Philly’s coronavirus response

3,000 Philadelphians applied for emergency weddings, only 20% got approved

The city limited pandemic licenses to frontline workers and others at risk.

Joseph and Sherika Pierce were one of the few Philly couples to get awarded an emergency wedding license during the pandemic

Joseph and Sherika Pierce were one of the few Philly couples to get awarded an emergency wedding license during the pandemic

Courtesy Joseph and Sherika Pierce
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Joseph and Sherika Pierce imagined a big hotel wedding in Center City — the massive guest list, the DJ, the dance floor. The coronavirus humbled their expectations.

For the couple in their late 30s, something felt wrong about waiting for a vaccine or until it became “safe” to throw a big party again. Joseph works in government relations for a nonprofit mental health network, and Sherika is a social worker at a local community hospital, where she’s been reporting to work every day.

“We decided we didn’t want to wait anymore,” Joseph Pierce said.

The problem: It wasn’t easy to get a marriage license in Philadelphia after the pandemic dawned.

In March, the Register of Wills, which issues the licenses, shut down in-person appointments. The office rolled out a virtual process for issuing licenses for self-uniting marriages — a practice known as a “Quaker wedding” that’s been allowed by Pennsylvania law since the 1600s. It allows couples to wed without an officiant like a judge or minister; two witnesses will suffice.

When applications opened, requests flooded in from people eager to tie the knot during the public health crisis.

The Register of Wills received over 3,000 email inquiries about emergency marriage licenses since April 9, a spokesperson said. But only 585 were ultimately approved, due to the specific criteria set up to get licenses to people who needed them most. That’s about a sixth the normal volume for this time of year.

The office’s criteria? First responders, people who had contracted or were at risk of contracting COVID-19 and needed health insurance, military personnel, or immigrants who were about to leave the country over visa issues.

“People were afraid,” Register of Wills Tracey Gordon told Billy Penn. “We had police officers, nurses, sanitation workers with underlying conditions — they didn’t know if they were going to be exposed. They needed to be married so they could provide their significant other with benefits.”

Sherika Peirce’s job as a hospital worker fit the mold, and in July, she married her longtime boo on a Fishtown rooftop to a virtual crowd of 200 friends and family on Zoom. “It’s been three and a half weeks and she’s still with me,” Joseph said.

Office: It wouldn’t be ‘sensible’ to approve all requests

During a normal summer month, the office issues nearly 1,000 licenses per month.

Caren Berger, the deputy who handles marriage licenses at the Register of Wills, said most of the 585 licenses were granted to first responders and other essential workers, from hospital staff to food industry employees. The second largest group were those with serious health issues that could have been fatal with COVID-19.

The office also denied 165 applicants for a variety of reasons: mostly because neither person lived in Philadelphia — one of the other criteria they set up.

The overwhelming majority of the 3,000 requests the office received neither a confirmation or a denial. An astonishing number of people wanted to get married immediately for health insurance and benefit purposes, including many from outside the city.

“A lot of these were really sober stories,” Gordon said.

Pennsylvania law stipulates that “each of the applicants for a marriage license shall appear in person and shall be examined under oath.” Under Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency shutdown order, Gordon was able to stretch the meaning of “in person” to include a virtual meeting.

The process was pretty seamless, but Gordon maintains limiting licenses was the right thing to do.

“Opening it up to everybody wouldn’t be sensible, and I wanted to make sure that my staff weren’t overwhelmed and they got the process right,” she said. “It has never been done before.”

For couples who got the licenses, it was only a matter of days between the Zoom meeting with a clerk at the Register’s office and filling out an application.

Even Peirce, who works with government agencies, said he was surprised by how quickly he and Sherika had a marriage license in hand. “It was the fastest I’ve ever seen this government work,” he said.

Marriage licenses applications reopen for all

Starting in July, the Register of Wills rolled back its coronavirus criteria and opened up the applicant pool again.

The virtual process worked, Gordon said, but under the “in person” mandate, these proceedings must happen face to face — if possible -unless the law changes.

The Register of Wills office is equipped for those meetings now. Clerks can sit behind plastic shields and couples must be wearing masks inside.

And people have been lining up. There are already more than 1,100 in-person appointments on the books, suggesting that wedding season is getting back to a normal volume.

“There’s always a boom in summer,” Gordon said. “Maybe love blooms in the warm weather.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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