathering" limits.
For awhile in 2020, weddings were completely banned, as part of the effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Even when the restrictions eventually allowed for gatherings up to 50 people, dance floors were still banned.
Although the restrictions helped reduce the spread of COVID, they also prompted many couples to postpone their weddings into 2021. Some couples are waiting until 2022, because their venue and/or other wedding pros were already booked through 2021 prior to the pandemic.
Knock on wood, Syracuse and surrounding areas have experienced lower infection rates as more Americans get vaccinated. New York State has recently started easing-up on the restrictions.
New COVID-19 Wedding Restrictions in New York State
The latest official New York State guidance is 17 pages long. Even the State's summary version is 7 pages. But some of that information only applies to "behind the scenes" stuff caterers and venues need to handle -- and some of it doesn't apply to weddings.
Below, I've boiled it down to the specific points that matter most for weddings. Each is followed by pointers to help you keep your wedding plans remain on-track.
All of my wedding DJ bookings are for July or later... so if you're one of my booked couples, it may admittedly be a bit too early to worry about this stuff just yet. Still, not a bad idea to be aware of the current regulations, and bookmark this page to check back regularly for updates. I'll also repost the link on Facebook when this post is updated.
Occupancy Limit - UPDATED APRIL 5
Private Residences: If you're getting married at a private residence, the State continues to hold the limit at 10 people indoors. A recent change allows up to 25 people if the event is outdoors. This count includes everyone - including the newlyweds and officiant.
Commercial Venues: The state says private events hosted at commercial venues are limited to "the lesser of 75% as set by the certificate of occupancy, or 150 people indoors or 500 people outdoors." These totals are "exclusive of employees/event staff," so you don't need to include vendors in your count as you would at a private residence.
How this impacts your wedding:
Before you send invites (or save-the-dates), confirm the capacity for your reception space. Few things can be more awkward than having to un-invite guests because you invited more people than the venue is allowed to host.
The key phrase here is "the lesser of" a certain number of people, or a percentage of the posted capacity.
So, if you're hoping to invite 150 guests for an indoor reception, you'll need to make sure your venue is rated for at least 200 people.
If your ballroom's rated capacity is 150 people, you'll need to keep your guest list under 75% ... or 112 people. At some venues, it may be possible to move outdoors to take advantage of the higher limit -- but you might incur additional costs for tent rental and set-up.
If you wind up having to trim your guest list due to these limits, order extra invitations anyway. If any guests decline, or if the State eases-up on these limits in the interim, having extra invites on hand will let you quickly invite some of the folks who didn't make "the first cut."
Does Your Venue Host Multiple Events?
If your venue typically hosts multiple events at the same time, the current regulations require each event be "separate and distinguishable." To elaborate, events cannot share the same spaces or rooms.
UPDATED APRIL 5 -- Previously, the State went so far as to say venues were required to provide separate entrances/exits and separate restrooms for each event. The regulations now say that separate events "shall not... use the same entrances/exits at the same time." The requirement for separate restrooms for each event was also eliminated, but venues are still responsible for limiting restroom capacity and making sure guests practice social distancing while waiting to enter the restroom.
How this impacts your wedding:
Thankfully, this recent change eliminates the prospect of any weddings being cancelled at venues that, under the previous rules, would be unable to host 2 or 3 at the same time.
Still, you'll want to check with your venue. The State still has that one requirement against multiple events using "the same entrances/exits at the same time." If your wedding is scheduled to begin at or near the same time as another event at the same venue, they might need each event to adjust its start times to "stagger" the guest arrivals for each event. You might even be asked to inform your guests to arrive during a specific timeframe or to use a specific entrance to the venue. Ideally, you'll need to know early enough to include these details in your invitations... otherwise, you'll need to find another way to inform your guests.
Venues are prohibited from hosting events between midnight and 5:00 AM.
How this impacts your wedding:
Not only does your reception need to be over by midnight, but all guests need to be clear from the reception space by midnight.
In 10 years as a wedding DJ, I've rarely seen ballrooms clear out immediately after the last song. It's often 30 to 45 minutes after a reception ends before everyone actually exits the ballroom.
Long story short, don't schedule your wedding to run right up until midnight. If this curfew is still in effect, the venue's going to have to stop the party early to make sure everyone is out (not just leaving, but actually gone) by midnight.
If you were planning to go until midnight or later, change the ending time to 11pm. If desired (and if all of your vendors can accommodate), adjust your starting time to keep the party the same length as originally planned. Make sure all the vendors are aware of any time changes, as contracts and/or pricing may need to be revised.
