Ariel Mitnick had to act fast. The date was March 21. The coronavirus emergency was expanding in New Jersey, and Governor Phil Murphy had just announced that a ban on weddings would go into effect at 9 pm that night.
Mitnick, 28, a software engineer from Bergen County, and her fiancé, Ian Ochs, 27, a Ph.D. student at Princeton University, recognized that their wedding, scheduled for June 6, was in jeopardy.
The couple sprang into action. “We had a choice: Risk not being able to get married for 12 or even 18 months, according to some projections of the [virus] curve, or get married in the next seven hours,” Mitnick says. “Ian and I had been waiting more than seven years to get married. We decided to try to make it happen.”
Social distancing, public gathering bans and business shutdowns have become the new normal for New Jersey residents amid the COVID-19 state of emergency. But for many would-be brides and grooms around the Garden State, these restrictions have had particularly heartbreaking ramifications. Some cancelled or postponed weddings and celebrations were years in the making, with many expected to cost well over $50,000.
But not every wedding was left at the altar.
To make her wedding happen, Mitnick called her venue, Indian Trail Club in Franklin Lakes, and got the go-ahead for an improvised, open-air ceremony alongside the venue’s lake. In keeping with state rules, fewer than 10 people would attend. The venue’s wedding coordinator warned the couple that the buildings would be locked—no bathrooms! “But she made sure the security guard knew we were coming,” Mitnick says.
The ceremony was unrehearsed, the bride’s original wedding dress was still being fitted, and the groom’s tuxedo had yet to arrive. “There was lots of laughter and fumbling, and we realized we didn’t even have wedding rings mid-ceremony,” Mitnick says. “So we used our parents’ rings. But it was beautiful, very unique and very us.”
Both sets of parents were in attendance, and Mitnick’s brother, Jeremy, an ordained officiant, wrote and delivered a personal, funny and moving ceremony with less than three hours’ notice. The couple used Zoom to share the event in real time with their grandparents, their wedding party and a handful of other close friends. “Nearly all our guests dressed up—my bridesmaids all wore their dresses, which had already come in,” Mitnick says.
The couple is still unsure if their originally planned reception will happen this June or if they’ll need to use their backup date of June 18, 2021. But one thing is for sure: They are now legally married.
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Alyssa George, 30, a chiropractic physician from Newport, N.Y., planned to marry Michael Russo, 40, a logistics account manager from Morris County, on March 27. Their black tie–optional wedding for 220 guests was set to take place at the Valley Regency in Clifton. “I had visions of high ceilings, an outrageous cocktail hour and complete elegance,” George says.
COVID-19 changed all of that. But it wouldn’t crush George’s desire to marry Russo on their originally scheduled date. She first intended to swap out her ballroom vision for a botanical garden, but encountered roadblocks with every phone call. All county parks were closed. Even her improvised dreams of a garden ceremony were quickly dashed.
“Worst-case scenario, let’s get married at the gazebo down the road from us,” George recalls telling Russo. “He agreed, and my spirits were lifted again. It was a beautiful day, so I decided to go for a run.” That’s when she discovered the gazebo had been torn down. “At [that] point all I could do [was] laugh.”
Continuing her run, George came upon an old, abandoned stone hearth and chimney. It turned out to be the Morristown Community Fireplace, originally unveiled on July 4, 1918.
Despite being crusted with years of dirt, leaves and spider webs, there was something enchanting about the hearth. This would be, she decided, her ceremony space.
“With only three days to go, I contacted a florist and explained to him my vision,” George says. “After some much-needed TLC, it turned out to be more beautiful than we ever could have imagined.”
And so it was there, at the historic hearth, that George and Russo exchanged their vows in front of their parents, Mike’s twin brother and his girlfriend, and their minister and photographer. “Love conquers all,” George says. “We were set on our date and were determined to make 3/27 happen, so that’s exactly what we did!”
George doesn’t know whether or not they’ll ever recreate their originally planned wedding for more than 200 guests. “We’re beyond satisfied and fulfilled at the moment, so we’re taking some time to enjoy being married,” she says.
“Overall, this craziness has taught us so much. I think it’s important that everyone stays in the moment and takes the time to really realize what’s most important in life, like the people who matter most and the love that you share with these people,” George says, adding, “Times are tough, but so are we!”
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Amid the public gathering ban, engagement parties, bridal showers, bachelor and bachelorette parties, honeymoons, fittings and venue tours also have been put on hold.
Luckily, Alyjah Decker, 24—a photographer and professional songwriter from Jackson—has a maid of honor who’s an event planner, and always poised to plan a party under any circumstances, even a quarantine. When Decker’s April 4 bachelorette party at the Borgata in Atlantic City—and bridal shower the following day—had to be postponed, a surprise Zoom party was arranged instead.
“All of my girls were done up in their cocktail dresses with glam hair and makeup, glasses of wine in hand,” Decker says. “By the grace of God, my notoriously poor Internet connection didn’t once freeze on me. Before I knew it, we had all been talking and laughing for three hours, and it genuinely felt as though we were all in the same room together.”
While Decker remains unsure if her wedding to Kevin Freibott, 30, from Howell, will take place at Tyler Gardens in Bucks County, Pa., on June 7, she know she won’t forget her virtual bachelorette. “It wasn’t the party I envisioned, but in a way it was better, because I had never felt so loved and uplifted by a group of people before,” she says. “I’m so thankful to have such a supportive group of friends.”
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Meghan Brown, 32, an Etsy shop owner who lives in Bellmawr, had every intention of throwing herself a pity party in bed on March 29, the date of her cancelled bridal shower. But her fiancé, Shawn Robertson, 27, a manager at Target, and her sister, Samantha, had a more festive idea. The two arranged a surprise stay-at-home bridal shower, complete with Champagne, dessert, brunch foods, decorations and shower games.
“My fiancé and I answered questions about each other, and Samantha videotaped it for our friends and family,” Brown says. “A lot of gifts for my shower were sent to our house, so my fiancé and I opened them that day.” The couple had Zoom calls with their grandmothers, and Brown’s bridesmaids sent flowers.
“My surprise shower gave us something special and positive during this time,” Brown adds. “It gave me a reason to keep looking forward to the rest of our events, and it gave my fiancé and [me] a day we won’t ever forget.”
Brown’s May wedding at Renault Winery in Egg Harbor City has been postponed until August; she and Robertson are crossing their fingers it will take place then. “We’ve been planning our wedding for almost two years. It’s the day I’ve thought about my whole life,” Brown says. “We finally hit the fun part: the bridal shower, our bach parties, our serenade and, of course, the wedding. To have to postpone it all really breaks my heart.
“The only way I can describe COVID-19 for me and my fellow brides is a nightmare that we never saw coming,” Brown says. “But when this storm is over, we’ll have our special day—and that’s the only right way for us to look at it at this point.”
Molly Gregor is editor of New Jersey Bride, a sister magazine of New Jersey Monthly.