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A Rush of City Hall Marriages as the Coronavirus Pandemic Arrives


Annie Simeone and Armando Morales planned to get married sometime in the next month. They were just waiting for a day when both had off from their freelance jobs in film and TV production. Then, last Friday, they were told production had been suspended and they were out of work as a result of the new coronavirus pandemic.

“We thought, let’s do it as fast as possible, before City Hall gets shut down or we leave town,” said Ms. Simeone, 38, who was standing with Mr. Morales, also 38, inside the Manhattan Marriage Bureau in Lower Manhattan earlier this week.

Ms. Simeone, who works as a production designer, and Mr. Morales, a carpenter, pedaled from their home in the Ridgewood section of Queens, because the subway seemed too high risk. “We didn’t anticipate riding bikes,” Ms. Simeone said, “but it was romantic.”

The atmosphere they found at the Marriage Bureau was at once business as usual and strangely altered in the wake of the outbreak.

Outside, George Taxi, a flower vendor who has set up near the entrance for the last six years, was in his usual spot. He had woken that morning unsure if the bureau would be open, after reading that New York State courts were closing for all nonessential functions.

He said he wondered if getting married was an essential function.

It was. For now. And couples were still making the necessary trip there to be legally joined. And still buying bouquets. Mr. Taxi, though, had noticed bridal parties wearing face masks, and was himself squirting sanitizer on his hands after each cash transaction.

“It’s for my protection and theirs,” he said. “Got to be extra careful.”(On Friday, a post on the New York City Clerk’s Twitter feed indicated that the Marriage Bureau and all of the offices of the City Clerk would be closed “until further notice.”)

Inside, on that Monday, the long hallway room where couples fill out forms and wait to be called into the chapel was eerily subdued. Pre-marriage jitters, typical here, were replaced by uncertainty over the spread of the virus and how it was changing daily life. Many couples had stories of altered wedding plans and hastily made decisions that brought them there.

Lillis Meeh, 30, works in special effects on Broadway, most recently for the play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” Last Thursday, she learned the show was shutting down, leaving her without a job or health insurance.

“They say until April 13th, but we’ll see,” said Ms. Meeh, sitting on a bench beside her partner, Dr. Amelia Baxter-Stoltzfus, 31.

The couple had decided to become domestic partners, in large part so Ms. Meeh could be covered through Dr. Baxter-Stoltzfus’s insurance. Dr. Baxter-Stoltzfus, who is a resident at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, was wearing her hospital scrubs. “We can do a domestic partnership and then get married later,” Ms. Meeh said. “We were going to anyway.”

Dr. Baxter-Stoltzfus said their wedding at a later date would “feel more like a choice and a celebration of our relationship rather than a logistic or financial decision.”

Ms. Meeh added, wryly, “The other thing I’m doing today is filing for unemployment. I’m checking off these big life experiences.”

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Nearby, Taylor Rash and Annie Morony were also reacting to the moment. They planned to get married legally in New York, with a wedding celebration to follow in Virginia in May. But with schools, restaurants and other public spaces closing by the day, they scrambled to get the paperwork done in case the Marriage Bureau was next.

Mr. Rash, 30, and Ms. Morony, 29, who met through their work at Manhattan auction houses, picked up their marriage certificate last Friday, and were back again to complete the process, this time wearing a suit and a borrowed dress.

“I sent out a desperate plea to my friends for anyone with a white dress,” Ms. Morony said, glancing down at her outfit. “This dress is incredibly stained, but I think it’s great.”

Some couples planned to get married at City Hall on this day all along, and weren’t letting the outbreak alter their plans.

Michelle Caylan, 34, dressed in a satiny white gown, and her soon-to-be husband, Baltazar Laborte, 36, handsome in a blue suit, were posing for pictures and surrounded by family members.

Relatives of the couple who had traveled from Oklahoma were planning to cut their stay short and get out of town the next day. But Ms. Caylan, a nurse, was trying to stay calm. Though her mother wore rubber gloves, the bride had no intention of wearing gloves or a face mask on her wedding day. “There’s no sense,” she said, explaining it might not prevent the transmission of the virus anyway.

Michael McSweeney, the city clerk, said the Marriage Bureau and its employees were following the same guidelines issued by the city and state: Wash your hands frequently, stay home if you’re not feeling well, maintain social distance.

Given the unknowns of the coronavirus, Mr. McSweeney said, it was hard to say if the bureau would remain open during the outbreak and, as of Wednesday, he said there was still no word of closing.

“There’s a sense I’m getting from people of, ‘We better do this while we can,’” he said.

On Monday, Mr. McSweeney said the Manhattan office performed 104 ceremonies and Tuesday, 72 ceremonies.

“We seldom exceed 100 ceremonies on a Monday,” he said. “There is definitely an uptick.”

In the meantime, the bureau had made subtle changes to procedure. Security was staggering people as they lined up in the morning. And in the chapel, “we set up a barrier to keep the couple a safe distance from the officiant without making it offensive,” said Mr. McSweeney, who has been the officiant for thousands of couples during his years at the bureau.

When Ms. Simeone and Mr. Morales entered the spare chapel room, they clutched hands and said their I Do’s. It was a comforting scene of normalcy in a world upended — and moving as weddings often are.

The only noticeable sense of a spreading pandemic was the speed with which the officiant rushed out of the room.

“That was fun. We did it. We’re married,” Ms. Simeone said, after she and Mr. Morales kissed.

How would the couple celebrate?

“We can’t go to a restaurant,” Ms. Simeone said.

Mr. Morales said, “We’ll get champagne.”

Ms. Simeone agreed. Then they headed outside to unlock their bikes and ride home.

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