Pandemic weddings: why wait?

when COVID scrapped wedding plans, couple came up with a hybrid solution

PHOTO/DANI RAWSON: From left: Mackenzie Lange; Allison Shelton; groom Clay Hall; bride Jackie Shelton; Tatum Hall; and Noah Shelton. Clay's Hall's other two children, Cierra and Grayson, couldn't attend and watched online, but will be added to the socially-distanced picture via Photoshop.

Be on the lookout for stressed brides-to-be and frazzled grooms-in-waiting.

Planning a wedding is often fraught with unexpected difficulties. This year of the virus sets a whole new standard for pre-nuptial headaches. Some couples are handling the disruption well.

Jackie Shelton and Clay Hall of Reno got engaged in January and scheduled their wedding for October. “Then the world fell apart in March,” Shelton said. “We realized we weren’t going to have a big wedding anytime soon; big gatherings weren’t going to happen for some time.”

Rather than postpone the nuptials, the couple chose a hybrid solution: a small in-person wedding in a friend’s front yard that would be broadcast on Facebook Live. They tied the knot May 16, amid a sea of blooming irises with 11 family and friends close, but appropriately socially distanced. Their reception was an interactive, online dance party.

“The advantage is that online, it was really nice, we could have a bigger wedding than we were planning,” Shelton said. They had considered inviting about 200 people to the in-person event. Online, more than 300 guests attended. The couple opted for a weekend mini honeymoon in Portola. Their original plans to go to Mexico are on hold.

“It would have been better to be with everybody in person. But what we did have was really memorable. We’re not going to let this global crisis stop us from what we want to do.”

— Jackie Shelton of Reno, bride.

Others have had the same attitude, but weren’t as safety conscious as Shelton and Hall. The New York Times reports that some weddings have become super-spreader events, especially when the receptions are in-person affairs. Officials in San Francisco shut down a church wedding on July 4. The event was moved outdoors to a basketball court, but as many as eight guests may have contracted the virus, according to news stories.

Nevada still leads the nation in marriages

For those wanting to get hitched, Nevada is the most popular state in which to tie the knot. The Silver State’s marriage rate is 28.4 marriages per 1,000 population, four times the national average. Beginning in the late 1930s, our liberal marriage laws attracted thousands of lovebirds to Nevada. The state doesn’t require blood tests and has no waiting period for marriage licenses. Las Vegas has touted itself as the “Marriage Capital of the World,” for decades, peaking at 125,697 licenses issued in 2004. Sin City’s destination weddings took a hit after the 2008 recession and the trend has been downward ever since. Overall, Clark County marriage licenses are down 42% from the 2004 peak, a trend that statistics indicate is tied to fewer Millennials opting for a Vegas ceremony.

Reno also was a marriage Mecca beginning in the 1930s. Washoe County issued a record 36,794 licenses in 1978. The number has slowly waned since then, with 31,627 in 1990, dropping to 12,051 in 2008. Then the Great Recession took its toll when just 10,554 licenses were issued the following year. The totals have crept lower every year. In 2019 the county issued 6,498 marriage licenses, according to the Washoe County Clerk’s Office.

Catherine Smith, marriage and business division operations manager at the clerk’s office, said the decrease in licenses issued after the mid-1990s can partly be traced to the dip in tourism caused by the opening of Indian casinos in Northern California. She said at about the same time,  California did away with the requirement for couples to submit to blood tests and wait for the results.

“Prior to 1995 many Californians came to Nevada to get married because blood tests were not required here and they could get married quickly,” she said. “The elimination of this requirement in California certainly had an impact (in Reno).”

Over the last 20 years, most other states liberalized their marriage laws, so people no longer have to travel to Nevada for a faster union. Yet, Nevada’s resort atmosphere and natural wonders still draw those embarking on a new life together.

Smith said about half of couples who apply for licenses in Washoe County are from other states. That percentage may rise during the pandemic. “We are experiencing an increase in the number of inquiries from people living in other states (primarily California, Oregon and Washington) because they are unable to obtain marriage licenses where they live,” Smith said.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Chapel of the Bells, Reno’s most famous wedding chapel, closed in 2018 after hosting nuptials on West Fourth Street for six decades.

The drop in weddings also crashed Reno’s wedding chapel industry. In the early 1990s, Reno hosted about 20 stand-alone chapels, including Chapel of the Bells on West Fourth Street, where drive-through ceremonies were offered. That six-decade old institution closed in 2018. There are just two street-side chapels left in Reno and both now advertise ceremonies with COVID-19 precautions. Several casinos also have in-house chapels.

Reno couple wouldn’t let COVID stand in their way

Jackie Shelton and Clay Hall are local natives, so the Biggest Little City was a natural site for their nuptials. They met at Sparks High School in 1980. They didn’t date back then, but were friends.  In the 1990s, they had some professional interactions when Shelton worked for an advertising agency and Hall worked for a printing company. Both got married. Hall moved away and was gone from Nevada for 21 years. Both eventually divorced.

Hall returned to Reno, and in 2018 he was looking to reconnect to the area’s business community. He reached out to Shelton, who is vice president of public relations at Estipona Group, an advertising and marketing firm. She agreed to help him make some contacts. They reconnected as friends and discovered they had a lot more in common than their high school experiences. By October they crossed the bridge between platonic and romantic relationships.

They got engaged in January of this year when Hall got down on one knee on the Sparks High football field, where he once played ball and Shelton was a member of the school’s drill team. “It felt a little bit like destiny,” Shelton said. Wedding plans were made. Then came the virus.

“When COVID happened, we thought there was no point in waiting until October to get married,” Hall said. “We had no idea what a socially-distanced, online event would look like. We figured it out with the help of a lot of friends.” They didn’t require a church, chapel or a professional cleric.

“It was my first pandemic wedding,” said Alison Gaulden, a University of Nevada, Reno, journalism professor who was certified to officiate at weddings years ago when one of her former students wanted Gaulden to perform her ceremony. “We measured out all the 6-foot distances… It was a windy day so we had microphones.” Only the bride and a couple helpers went inside the house to get ready for the ceremony, which was held in Gauden’s front yard, amid 100 varieties of blooming irises.

“It was a blast,” Hall said. “It was super fun. It was very intimate, just 13 people counting us. We had a small cake, some toasts and a great photographer taking a lot of photos.” The reception took place on Google Hangouts. Some of the virtual guests for both the streaming of the ceremony and the reception wore formal clothing or dressed up in costumes.

“It was actually really lovely dancing by ourselves in a living room,” Shelton said. At first, some of those watching online weren’t sure what to do, but soon joined the dance party. “It was a nice escape from what’s going on in the world,” she said. They have an extensive wedding album because the home-bound guests also took photos of themselves during the ceremony and reception.

“In the midst of so much going on these days, so much concern and destruction and worry, it was great seeing people in love and still getting married,” Gaulden said. “It was really an honor to be a part of that.”

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