Why Virtual Weddings Are No Longer Legal in New York

As ravaging as the coronavirus pandemic was, there were a few bright spots: dogs got walked more; humans discovered cocktails to-go.

And “Zoom weddings” became a thing.

Virtual marriage ceremonies became a symbol of love persevering in a trying time when lockdowns restricted travel and large in-person weddings. They were a vital alternative that allowed couples quarantining at home to tie the knot digitally and invite guests from afar without concerns about flying or social distancing.

Some couples appeared at the digital altar in tuxedos and gowns, others in pajamas. They took their vows on terraces, in backyards, in bed, and even in hospital rooms, usually in front of an officiant on a computer screen.

But on June 25, the honeymoon was over. Though weddings by video remained popular even after pandemic restrictions eased and larger in-person ceremonies resumed, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo lifted the executive order he originally issued in April 2020 allowing couples to be married online.

The abrupt stop took couples, officiants and the budding cottage industry around virtual nuptials by surprise.

Suanne Bonan, who owns Officiant NYC, a company that performs weddings, said the lifting of the order “really pulled the rug out from under our feet.”

“It was a good fallback and a lot of people liked it,” she said of the virtual option.

A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo insisted that “the state is not stopping anyone from livestreaming a safe trip to City Hall or your clergy’s office.”

“Get vaccinated, kiss your new spouse and dance the hora if you want — New Yorkers worked hard to get where we are now and we celebrate the return to normalcy every day,” the spokesman, Shams Tarek, said in a statement.

Since the executive order was intended for a state of emergency, new legislation would be required to keep virtual marriages legal, Mr. Tarek added.

But getting married in person at City Hall in Manhattan has not been possible. The Marriage Bureau shut its doors when the city locked down in March 2020 and has remained closed for walk-in weddings.

But Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Thursday that the city’s Marriage Bureau would be reopening, a sign, the mayor said, that the city was bouncing back to normal from the pandemic shutdown.

The Marriage Bureau will resume allowing couples to schedule appointments for as early as July 23 in the Manhattan office, said the city clerk, Michael McSweeney, who oversees the bureau.

Justice Alan D. Marrus, a wedding officiant in Brooklyn, said that during the pandemic, “Virtual ceremonies became an accepted practice with which people became comfortable.”

“Many people prefer to get married this way because it is fast, convenient and can include family and friends from around the world who cannot attend in person,” said Justice Marrus, a retired New York State Supreme Court justice and one of a dozen retired judges who perform civil wedding ceremonies for a company called Judges for Love.

Nearly all of the company’s weddings since the beginning of the pandemic were by videoconference, Justice Marrus said, including the more than 200 he performed himself. He had many couples scheduled for virtual ceremonies in the coming weeks.

When the order was lifted, Justice Marrus had to inform couples with appointments for virtual weddings that the ceremonies were no longer legal.

New York State law does not specify a particular form of ceremony but does stipulate that a marrying couple “must solemnly declare in the presence of a clergyman or magistrate and the attending witness or witnesses that they take each other as husband and wife.”

Caroline Kunz, 28, and Frank Reiser, 31, a couple living in Greenpoint in Brooklyn, had planned a virtual wedding so that their relatives, including hers in France, could watch online.

But a week before their July 3 date, their wedding officiant told them that the order had been lifted and that they would have to marry in person.

So the couple scrambled to switch their plans. Instead of a rented country house near Hudson, N.Y., they arranged to hold their ceremony in the Westchester home of Mr. Reiser’s parents.

Their New York City-based officiant, who was charging $215 for the virtual ceremony, would now cost them $400 with travel expenses to perform the ceremony in person.

The couple salvaged the situation and even streamed the wedding, with the officiant included. But, Mr. Reiser said, “We were surprised that this order would be rescinded, especially at this time when there’s still a travel ban.”

Alice Soloway, a wedding officiant based in New York City and the Hudson Valley, said she had to turn away numerous couples who called seeking virtual weddings after the order was lifted. She said she performed more than 100 virtual weddings since the pandemic began, more than double the amount she would typically officiate in person during normal times.

