On a wooden chair outside the house, the barefoot bride set up her laptop, where 12 square tiles appeared on her screen – her parents, the groom’s parents, three of her wedding attendants, and five of his.
Tara Simms, 28, and Mark Valenski, 29, said “I do” in June, on a little footbridge in Killington, Vermont. Before they exchanged their vows, their wedding officiant chuckled, “I haven’t done this in a while.” It was his first ceremony during the pandemic.
Simms and Valenski, who live in Astoria, had planned to marry in front of 120 guests. But when the pandemic hit, they did not want to wait. “I would say if somebody has the opportunity to do things their way at such a chaotic time, do it,” said Simms. “It was such a crappy year, and this was a bright spot in a crappy time.”
The bride wore jeans and a flowy white top; the groom sported khakis and sneakers. For the reception, the couple brought out jello shots and chicken tenders and played drinking games with their friends on Zoom.
“For us, the most important part of the process was officially becoming husband and wife and signing that piece of paper,” said Simms.
To help New Yorkers get “that piece of paper,” Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order on April 18, granting couples the right to marry virtually. On May 7, Cuomo also launched “Project Cupid,” a web portal that allows New Yorkers to submit documentation online, meet city clerks virtually, and gain their marriage licenses for a $35 fee. Prior to the pandemic, couples had to go to the clerk’s office in person to obtain their marriage license and marry within 60 days.
According to the Wedding Report, a market statistics site, 33,245 weddings took place in Manhattan in 2019. Project Cupid issues 140 marriage license appointments per day. In the first few weeks of its launch, the virtual slots filled so quickly that some couples could not book an appointment before September.
Although the clerk’s office grants licenses remotely, it does not perform ceremonies. For couples who still want a socially distanced “microwedding,” Zoom nuptials are proving to be a new niche in the wedding industry with the help of those willing to officiate the event.
Rev. Annie Lawrence, ordained as an interfaith wedding officiant in 2003, has never been busier. “People like me think of the year in 52 weeks,” she said. “So two dozen couples is about half my year.” That was the number of couples that Lawrence was originally supposed to marry during the spring and summer, mostly in New York. However, instead of two dozen traditional weddings, Lawrence conducted more than 250 virtual wedding ceremonies between April and November.
“I say to couples I marry on Zoom, let this be the first of many celebrations,” said Lawrence. She has married couples in pajamas and t-shirts and others in their full wedding attire. In one case, she conducted a Zoom wedding with more than 100 guests from different time zones, including China and Malaysia.
A Brides.com study found that 66% of couples postponed their weddings this year because of the pandemic, while 36% decided to proceed with their nuptials. But some New York wedding planners have opted to forego the trend of online weddings.
Tara Manchanda, owner of Tara M. Events, offers full-service wedding planning in New York and New Jersey. It did not make sense for her company to alter its business model, she said. “I can’t change my rates for smaller weddings,” said Manchanda. All the couples she worked with who wanted to get married this year have moved their plans to 2021, she said.
But Lawrence, who lives in Greenwich Village, offers three different ceremonies, ranging from the simplest “Zoom Sign License Only” priced at $150, to the most elaborate “Zoom Custom Ceremony” starting at $495. The simple ceremony is by far the most popular choice, and Lawrence’s couples rave on Reddit and The Knot, a wedding website, that the officiant helped them understand the Project Cupid ecosystem and take all the required steps necessary to get married.
So how is a virtual wedding really different from a beach ceremony or a church service? “I sign off after the kiss,” said Lawrence.