It’s not easy getting married during a worldwide pandemic, but couples are rising to the challenge. They’re rebooking venues in record time while shrinking their guest lists and navigating social distancing requirements. Masks and hand sanitizers are the fashionable party favors of the day.
Indoor dining restrictions have resulted in couples scrambling to find adequate outdoor reception space. Meanwhile, travel restrictions and health concerns are keeping friends and family away, while complicating honeymoons.
“It’s been a difficult time,” said Debra Loprete, the weddings administrator at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.
Typically, the Cathedral will host about 65 weddings a year on Fridays and Saturdays. This year, the coronavirus lockdown wiped away the entire wedding calendar from mid-March to July and Loprete has been rescheduling for couples ever since.
“They’re experiencing a range of emotions,” Loprete said. “Some of them are angry. They’re frustrated. They’re sad, disappointed. And I get that. It’s something you think about as a little girl. You dream about the day. It’s hard.”
The first post-lockdown wedding at the Cathedral was on Aug. 1 followed by two more on Aug. 15 and Aug. 29. Three weddings in August is far from normal, Loprete said, and while the first ceremony hit the maximum allowable of 100 people, only 10 people – including the bride and groom –were at the second. The couple married on Aug. 1 opted to keep their wedding date and tented their backyard for the reception.
“There is such a variety of how people are handling this,” Loprete said. “It’s very personal depending on their family situation.”
Other couples have rescheduled into 2021 and Loprete is already filling dates for 2022. Still other couples have opted to wed sooner, rather than later, and have postponed their reception into next year.
Despite a slew of pandemic-inspired obstacles, one New Jersey couple managed to successfully overhaul their wedding and rebook their honeymoon, only to have to postpone it for 10 days when a close family member tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Luckily they didn’t have many symptoms,” said Rebecca Vazquez. “It was just very mild. We wanted to wait to give them time to recover.”
Rebecca and her husband Agustin Vazquez were married in Lyndhurst at Sacred Heart on Aug. 24. For the young couple, both in their early 20s, the road to their wedding took many last-minute twists and turns, but they were determined to make it happen.
“From August last year when I proposed, everything looked smooth,” Agustin recounted. “We started putting together a small blueprint for the wedding and then March hit. The word ‘pandemic’ wasn’t around, so I’d say the scare came around.”
When the lockdown arrived in mid-March, the wait began. The couple had just booked a venue for their reception the month before and made two deposits on it.
“We were thinking, ‘Oh, okay, this is going to be a lockdown for two weeks’ like everyone thought. ‘Everything is going to get back to normal,’” Agustin said.
And besides, they thought, the wedding was several months off.
“We definitely didn’t think our wedding was going to be effected by it at all,” Rebecca said.
Then the lockdown went from weeks to months. And suddenly, Agustin, who works for a video and photography company, began seeing his business’s wedding shoots cancelled.
“You see the world begin to shift after month two,” he said. “I’m seeing all these couples cancelling their weddings. All these events I’m supposed to shoot are being cancelled. That’s when I think it hit me personally.”
This is when Rebecca and Agustin took a hard look at their guest list. They formulated several backup plans based on potential capacity scenarios for the ceremony and the reception. They were also in regular communication with their banquet hall.
“I think that’s when the madness began – about three months ago – for us personally when we had to argue with the venue and the venue kind of just said, ‘We’re in the same boat as you guys,’” he recalled. “We were firm on not rescheduling.”
Once they convinced the banquet hall to offer a refund, the race was on to find a suitable outdoor alternative for the reception. The space needed to be large enough to accommodate their 60 guests – down from 120 – while allowing for proper social distancing.
“We were looking for anything that would be safe for everyone that would follow all the protocols,” said Rebecca. “I was looking for anyone who had a big backyard. Maybe we could do it in somebody’s house. We were just looking everywhere.”
The reception was ultimately held at Our Lady Mother of the Church in Woodcliff Lake where there was plenty of outdoor yard space. They rented a tent, tables, and chairs. There were no capacity issues for the ceremony at Sacred Heart where pews were already roped off and social distancing protocols were in effect.
Some of Agustin’s elderly relatives, who live in Ecuador, including his grandparents and aunts and uncles, were unable to attend the wedding because of health concerns surrounding travel. An aunt and uncle on Rebecca’s side from out of state also did not attend because of concerns about crowds.
“It’s hard,” Rebecca said. “We understand. These are sacrifices that you have to make. Originally our list was 120. Small weddings are the thing now. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
Rebecca and Agustin were determined to celebrate the sacrament of marriage in August despite knowing it would take a lot of hard work. There were moments of uncertainty, Agustin admitted, but they saw it as an opportunity to grow in their faith and strengthen their relationship with each other.
“It wasn’t only the realistic things,” Agustin said. “It was also from the faith side. Realistically, everyone is saying, ‘okay, well just reschedule.’ But our faith tells us: ‘is this a moment where God is asking us to look to him? And I think we both firmly believe it was. We went into prayer realizing, ‘ what is being presented to us? What is God’s plan in all this?’ What took a year to plan, literally, by the grace of God and praying and understanding that He has the wheel in all of this, we were able to plan the wedding two months.”
It’s encouraging that couples are choosing to get married now despite all of these difficulties, said Brian Caldwell, the director of Family Life with the Archdiocese of Newark. Caldwell and his office help prepare couples for the sacrament of marriage through Pre-Cana and “God’s Plan for Love” courses.
“By not deferring their marriage, they are choosing to enter into the sacrament and receive the accompanying grace now in the midst of the uncertainty we face,” Caldwell said. “That is a hopeful sign to me that they want God at the center of their marriage in a time of great distress for our world. After all, the goal of sacramental marriage is to guide one another (and any children you have) to heaven!”
Local parishes and Archdiocesan staff have been making every effort to work with couples to plan their weddings. For example, Caldwell’s office has been conducting marriage preparation through Zoom video conferencing.
And the outdoor reception for Rebecca and Agustin was something unusual for Our Lady Mother of the Church. “We’ve had an outdoor reception once before a few years ago, but it’s an anomaly,” said Fr. Sean Manson, the pastor of Our Lady Mother of the Church. “I knew them when they were kids and I know both sets of parents well. They were scrambling like everyone else, so I said, ‘Sure, come here.’”
At the Cathedral staff relaxed the calendar and Loprete has booked ceremonies for Labor Day, Thanksgiving weekend, Sundays, and even a Tuesday.
“Everyone here has agreed that we’re just going to try to accommodate any day,” she said.
The Cathedral staff has developed “Guidelines for Weddings During COVID-19,” which is guided by New Jersey’s pandemic regulations. Guests are capped and masks are required to be worn by everyone in attendance including the bride and groom. If the priest allows it, the bride and groom may remove their mask once they reach the sanctuary after processing down the aisle.
Loprete said that masks are a dealbreaker for some couples.
“It varies,” she said. “Some of them get stuck with the idea of wearing masks down the aisle. And I get that. That’s really hard for them. Some of them are not as concerned with that. Some are really tied to what this memory is going to be for them. I had one bride say to me: ‘I’m going to look at these pictures and I’m just going to see that mask and that’s going to be my memory.’ And then another bride conversely will say to me: ‘I’m going to look at these pictures. I’m going to see that mask and I have a story for my children and grandchildren.’ It’s very personal.”