Love in the time of COVID-19

Lori Rozsa

THE WASHINGTON POST – The wedding that Melanee and Sylvester Carmickal envisioned had an ocean backdrop, seven bridesmaids, 100 guests, and a rotating rooftop restaurant.

“We’d been planning it for a year,” Melanee Carmickal said.

“It was going to be beautiful. Really special.”

Her white mermaid-style gown had been purchased, as had the purple bridesmaid dresses. The white-and-purple hydrangeas had been ordered.

Invitations were sent out for the May 1 event and RSVPs had flooded in.

The Alachua County clerk adopted a Las Vegas theme at the drive-through wedding ceremony in Gainesville. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Katina Miles and Algerone Pettus wait in line before their drive-through wedding ceremony

“Then everything was shut down because of the COVID-19,” said Melanee Carmickal, 42.

“I called our wedding coordinator, and she said nobody could do anything. I cried.”

“But we still wanted to get married,” said Sylvester Carmickal, 48. “We didn’t want this to stop us.”

So instead of exchanging vows on St Pete Beach and celebrating high above in Spinner’s Rooftop Revolving Bistro with guests gazing out at the horizon over the Gulf, the couple drove inland and got married on April 30 in a Gainesville parking lot.

Standing next to their car. The officiant? An Alachua County clerk behind a window, wearing an Elvis Presley wig and cape.

“This was special, but in a different way,” Melanee Carmickal said after her husband of a few seconds pulled their black Infiniti away from the window and up to a stop sign decorated with a big red heart and an excited message: “Just Married!”

The COVID-19 has put a stop to many things, but last Thursday afternoon, dozens of couples proved that it could not stop love. Or at least it could not stop the state putting an official stamp on love.

When stay-at-home orders were issued in this north Florida county in March, slightly panicked calls started coming in to Clerk J K Jess Irby asking about weddings. Marriage licences in Florida are good for 60 days, and time was running out for a lot of people who had nuptials planned for April and early May.

“People were saying their wedding got cancelled, and they were desperate to know what to do,” Irby said. “I was starting to feel bad about it.”

Irby already had started doing courthouse business – real estate recordings and civil lawsuits – through a drive-up window that hadn’t been used in 20 years. “There’s a big glass panel so they can see us, there’s a drawer for the paperwork to go back and forth, and a two-way microphone,” Irby said. “It’s safe and socially distant. They can just stay in their cars and get married.”

Irby said that when he announced his plans to conduct drive-through weddings in early April, his office was inundated with requests. He had to schedule two dates – April 30 and May 14 – to accommodate them all.

He and his colleagues decorated the parking lot to make it a little more festive than the government-and-concrete vibe it usually has.

A crew hung sprays of white silk flowers from exit and enter signs. They laced white taffeta ribbons through a line of orange traffic cones leading past the drive-through window.

And they hung a big sign on a blue dumpster that sits just a few yards away from the window: “Congrats! April 30, 2020.”

“My family came out to help. A lot of people wanted to get involved,” Irby said. “There’s so much bad news right now that something fun and happy kind of hit home for some folks.”

Courthouse employee Cheryl Jordan kept the line of cars moving last Thursday evening, and also tossed birdseed at the cars as the newlyweds drove off.

Jordan said 27 couples were married last Thursday. The last pair drove off at 10.45pm. Florida allows couples to marry anywhere once they obtain a marriage license in the state.

The license costs between USD61 for couples who attend a premarital counselling session and USD86 for those who don’t. A civil ceremony at the courthouse costs USD30.

Couples came from Tampa, Tallahassee, even Miami – which is 340 miles away.

First in line were Frances Willis and Chester Allen. Willis, 78, was at the wheel of a dark blue Hyundai Sante Fe, while Allen, 93, sat in the passenger seat.

Willis said they had been friends for years, and both had lost their spouses recently. Willis said Allen turned to her one day a few months ago, and “just said, ‘Will you marry me?’”

“We’ve been waiting for the courthouse to open, but nobody knows when that will be, so we thought, why wait? Who knows what’s in the future,” said Willis, of Newberry, Florida. “I think this is pretty neat.”

Keith Watson, who owns an event planning business in Gainesville, brought his staff to the parking lot with bouquets of pink roses and white and pink alstroemeria in slender rhinestone-studded vases.

Wearing shorts, a tuxedo jacket, blue gloves and a social-distancing black mask, he delivered the flowers to the brides as they waited in line in their cars.

Watson normally would be busy with client weddings this time of year, “We have so many disappointed brides,” he said. But “this is certainly making the best of a horrible situation”.

Amanda Bowers also volunteered her services. She owns the Baker/Baker bakery in Gainesville, and she and her staff baked large vanilla cupcakes topped with white buttercream frosting to give to the brides and grooms.

“This is just such a lovely idea,” Bowers said. “It’s a nice thing during a hard time.”

Alix and Billy Knowles had planned to marry at a lakefront chapel called the Baughman Centre, a popular wedding venue on the nearby University of Florida campus. Instead, the couple drove up to the clerk’s window in their white Honda Fit, which family members had decorated with raffia ribbons.

The bride wore her long silk gown and veil; the groom wore a suit with a medal from his grandfather and a white gardenia in his lapel to honour his grandmother – just as they had planned to do for their formal wedding.

The fact that they were sitting in their car instead of standing in a chapel didn’t bother them. Family members kept their social distance across the street, waving posters to congratulate them.

“We’re grateful we can get married at all during this shutdown,” said Alix Knowles, 28, a nurse, who said she had planned a big wedding but didn’t want to put the marriage off because of the virus.

“It’s not where you get married that counts, it’s our love for each other. The pandemic won’t change that.”