Guest List Adjustment and Etiquette in the Time of COVID-19

Here’s exactly what to do.
by Esther Lee
guest list etiquette coronavirus covid-19 photo
Andrii Kobryn / Shutterstock

Between group gathering restrictions, social distancing guidelines and discouraged travel, couples are now left with the task of having to face new realities with their events moving forward—and that involves their guest lists. Given the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on weddings around the world, some to-be-weds will be faced with the task of having to whittle down their original guest count, and there’s basic etiquette around this step. 

“Acknowledge the elephant in the room as soon as possible,” says event planner Lauren Schaefer of Your Wedding by Lauren. “As soon as you’re comfortable doing so, send a message to your current guest list or post on your wedding website acknowledging the pandemic, letting guests know you’re weighing your options and considering everyone's safety regarding your wedding.”

Since the situation can be uncomfortable and tricky to address, read on for wedding guest list etiquette and how to best navigate adjustments amid COVID-19. There are ways to approach your loved ones gracefully and tastefully, even as it involves pivoting your plans. 

Talk to Your Vendors First

This is the first step to take before even adjusting or addressing your guest list. If you have a planner, talk to this pro directly about how they would recommend navigating this situation, given restrictions are different per county. From there, ask how best to approach the conversation. Either your chosen pro team will reach out to guests directly (some offer this service, really!) your venue coordinator will explain guest list limitations, which you can then communicate to your guests. 

Talk to Family Members and Your Wedding Party

You have your squad and your family members on board, but what happens if they’re located in different countries where travel restrictions remain in place or they’ll have to self-quarantine depending on proximity? Reach out to your core loved ones first about realistic expectations regarding your wedding date. Some guests may not necessarily feel comfortable traveling at this time, so have the important conversations to gauge the comfort level of your loved ones first and foremost.  

Start Sooner Than Later

Wedding websites have never been more helpful than during COVID-19, because it’s a resource where you’re able to effectively communicate with guests as the situation is ever changing by state. By telling guests you’re considering options and keeping their safety and health in mind, they will feel assured about any decision you ultimately reach. But the important move is to give them the emotional buffer and time to see it from your end. 

Once you’ve made your choices, start reaching out. “From there, guests can mentally prepare for an alteration in the wedding plans, whether that be postponement, lessening the guest count or other,” says Schaefer. “This will also limit the number of text messages you get from folks asking what your plans are.”

Set Expectations With Yourself… and Your Guests

It’s important to remember you’re grappling with mourning the loss of what you had originally envisioned for your wedding: whether it be the original date you had arduously planned towards, or the sheer capacity of your guest list. It’s all fair. Talk through it with your partner and mourn this together, then set expectations about your wedding postponement and the guest list between yourselves. 

From there, have the conversations and be as thoughtful as possible. There are, however, a few points to consider as you’re reaching out to loved ones to help you overcome any sense of dread. “To note, this is no longer a surprise. While having to whittle down your guest list is heartbreaking and you don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, limiting crowds are not a new restriction at this point and we continue to hear about limiting social gatherings everyday,” says Schaefer. “Your need to whittle down your guest count will most likely not come as a surprise to your guests. They might even be expecting it.”

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Remember: It’s How You Communicate

Obviously, the guest list trim is a bummer from both ends. But there is a way to lovingly communicate the letdown to your loved ones. “When letting guests know that due to size restrictions, they are no longer able to attend your wedding in person, remind them that you still love them very much,” says Schaefer. “It is because you love your guests so much that you are taking the safety precautions needed to ensure everyone's well being.”

Include That Virtual Element

Since guest list adjustments are increasingly prevalent depending on where you plan to host the wedding, the industry collectively has seen a rise in virtual elements integrated into various events. In fact, some pros are leaning into it, such as planner Amy Shey Jacobs whose virtual party planning brand Don’t Let the Day Go By helps couples source digital photo booths and inventive streaming options. 

“What I don't think most people realize is that the virtual event experience is actually two-way television,” says Jacobs. “What translates in person at an event works very differently when you don't have a live studio audience, right? So the services and partners we are working with need to be dynamic and TV ready: I am spending a lot of my time auditioning, preparing and curating the best pros who have the most engaging experiences with the right tools in a virtual environment. To that end, the virtual experience needs to be interactive. The people make the party!”

To that end, Jacobs even has a virtual speakeasy where mixologists will create signature cocktails for guests (you can send cocktail kits to those who can’t be at your wedding in person). “We are working with partners on wedding invitation suites and programs that are sent to the guests, along with floral, linen and food,” she explains. “I mean, how cool is it to send a mini cake to each of your guests home so they can share in the experience?” 

Define Your Wedding Structure to Your New Guest List

It’s true: weddings after COVID-19 will look slightly different. This means educating and informing guests about how you are mitigating risk and being thoughtful about their health and safety at your particular event. 

“Define your structure for who is on the smaller guest list,” says Schaefer. “If you and your partner can make clear parameters for how to whittle down your guest list, this will both assist you in this very hard decision and provide additional understanding for those that couldn't attend in person. Whether you keep the in-person guest count to only family, only locals, or four guests per betrothed, providing structure keeps things fair and clean.”

Be Thoughtful About How You Share Photos

By now, most couples have grappled with the heartbreak of postponing their weddings, and your loved ones likely know and share in your disappointment. If you’ve had to trim your guest list due to COVID-19, there are considerations to bear in mind, including social media posts

Since it’s a special day for you, the couple, your original guest list will want to celebrate regardless. A thoughtful way to approach this step is by sharing images from your wedding day first with all your guests before distributing them further across social media accounts. That way, even though you’ve had to scale back on your guest list, those chosen recipients will still feel as if they were part of your day. 

On social media, consider the types of imagery you’re sharing to avoid further emotional bruising. “There is no quicker way to create FOMO than to post photos of your most special day for the world (and all your guests that couldn't attend) to see,” advises Schaefer. “Of course, celebrate your love and your partner, but limit the number… especially those photos including guests in attendance.”

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