Spacing Requirement for DJ and Dance Floors:
The State guidelines say DJs and bands are permitted for weddings during COVID-19, but if the entertainer(s) will be unmasked for any reason (e.g. to sing, to play wind instruments, etc.), there must be at least 12 feet of separation or a physical barrier.
Select attendees may participate in ceremonial dances (e.g. first dance) but may only dance with members of their immediate household/family, and must maintain six feet of separation from other attendees throughout the dance. These "select attendees" must be designated to the Venue prior to the event.
For the purposes of "open dancing" later in the reception, attendees may dance only with "members of their same immediate party/household/family who are seated at their tabl in designated and clearly marked areas or zones that are assigned to them and spaced at least 6 feet apaert from any other dancing areas and any tables." The regulations also say dancers must wear face coverings while in their assigned dancing zone and cannot enter other dancing zones.
How this impacts your wedding:
First, you'll need to check with your DJ or band to see if they will require a 12-foot clearance or a a 6-foot clearance.
Then, you'll need to work with your venue to make sure there's enough physical space within your reception area to meet these requirements.
Even if your venue is approved for 150 guests, is the room large enough to meet the social distancing requirements for tables and dancing areas? At 50% capacity, you should be OK, but it's still better to discuss it early, than to discover an issue the day-of.
Mandatory Guest Check-In Activities:
Venues will be required to "check-in" every single guest upon arrival to take care of the following requirements:
1) Testing or Vaccination: Every attendee -- including staff -- must be able to present proof that they are completely vaccinated against COVID-19, or they must have a recent negative test result, as follows:
-- Proof of vaccination: The final shot must have been given at least 14 days prior to the event.
-- Negative PCR test within 72 hours of the event.
-- Negative rapid test within 6 hours of the event.
2) Mandatory Screening. Attendees will have temperatures taken and will be asked a series of questions such as whether they are experiencing any potential symptoms of COVID, and if they have been in recent contact with anyone currently suspected or confirmed to be positive.
3) Contact Tracing. Attendees will be required to provide their name, DOB and contact information just in case any positive cases are traced back to the event. Venues will be required to retain this data for at least 28 days.
How this impacts your wedding:
At this point, there are still some unanswered questions, specifically regarding the testing. Where will bulk numbers of people be able to obtain testing and results within the given timeframes? Will tests be provided for free by local governments or will guests (or perhaps hosts) be responsible? Will vendors need to pass along the cost of testing themselves and their employees to you?
If the regulations aren't relaxed by the time you need to send invitations, you'll want to include a notice with your invitations, so guests are aware of the requirement. If any attendee shows up without the required proof of vaccination or a timely negative test result, the venue cannot allow that person to enter the event space.
Some venues are telling couples they will only accept paper proof of vaccination or negative test results. They may not be willing to accept guests flashing a photo or a PDF stored on their cell phones. Make sure to ask your venue what they'll allow, and pass that info along to your guests.
Side note: I am pleased to report I received my second and final vaccination on March 22, so I am now exempt from the testing requirement!
Events Must be Reported to County Health Dept:
Any gathering over 50 people must be reported to the "local health authority" (the county health department, in most cases) at least 5 days in advance. Among other details, the venue must report a guest count, staff count, and either describe the layout or provide a floor plan. Events may be subject to inspection by local health authorities to ensure compliance.
How this impacts your wedding:
Although it's the venue's responsibility to submit your event to the county health department, they'll need some details from you:
-- Final guest count (most venues require this at least 2 weeks out anyway)
-- Load-in and load-out times for all other vendors who will be present day-of-event: DJ, florist, cake/bakery delivery, photographer, videographer, officiant... and don't forget hair/makeup artists if they are working on-site as well.
Social Distancing Requirements
Venues are primarily responsible for enforcement of these items. However, as a courtesy to guests, you may want to offer a heads-up on certain items such as the mask requirement -- especially if you have guests visiting from other states that no longer have mask mandates.
- Face coverings are required for all attendees at all times except when seated at their assigned table to eat or drink.
- Assigned seating is required, and guests must remain at their assigned seat anytime they are eating or drinking. To the extent possible, individuals should be seated with members of their immediate household / family.
- Controlled Entry: Venues will be responsible for preventing unnecessary congregation or congestion in common areas such as entrances, exits and restrooms.
- Cocktail Hour: Guests can stand around and socialize, but must maintain social distancing and wear masks. As described above, the only time guests can remove their masks to eat or drink is while sitting at their assigned seat.
- Dance Floors - Special Dances (first dance, newlywed/parent dance, etc.) are allowed only between members of an immediate family/household. Those dancing must maintain at least 6 feet of separation from everyone else.