“It’s been a gift to so many couples through the pandemic,” she said. “I think it should be a permanent law because it makes personalized ceremonies possible for all people whether they are elderly, have a disability or want to include family from all over the world.”

Like many municipal clerk offices in New York State, the Marriage Bureau — which handles more than 100,000 marriage licenses and ceremonies per year — shut when the city locked down in March 2020, leaving scores of New York couples with no access to marriage licenses. Many canceled or postponed weddings scheduled for the spring and summer.

Mr. Cuomo then issued an emergency order in April 2020 allowing marriage licenses to be issued remotely and allowing officiants to perform ceremonies over video platforms like Zoom, as long as the couples were physically in the state of New York during the ceremony.

This made it possible for New York City in May 2020 to start a program called Project Cupid offering marriage licenses online. When the state order was lifted last month, the bureau stopped offering appointments for virtual weddings, forcing many couples in the city to hire private officiants to marry them.

Preeti Vaidya, a data science professional in Manhattan, and Dr. Madhav Sharma, a resident physician in the Bronx, were introduced by friends in 2018 and had planned an elaborate, in-person wedding with 250 people for May 2020. But because of the pandemic, they canceled it and decided to wed in a virtual ceremony that July.

They dressed in traditional Indian wedding attire and Ms. Vaidya hired a henna artist for herself. In preparation for the ceremony, the couple and guests decorated their own homes and prepared the same meals.

Roughly 100 guests — including friends and relatives in India and Dr. Sharma’s colleagues still dressed in scrubs while on break at a Bronx hospital — attended the hourlong virtual ceremony and remained online for a two-hour virtual reception to watch choreographed dance videos of family members and individually toast the couple.

“While we were obviously disappointed we could not celebrate in person, a virtual wedding allowed for us to have more intimate conversations, and we were fortunate to receive blessings from each and every loved one,” Ms. Vaidya said.

For many wedding officiants, the ability to perform virtual ceremonies helped them survive financially during the pandemic.

Judges for Love performed up to a dozen virtual ceremonies a week, for an average fee of $250, depending on the circumstances.

Some even thrived.

Ms. Bonan of Officiant NYC, whose in-person affairs start at $400, charged a lesser fee of $300 for most virtual ceremonies, but had no lack of business. While her company typically handles some 300 weddings a year, it performed roughly 1,600 virtual ceremonies since the pandemic began, and she officiated some 400 of them herself, she said.

Virtual weddings accommodated the many couples who scrambled to get married during the pandemic — some to be added to their partner’s health insurance policy, others to obtain immigration visas, and still others to formally declare their love in a time when life was no longer taken for granted.

“There was definitely a boom,” she said. “It was the most lucrative year I’ve ever had.”

Ms. Bonan joked that during the pandemic she became an “officiant-on-a-stick,” in the case of couples who opted to declare their vows in local parks in front of a computer placed on a tripod.

There were also “deathbed weddings,” she said, including a client who was dying and had the virtual ceremony from his hospital room, so that his partner would be eligible for his Social Security benefits.

Since New York was one of the first states to allow virtual weddings, couples traveled here from other states and other countries, Justice Marrus said.

There was the New Jersey couple who drove just over the George Washington Bridge and then pulled over and held the online ceremony in their parked car, he said.

Technical glitches plagued some ceremonies, the judge said.

“Sometimes the signal was so weak that the video kept freezing and there was a delay between the picture and sound,” he said. “I told each couple they were pioneers because they were the first couples to be married by teleconference who can say, ‘We got married on Zoom.”

Leah Weinberg, a wedding planner who owns Color Pop Events in Queens, said the need for virtual weddings could return.

Right now, many couples are asking guests to provide proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test before attending in-person ceremonies, she said.

“At weddings where that’s required, people are celebrating and having weddings again like nothing happened,” she said. “But us wedding pros are keeping an eye on this Delta variant, in case restrictions come back.”

Recommended Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *