Less than two weeks before her wedding day, Amy Bettys sat in her living room crying and drinking whiskey, the show 90 Day Fiancé playing in the background. She had a difficult phone call to make, and she took a long swig to steel herself. Then she inhaled deeply, let out a groan, and dialed the number.
Her mom picked up and immediately asked what was wrong. In a shaky voice, Bettys once again begged her parents to get the vaccine. Without the shots, they likely couldn’t come to the wedding in early September: Her fiancé’s mom and dad planned to bail on the reception if all guests weren’t jabbed, plus New York City had recently adopted a vaccine mandate for all bars and restaurants. Couldn’t they at least think it over? Bettys pleaded, hoping her mom might cave to a tear-soaked appeal.
Instead, her mother launched into familiar talking points plucked from the “rabbit hole of fake science” her parents had fallen down in small-town Pennsylvania. Didn’t her daughter know about the toxicity of protein spikes, or about how only obese people were in danger of being hospitalized? And besides, their chiropractor had said a shot wasn’t necessary. After Bettys cut her off to say that perhaps they should try taking advice from epidemiologists, her mom quipped, “We’re not changing our minds.” In the background, Bettys could hear her dad agreeing. Her mother then dug her heels in even deeper. “You know what?” she said. “We’re just not going to come.”
Bettys hung up the phone and ignored her dad’s follow-up call. She couldn’t bring herself to listen to the voice-mail and instead sat there crying, trying to process what had just happened. “My parents would rather not get vaxxed than attend my wedding,” Bettys said. “On the day, I’m worried I’m not going to feel that happy. I’ve told my fiancé a few times I don’t really want to do it anymore.”
Since shots of Moderna and Pfizer became available, a highly polarized America has been at war with itself. The fact that only half of the country is fully vaccinated has poured lighter fluid on the Delta variant’s spread, sowing deeper division and straining relationships between those on opposite sides of the political spectrum. But nowhere is the battle playing out more dramatically than on the wedding industry’s front lines. While you can avoid talking politics at the dinner table and ignore your mother’s texts about being injected with microchips, planning nuptials forces opposing views into violent collision. In an effort to stave off superspreader events, many brides and grooms have adopted policies that boil down to “Get the shot or don’t come.” The requirement is setting off emotional bombs, torching relationships between couples and their closest friends or family who refuse to compromise their anti-vaxx stances even at the cost of missing an important milestone. In some cases, the damage can be devastating.
Making sure guests are vaccinated is tricky, uncharted territory. In the absence of widespread government mandates (only a few cities, such as New York and San Francisco, require proof of jabs for certain venues), the onus falls on individual businesses and the soon-to-wed couple to enforce any requirements. Countless etiquette blogs have popped up with templates to help nail that delicate-but-firm tone (“If you are choosing to not be vaccinated, please plan to celebrate our wedding in a different capacity”), and solutions range from RSVP questionnaires to hiring a “COVID safety officers” (a.k.a. a bouncers) to check everyone’s card at the venue’s door. But the central question couples are grappling with is how demanding they can be. Is asking for proof too intrusive? Or should you take guests at their word?
For Conner and his partner, Lexie, who asked to go by their first names only, the honor system failed. After discovering a few friends had lied about their vaccination status on the RSVP, they started asking guests for proof and found out that Conner’s best man, whom we’ll call Jeff, also didn’t have the shot. Conner couldn’t fathom not having him at the wedding; they’d been friends for 20 years. “He’s the first person I’ve ever used the word ‘bromance’ with,” said Conner, 28, and the first person he told about falling in love with Lexie. It was just a given that, when they tied the knot, Jeff would be at his side, and Conner can’t bring himself to find a replacement best man: “He’s my guy,” said Conner. “Men don’t have that many friendships. It’s just really, really tough.”
