Safety First, ‘I Do’s’ Second

by Msnbctv news staff

For the past year, whenever Aretha Gaskin, a certified civil celebrant in Plainfield, N.J., leaves her home to officiate a wedding, she always makes sure she has more than enough personal protective equipment with her.

“The containers of sanitizers in my car is insane,” said Ms. Gaskin, with a laugh.

She also keeps sanitizer in her purse, and often reminds people that she no longer shakes hands. When it comes to mingling with guests after the ceremony, Ms. Gaskin tries to stand at a safe distance, and always has a mask on.

“I’m always very, very conscientious,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll take my mask off for a quick picture with the couple, and then the mask is back on.”

Ms. Gaskin is just one of the many officiants across the country who have been steadily working during the pandemic, officiating weddings for couples who have had to change almost every aspect of their wedding day. While some cities like New York made it possible for couples to be married over video conference in the beginning of the pandemic, many couples have still opted to have some sort of wedding celebration in person, whether it is a socially distanced gathering outside or a livestreamed, pared-down ceremony. And all of these weddings need an officiant to perform the marriage.

For Ms. Gaskin, this has meant adding livestreamed weddings to her repertoire, as well as giving advice to couples on how to keep their wedding as safe as possible. She encourages her clients to have a “Covid station,” with masks, hand sanitizer and anything else that can help keep guests safe. Although she does not require that the wedding party or their guests take a Covid test before she provides her services, she says that she recommends it to couples when they seek her advice.

Jimmie Berguin, a minister with American Marriage Ministries in Eugene, Ore., has also been following many of the same safety precautions while officiating weddings over the last year.

“I definitely wear masks anywhere and everywhere outside of the ceremony,” Mr. Berguin said. He typically takes his mask off to officiate while standing a safe distance from the couple, but will also leave his mask on during the ceremony if couples prefer it. Like Ms. Gaskin, he frequently sanitizes his hands while he is working, and always keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer in his coat pocket.

“Shout out to blazers because blazers are life-changing with their million pockets that they have,” Mr. Berguin said, with a laugh.

Even with new safety precautions in place and the obvious risks of gathering in the midst of a pandemic, Mr. Berguin has only seen the demand for his services grow in the last year. Compared with 2019, Mr. Berguin saw about a 40 percent increase in bookings for his officiant services in 2020. He said that many of these bookings were small ceremonies or elopements, sometimes with only a few days notice.

“I’ve dealt with couples who were just like ‘Hey, you know what, I don’t want to wait a whole other year, it’s more important to me to actually be married to my partner than put on all these tricks and flares for everyone to be a part of,’” he said.

Ms. Gaskin has had a similar experience. She said she has officiated more weddings than usual, and much of that increase is because of elopements.

“A lot of couples are not just getting married to have a big production for their loved ones,” Ms. Gaskin said. “Some of them are actually getting married for other reasons, some of which might be urgent.”

Like many wedding professionals, Ms. Gaskin has already begun to see her schedule fill up for 2022. “People are getting in their dates and their times nice and early,” she said. “I already know next year is going to be crazy, just based on what is going on in my books.”

While juggling the physical risk of officiating weddings during a pandemic, officiants have also had to contend with the emotional toll that the coronavirus has taken on their clients. Mr. Berguin said that he has been like a “grief counselor” to his couples, helping them wrap their heads around how different their wedding may be from what they imagined.

“There’s a lot of joy to be had with the actual marriage of your partner, but when that marriage is something that you had pictured in your mind, or this dreamlike wedding you intended, and then you have to shift it because of circumstances beyond your control, there is a little bit of sadness in that,” he said.

Rabbi Nicole Guzik of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles has made sure to give the couples she works with the option to acknowledge people that cannot be with them at their wedding. Some may have died from complications of Covid-19; others may be uncomfortable participating in the ceremony. She said she is grateful that many Jewish rituals allow for participants to incorporate joy and loss, including wedding ceremonies.

“I always ask the question to the couple,” Rabbi Guzik said, “‘Who won’t be present whether because of physical distance or because they died? Who won’t be present at the wedding, whose absence will you feel, and would you like me to mention their absence at the beginning of the wedding?’”

Even while she is officiating happy moments, Rabbi Guzik has constantly been reminded of the risk and grief that she and her congregants have had to live with. Earlier in the pandemic Sinai Temple was performing religious ceremonies in person, but from December 2020 to the beginning of March 2021, in-person ceremonies were stopped because of a surge in coronavirus cases in Los Angeles.

“We’ve lost congregants, people who have been as safe as possible,” Rabbi Guzik said. “We have been scared.”

There have been upsides, however, to rethinking the mechanics of a wedding ceremony and the role that officiants play in a couple’s marriage.

“It’s been difficult, and interesting,” Ms. Gaskin said. “You don’t need to have a D.J. You don’t even need to have a venue. We can go to a park, we can go to your basement, we can go anywhere. But you need an officiant.”

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