Love in a pandemic: How couples are getting married in quarantine

Photo by Benny Krown

For New Yorker Jim Rohner, the choice to move forward with his wedding to Emma Aarnes was as difficult as it was the easiest decision he’s ever made.

Together since 2018, Rohner, 36, and Emma Aarnes, 35, were slated to be wed on March 22. But, as they entered their wedding month and the harsh realities of the coronavirus pandemic loomed, the two knew they had to come up with a Plan B.

The day of Rohner and Aarnes’ wedding, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statewide shutdown of non-essential services, and urged New Yorkers to help stem the virus’ spread by staying at home and avoiding large gatherings — like the pair’s planned 150-person wedding at the Arte Cafe in Chelsea.

Thankfully, the couple had already decided on March 9 to postpone their celebration due to increasing concerns about the safety of their guests.

“As crowd gatherings and social distancing recommendations became more and more restrictive, we had already accepted that our wedding celebration was going to look more like a small ceremony and dinner with some of our closest friends rather than a huge party with readings, dancing, a trivia contest, and a photo booth,” Rohner told Brooklyn Paper.

But, less than a week later — when Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that a shelter-in-place order was coming, they pivoted to Plan C.

“[The mayor’s press conference] made us realize that even our potential Plan B of a few friends and dinner wouldn’t be possible and was potentially dangerous for anyone we invited,” Rohner said. “We had already had to compromise so much with the pandemic getting worse that we didn’t want our story to be dictated by forces beyond our control anymore.”

And so, he and his now-wife thought back to a recent walk through Fort Tyron Park, near their Washington Heights apartment, where they saw a sign that read, “…and they lived happily ever after.”

“We loved each other, we had a location in mind, and there was no guarantee that any shelter-in-place order would be lifted anytime soon, so in a matter of minutes, we agreed to get married that day and began making the preparations,” Rohner said.

In a matter of hours, the pair gathered their witnesses, a friend who could photograph and a last-minute officiant — a Bay Ridge bartender who goes by “Sully.”

“Our officiant, the pastor of my church, was out of town for a conference and wouldn’t be able to return until the weekend. Luckily, I called a friend of mine who was going to be attending the wedding and had joked in the past that if we needed an officiant, he was licensed,” Rohner said.

By 7 pm on March 17, he and Aarnes were married.

The bride, who admits that she was originally hung up on not getting married on the date they had set, said that at the end, it all boiled down to one thing: her partner.

“Once I got out of my head, I realized that I did get to have the most important part of the original plan: Jim. Then I got excited!” Aarnes said. “Who cares about my hair or what day it is? I get to marry the person I love. It was a little overwhelming, actually, to know how much I wanted to marry him, everything else be damned. I feel so lucky to have that kind of certainty in such an uncertain time.”

With no immediate end in sight to the city’s shelter-at-home mandate, more and more couples are left feeling uncertain, and having to make difficult decisions. Some have postponed their ceremonies and receptions entirely, while others have opted for more private at-home observances, thanks in large part to having obtained marriage licenses prior to the outbreak.

And now, thanks to a recent executive order, New Yorkers can do the deed online.

On April 18 — just over a month after Rohner and Aarnes tied the knot in a New York City park — Cuomo announced that the state would allow couples to obtain marriage licenses remotely, and that clerks would be authorized to perform virtual weddings as part of a process city officials dubbed Project Cupid.

Prior to the executive order, the law required couples looking to get married to obtain a marriage license in person. The new system — available in 11 languages — allows couples to virtually schedule and attend an appointment with the New York City Clerk’s office, securely upload required documents and upload a signed marriage license once the ceremony is complete.

“We need moments of joy now more than ever, and we won’t let a pandemic get in the way of true love,” said Mayor de Blasio said in a statement. “To all of the couples looking forward to tying the knot, know that your city is right here with you, throwing rice from afar.”

So far, the executive order has given at least one Long Island City couple a new lease on their would-be wedding day.

“It was just kind of a way to make the original day still a happy day,” 27-year-old Jen O’Leary told Buzzfeed News of her and Mark Van Name’s Zoom wedding.

The pair, who had planned an extravagant Brooklyn wedding for April 25, was instead married in a backyard by their local councilman, Jimmy Van Bramer while family and friends tuned in on the teleconferencing app.

The dress code: “Zoom formal, pants optional,” according to BuzzFeed.

“Everyone was just really excited that we still did it, that we got everyone together and didn’t let the pandemic stop us,” Van Name, 28, told the outlet.

Rohner and Aarnes agreed that, though they wouldn’t trade their spur-of-the-moment wedding for the world, having the chance to marry at all right now is a game-changer.

“I think it’s a great decision,” Rohner said of Project Cupid. “Couples will undoubtedly be upset because of the work, time and money they’ve put into their wedding day — a feeling to which we can absolutely relate — but, in my opinion, the commitment that two people are making to each other is more important than anything.”

It also provides couples “all the legal benefits that would be afforded to anyone else when the seas are calm,” Rohner said — and it makes a damn good story.

“It may not be a wedding on a beach or in a swanky location in Downtown Brooklyn, but just imagine telling the grandkids how you both had to persevere in a pandemic,” he said. “Love is love.”

And, Aarnes added, that love is pretty powerful.

“One thing that has really surprised me is how many people have thanked us for getting married,” she said. “We lifted people up by giving them something happy to focus on, and a reminder that life does move forward and good things can happen.”

This story first appeared on brooklynpaper.com.

More from around NYC