Amber Marlow doesn’t know what to tell her clients. “Several of them have reached out and asked if I have any ideas,” said Ms. Marlow, a wedding photographer who built her business shooting New York City elopements.
“All I can tell them is that, as far as I know, City Hall is completely shut down,” she said. “It feels like a violation of some inalienable right.”
Ms. Marlow was talking about what once may have seemed a nonessential service: the issuing of marriage licenses. On March 20, when the City Clerk’s office posted a notice saying that the Marriage Bureau will be closed until further notice because of the coronavirus, weddings were already starting to seem much more essential to some.
“Thousands of people are getting laid off, or they’re freelancers like me, and they need health insurance,” said Ms. Marlow of Park Slope, Brooklyn.
For many, the solution is to get married and join their partner’s health plan. Other scenarios creating a sense of urgency around marriage include visas that are about to expire, adoption plans that could disintegrate without a marriage certificate in hand and concerns among front-line health care workers and members of the military about catching the virus without legal protections in place for loved ones. Philadelphia is still issuing licenses to county residents in those situations; officials there are considering such cases emergencies.
“We’ve heard a lot of difficult stories,” said Mustafa Rashed, a spokesman for Philadelphia Register of Wills. “We know some people need an accelerated timeline, and we want to help.”
New Yorkers are not alone in their struggle to marry during the crisis. Las Vegas, the country’s quickie wedding capitol, is also not issuing licenses.
“We cannot issue them online or through the mail,” according to a statement on the county clerk’s website, which notes that services are suspended through the end of April.
But couples who intended to marry in either city can get married elsewhere, if they have access to transportation.
Though most municipal offices are closed across the country, some cities are still issuing licenses to nonresident couples who plan to marry within city or state limits.
Yonkers, N.Y., is one. “What we’ve done is set up a tent outside City Hall,” said Vincent Spano, the city clerk. That tent is open to couples by appointment only on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. until the virus subsides. Licenses from Yonkers allow couples to marry anywhere in the state, but New York City residents without a compelling reason to marry shouldn’t rush to email him through the City of Yonkers website for a slot during tent hours.
“We’re trying really hard to keep it only to Yonkers residents,” Mr. Spano said. He has been making exceptions for some struggling with the municipal closures in Manhattan and Westchester County. “If somebody writes with a story, we want to help,” he said. “I’m getting a lot of emails from New York City people who need health coverage, or somebody is pregnant and they need to be married. One guy is going back into the military. I don’t want anybody to be put at risk. But to put it bluntly, if you don’t have a good excuse I’m not going to do it.”
Molly Gregor, the editor of New Jersey Bride Magazine, is fielding calls daily from as-yet unlicensed brides desperate to keep their original wedding dates. Their predicaments are not always emergencies.
“The date may be their anniversary and they’re sentimental about it, or they may have a relative who’s sick and they want to make sure that person sees them married,” she said. “I tell them, ‘Call your town.’ Some are setting up picnic tables outside in the sun and letting couples come and sign the paperwork outdoors on tables six feet away.”
Those towns then offer curbside pickup of the license 72 hours later, the waiting period in New Jersey between obtaining a license and making use of it, she said.
New Jersey residency is not necessary to legally marry in the state. But New Yorkers and all out-of-state couples must say their “I do’s” in the town in which their permit was issued. Ms. Gregor said the legality of New Jersey weddings in general has been tripping people up since the coronavirus hit.
“Governor Murphy said, ‘There will be no weddings,’ and that got people confused,” she said. “But it’s a matter of semantics. He hasn’t said marriages are illegal.” The point is to keep people from gathering, not to prevent them from being wed, Ms. Gregor said.
Still, finding a picnic table setup like the one Ms. Gregor described may require stamina. She said Hoboken, Woodbridge and Jersey City were among the cities still issuing licenses as of the first week of April. But rules may be changing daily. On April 7, a representative in the Hoboken Department of Birth, Death and Marriage Certificates said licenses were being issued only to Hoboken residents.
For New Yorkers who don’t need to be married in New York state for reasons including pending visa applications, traveling farther afield is also an option. Palm Springs, Calif., and Gatlinburg, Tenn., both cities in which ceremonies may be performed the same day the marriage license is secured, are still filling license applications. Elkton, Md., a city with a rich history of accommodating speedy marriages, is issuing licenses to resident and nonresident couples with emergencies.
Technology is also easing the strain for couples, desperate and otherwise. Linda Bobrin, the Register of Wills in Bucks County, Pa., started a pilot program last week to issue licenses through videoconference.
“Typically, couples would have to come in in-person,” she said. Given the unusual circumstances, she felt a need to adapt.
“We’re getting a lot of phone calls and at least 20 to 40 emails a day,” she said, from couples with a sense of urgency about impending weddings.
Using the videoconferencing option, they can obtain a license from her office within a week that allows them to marry anywhere in Pennsylvania. So far, none of these calls or emails have come from New Yorkers, though New Jersey and Delaware couples have applied. If that changes and Bucks County gets inundated with requests, Ms. Bobrin wouldn’t mind.
“It’s a bright spot in our day to help applicants get married,” she said, adding that it doesn’t matter where they are from. “It’s a gloomy time out there. If we can make it a little less gloomy we’re happy.”