Some of the wedding guests looked startled when Ibrahim Simsek and his team wearing fluorescent jackets entered the venue in the Turkish town of Golbasi where they were awaiting the arrival of the bride and groom.
They were quickly reassured that this was merely a wedding inspection — one of the compromise solutions that Turkey has adopted to keep a lid on a growing coronavirus outbreak without shutting down its economy.
The team runs through a checklist to make sure the venue is conducting temperature checks, seating guests at least 60cm apart and enforcing a ban on the halay — a traditional line dance where participants link fingers with their neighbours. Instead of pinning money and gold coins on to the newly-weds, guests must place their gifts in a box.
The volunteer unit, comprising two civil servants, two school principals and an imam, visited 14 separate weddings on their rounds last weekend. “It’s very tiring,” said Mr Simsek, whose day job is to run a facility for a state-owned energy utility. “But this is our duty. We have to do it to protect people’s health.”
The 52-year-old said he rarely encountered problems, with most venues he visited in the province of Ankara now mindful of the rules and the fines they faced for violations. But elsewhere in Turkey, weddings are being blamed as one of the causes of an uptick in case numbers. New daily cases reached 1,500 this week — their highest level since mid-June.
Stories abound of events where guests and hosts have flouted the rules. Fahrettin Koca, Turkey’s health minister, said last week that 32 people had contracted the virus at a wedding in the Black Sea province of Ordu after travelling in the same cars, sharing make-up and taking part in two days of festivities.
Tulay Baydar Bilgihan, governor of Golbasi district who oversees the inspectors, rejected the idea that weddings should be cancelled even though her Western Anatolia region had the country’s joint-highest number of weekly cases last week. “In our area there are around 44 wedding venues . . . It’s a very important sector,” she said, adding that there was not long left until the end of the summer marriage season.
More than 540,000 couples tied the knot last year in Turkey. In addition to supporting the wedding industry directly, marriages boost the construction and homeware sectors as newly-weds buy and furnish a new home.
Marriage is also important culturally. While social attitudes have relaxed in Turkey over the past decade, 61 per cent of people surveyed in 2018 said they strongly disapproved of sex before marriage, according to the World Values Survey compiled by a group of international academics.
Turkish officials maintain that, despite the rise in cases, the virus is being contained. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week insisted that Turkey, which has had a total of 260,000 Covid-19 cases and 6,100 deaths, was “one of the world’s most successful countries” in tackling the pandemic, adding “even though there’s an increase in cases, the outbreak is under our control”.
Yet medical experts and doctors’ associations are concerned that a rapid normalisation in recent months — with many people returning to their offices, widespread travel and the go-ahead for some large-scale events — has unleashed a resurgence of the virus of the kind that is now confronting countries across Europe.
“In the past few weeks, especially the past fortnight, there’s been a serious increase,” said Kayihan Pala, a public health expert who is a member of the Covid-19 monitoring committee of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), the country’s largest doctors’ union.
Mr Pala said that people across the country were behaving “as if there isn’t a serious problem”. He added: “People who are attending weddings, engagement ceremonies, funerals or public events are not aware of the gravity” of the situation.
The TTB, which is often strongly critical of the government, is among those claiming that the true levels of daily new virus cases are higher than the official figures. A Turkish health ministry official rejected that claim, adding: “From the beginning we have shared our numbers in a transparent manner.”
In response to the mounting case numbers, Turkey has pushed back the reopening of schools to late September. But, like many nations, the authorities have proved reluctant to impose sweeping new measures that would force the closure of shops and other businesses and strike a fresh blow to the fragile economy.
Instead, authorities have resorted to piecemeal steps such as limitations in some regions on over-65s, who are at greater risk from the virus. They have stepped up inspections on mask-wearing, which is compulsory in shops, on public transport and in other crowded spaces.
This week, the interior ministry further tightened the rules on weddings in more than a dozen provinces including Ankara, limiting the events to just one hour, with a ban on serving food and prohibition on dancing that has now been extended to include the bride and groom. Every event must be attended by at least one wedding inspector.
For Aykut Akalin, whose lakeside wedding venue in Golbasi has passed multiple inspections, the news was a blow. “It’s very bad,” he said. “One bride . . . called me and she was crying. She said: ‘what am I going to do?’
“Just one hour, with no food — is that a wedding?”
Additional reporting by Funja Guler in Ankara