- Dancing in General: Will be allowed but with significant restrictions:
- Can only dance with people from your immediate family/household who are sitting at your own table.
- Venue must provide separate, clearly-marked "dancing zones" for each table. Each zone should be at least 6 feet apart.
- Guests must remain masked while in their own dancing zone and cannot enter any other dancing zone for any reason.
Be Nice to Your Venue, This Isn't Their Fault
As has been the case all along, New York State leaves most of the responsibility with venue management. If any violations of these rules are reported -- or if any positive cases are traced back to lax enforcement of the rules -- the venue could face severe fines or other penalties such as losing their license to operate.
Many venues are still feeling the impact of having their businesses greatly reduced during 2020 and part of 2021. As you can imagine, they are going to be very careful about following the rules so they don't risk being fined or shut down.
If your wedding gets bumped because the venue can't host multiple events at the same time... please don't get upset with your venue. I'm sure they did not enjoy having to choose just one. Likewise, if they have to stop your grandmother at the door because she forgot to bring her vaccination card or her COVID test results, just remember that the venues are just following the law so they don't get into trouble.
Venues might not be thrilled with the rules either, but they are only trying to follow the law and protect themselves. And in the end, these regulations are intended to ensure we re-open things safely, and minimize the risk of having COVID cases resurge.
Source: NYS Department of Health
Additional Wedding Planning Aspects to Consider in Light of New York's New COVID Regulations
As of this writing -- in late February -- my earliest 2021 weddings are in July. For my booked clients, it might be a bit early to consider any kind of significant action... but here are a few more things to consider as you monitor the latest developments over the coming months.
Questions for All Your Wedding Vendors
- Who's paying for staff to be tested?
I mentioned this earlier, but it's worth repeating: Check with all vendors who will be present for your reception: If they have to pay to get themselves and their employees tested, will they absorb that cost or pass it along to you? You'll want to know about any potential added costs sooner rather than later.
(ICYMI above: I'm pleased to report I'll be fully-vaccinated by late March, so I'll be exempt from the testing requirement by the time my 2021 wedding season begins.)
- Will your venue have to charge more to cover the cost of extra staff?
The State guidelines say Venues are responsible for having enough staff to ensure all of these guidelines are being observed and enforced. If the venue needs to hire additional staff to make that happen, are they absorbing that cost or will it be passed along to you? Yet another thing you'll want to know sooner rather than later so you can adjust your wedding budget strategy accordingly.
- What kinds of safety protocols will they be using?
The required protocols set forth by New York State focus primarily on venues, and they're the ones who are expected to enforce the rules for themselves, your guests and your other vendors. It might be a good idea to check with non-venue vendors like your photographer, limo company, hair/makeup artists, bakery, DJ/band and others.
Are they aware of the rules? Particularly, do they have a plan to satisfy the pre-event testing or vaccination requirements? You don't want to have any vendors being stopped at the door and unable to serve your wedding because they didn't know about the requirement, or because they chose a testing location that couldn't return results in time.
Concerns Regarding Your Guests
NYS Travel Advisory
UPDATED March 11: Good news! As of April 1, there will be no more mandatory quarantine for domestic travelers arriving in New York.
The Governor's office announced incoming travelers will still need to complete a traveler health form but other than that, the requirements are fairly minimal. Previously, travelers had to quarantine for up to 10 days following their arrival in New York. Even with an option to "test out," travelers had to quarantine for at least 4 days pending test results.
Bottom line: if you're inviting people from other states to your wedding, they will no longer need to arrive in New York several days early, just to quarantine.
Should be a given by now, but a mention of the mask mandate may be worth including on your invites, or on an insert card enclosed with the invites. To be extra safe, it's good practice to buy a box of disposable masks and have them available at the door for anyone who forgot (or ... "forgot") to bring their own.
Social Distancing Requirements
Venues are required to have signage posted, but we know people tend to ignore wall postings, especially when there are lots of them. Consider including a heads-up in the invitations and/or programs, and have your DJ make an announcement or two as well.
In Conclusion... Good News, but be Cautious
All in all, the news is great -- things are moving forward at a faster pace than I honestly expected they would. But we still need to be cautious and be ready to "pivot" to Plan B. Officials have said the old restrictions could come back if local infection rates suddenly increase. As long as we all do our part to help keep each other safe, we'll hopefully be OK and see things continue to open up.
I'm not trying to cause any more stress on couples who've already been taking careful steps while planning their weddings... but the rules can change quickly and they can be confusing. I'm just trying to help make sense of everything... I hope these pointers are helpful!