Unlike other brides and grooms navigating vaccine tensions, the two men never had it out. Instead, since telling Conner he wouldn’t be getting the jab, Jeff hasn’t responded to further texts or explained why he’s so opposed to the shot. “He’s been really walled off,” said Conner. “It’s been radio silence.” For the first time in his life, he’s unsure about the future of their relationship. Can he still bring himself to show up as best man at Jeff’s wedding later this year after being abandoned at his own? “There’s definitely going to be this permanent awkwardness,” he said. “I just never imagined a future where he wouldn’t be there for me.”
While Conner’s taking what he calls a “stoic approach” to his buddy’s choice, other confrontations have become so explosive they’ve definitively killed relationships. That’s the case for Sam, who doesn’t plan on having any more contact with her former best friend, Neila, after their clash over vaccines. “It makes me really sad,” said the San Francisco–based editor, who asked to go by a pseudonym. “It’s not just the one day that she won’t be there. It’s the rest of my life.”
Sam had assumed Neila was vaccinated, until she asked the group celebrating her bachelorette party this summer to confirm their status. (“She was a science major in college,” explained Sam, though she admits to having felt a “small seed of doubt” about her friend’s beliefs after noticing Fox News playing in the background of her recent social media posts.) What followed was a 30-email chain in which Neila lashed out at Sam and the party’s organizer for not making the requirements more clear, questioned the value of a vaccine protocol, and demanded a refund for the $100 she had already chipped in for the Airbnb in New Orleans (which she didn’t get). Sam was shocked to learn her friend was so vehemently opposed to the vaccine. But most of all, she was hurt by the nasty, fervent tone of the emails, which left “no space for conversation.”
Their decades-long friendship could probably have survived a civil disagreement about politics. They’re 35-year-old women, after all, with lots of shared history. But to sacrifice her role as bridesmaid and express no remorse? “It’s basically saying that you don’t value the friendship,” said Sam, who is getting married in early September. “Because you know it can end things to not show up like that.”
For some brides and grooms, their guests’ anti-vaxx beliefs have tapped into deeper tensions that go beyond a dose of Moderna. When Amy sent her parents and siblings an email begging them to get vaccinated before her big day in September — as required by her ceremony venue, a synagogue in western Canada — her sister replied with a character assassination. In her “nuclear” message, she accused Amy of being a hateful person who loves to play the victim and belittle those she disagrees with. “It felt like the really angry email that you write and don’t send,” the 30-year-old said. “I felt like, Am I actually this really awful person that she seems to think I am?”
Amy, who wanted her last name withheld, was blindsided by her sister’s reaction. They were close, and she was depending on her, out of everyone in their conservative, Evangelical family, to show up and be a bridesmaid. Instead, her sister’s decision means Amy will get married without either her parents or three of her four siblings to toast her and appear in pictures. Though the lawyer has spent the past decade distancing herself from their views, she saw her wedding as a last-ditch effort to bring them together and bond over “fun, non-threatening” activities. It was a test of sorts, one they failed spectacularly. “My family had a real opportunity to demonstrate that even though we have different values, they still really care about me and want to be part of my life,” she said. “I’m sad they didn’t take it.” Amy plans to find proxy familial relationships in other places, since her own mom and dad “are clearly not interested in being my parents in a way that I need.”
Political differences have a way of slowly poisoning dynamics. Friends hang out less, families avoid conversational minefields, and close connections become reliant on small talk. It’s not often two people trying to avoid conflict are forced to confront their opposing views head-on. But weddings have made the issue of vaccinations viscerally personal, turning a guest’s stance on the shot into a barometer for how much they care about whoever’s getting hitched. Bettys knew what her parents thought, but they mostly avoided talking about politics to keep the peace. That is until the nuptials made it impossible to hide their core conflicts under polite conversation.
In the end, her mom and dad decided they’ll show up to city hall, but without the vaccine they won’t be part of the wining, dining, and dancing at the reception after. Bettys’ glad they’ll hear her vows and be in family photos for posterity’s sake, but coming to the ceremony is still the “bare minimum” they can do, she tells me. Fundamentally, her own wedding day still wasn’t enough for them to put her first. While she has accepted they won’t ever change, that painful reality will haunt their relationship. “They’re stubborn and hardheaded,” she said. “They chose their belief system over me.”