What the Gov: What is the Future of Weddings in 2020?

Restrictions have limited the size of gatherings and even getting a marriage license isn’t easy anymore. So how can people plan for the biggest day of their lives during a pandemic?

Justin German/BGA

This article is part of a series called What the Gov?, where the BGA takes reader questions and tracks down the answers. We are devoting resources to covering how local and state governments are responding to the coronavirus outbreak. We are committed to reporting on what you want to know. Ask your questions here.

The coronavirus is already wreaking havoc on summer plans from Grant Park concerts to suburban 4th of July festivities. But questions about what the next few months will look like are particularly pressing for couples who planned to walk down the aisle this summer, leaving them wondering if their once-in-a-lifetime wedding can still go on during a once-a-century pandemic.

With government officials still shutting down large gatherings, a string of Better Government Association readers have peppered us with questions about how “stay-at-home” orders and social distancing will affect their nuptials even after those rules are altered or ended.

The two biggest types of questions have focused on whether government officials will still be banning large gatherings that would prevent couples from celebrating their new unions with family and friends, and when county governments will begin issuing marriage licenses again.

Kellie Strobel had a 200-guest wedding planned for June 6 when she wrote in to the BGA, asking for advice. The 26-year-old said her venue initially refused to allow her to cancel because Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order didn’t extend through her wedding date.

“I was reaching out to everyone because I was just trying to get some help,” Strobel said.

While Strobel and her fiancé were eventually able to get out of their contract and postpone the event, she said the future of their wedding plans remains unclear.

“We know that we might have to change our plans or change our vision of a 200-person wedding to maybe 50 people,” Strobel said. “We don’t really know what will happen. Hopefully this will end soon but it doesn't seem very likely.”

The future of all events like Strobel’s wedding, unfortunately, aren’t cut-and-dried. Like most coronavirus-related issues, recommendations from government officials and experts depend on the pandemic’s progression, where soon-to-be brides and grooms plan to wed, the size of planned celebrations, and, in some cases, the health status of those being married.

The uncertainty has resulted in an unprecedented upheaval of the wedding industry, said Susan Cordogan, owner of Big City Bride in Chicago.

“Even after 9/11 or the financial crisis of 2008, nothing has brought us to a halt like this before,” Cordogan said.

Cordogan said her wedding-planning agency is recommending all their couples with June or July wedding dates postpone for later in the year or 2021. She emphasized, however, there will be workarounds available for couples still devoted to maintaining their original dates.

Despite the ambiguity, we did find some information to help guide couples as they move forward. The bottom line is if you still want to get married, there is a good chance you can, albeit with restrictions and some regulatory hoops to jump through.

First, the marriage licence

This is usually a simple process — an engaged couple goes to a county clerk’s office, fills out an application, and, once approved, they get a marriage license allowing them to legally tie the knot after a one-day waiting period. However, it has been drastically altered and temporarily put on hold in some counties as many government offices are closed to the public due to the pandemic.

But change may be coming soon.

On May 1, Pritzker issued an executive order authorizing county clerks across Illinois to allow couples to appear virtually using video-chat technology to obtain marriage licences while the state’s disaster proclamation is in effect. The order also waived any marriage licence expirations during the disaster proclamation and allows for marriage ceremonies to be conducted over video calls. The order notes the availability of any of these virtual processes will depend on each county’s technological capabilities.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month made a similar move, allowing couples to appear virtually to apply for marriage licences or during wedding ceremonies. New York City responded April 29 with its highly touted announcement launching its “Project Cupid” program to move the mariage licencing process online.

A couple in New York City wear protective masks while taking wedding photos in Central Park on April 25, 2020. (Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Back in Illinois, the Cook County Clerk has been approving virtual marriage licences for more than a month. But the county is prioritizing the applications of couples with an “urgent need to be legally married” or couples with a planned marriage ceremony within the next 10 days, according to its website.

So far, the office has received about 500 virtual applications during the shutdown, many from couples without a documented “urgent need” outside of their excitement to get married, said John Mirkovic, deputy clerk for policy and communications in Cook County. The office determines if a couple’s circumstances meet this threshold on a case-by-case basis, he said, but generally it applies to couples with someone in hospice, or those facing dire legal, immigration or insurance issues.

“We will try and serve as many people as we can and thankfully we had these online tools in place already before coronavirus,” Mirkovic said.

As of May 4, the clerk’s office reported it had issued marriage licenses through the virtual process to approximately 100 couples, and has appointments scheduled with many more through mid-May.

Second, the big day

The next question couples face is how to conduct a wedding ceremony in a time of mandated social distancing. While couples still can legally wed during the COVID-19 pandemic, grand receptions with hundreds of guests are off-the-table for the time being.

As of May 1 in Illinois, the state’s extended stay-at-home order requires most people to stay at home with limited exceptions, and wear face masks whenever social distancing is not possible. Any gatherings of more than 10 people are expressly prohibited with few exceptions.

Chicago officials have enforced these requirements. In one notable example, Chicago police broke up a small crowd dancing to celebrate a newlywed couple after a wedding in the West Ridge neighborhood, according to Block Club Chicago.

Couples who want to move forward with modified wedding plans and smaller guest lists can still find some normalcy though. Photographers are allowed to work during the shutdown, but only at outdoor events that do not exceed the 10-person limit, according to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. And while florists are considered non-essential, they are permitted to accept online orders for delivery or curbside pickup.

As for the likelihood that weddings planned later this summer will be able to go on as planned, the situation is unclear.

On May 5, Pritzker released a five-phase plan to reopen the state and said the earliest Illinois communities could relax any of the current restrictions is May 29. If certain public health benchmarks are reached by that date, regions of the state could move from our current phase two status, known as the “flattening” phase, to the third “recovery” phase.

The third phase will allow for many more businesses to open but still limits most gatherings to 10 or fewer people. Up to 50 people would be allowed during the fourth phase, but Pritzker made it clear that large-scale gatherings such as festivals and sporting events won’t return until there is a vaccine, treatment or widespread immunity to the virus.

Strobel said she and her fiancé decided to postpone their wedding after her mother became sick with COVID-19. Her mother is doing better now, she said, but the experience helped put her wedding into perspective.

“The point of a wedding is to bring people together, so obviously it was a hard decision, but not really that hard when you think of people getting sick that you really care about,” she said.