When Coronavirus Crashed Their Weddings, These Couples Held Virtual Ceremonies Instead — Here's What It Was Like

"At the end of the day, if you're married, the day was a success."

Ashley and Tim exchange vows virtually from their home.
Photo: James Isbell

Danielle Schwartz and Ashwin Malhotra had a clear vision of what their wedding would look like. On April 13, they would stand against the striking Manhattan skyline and recite their vows in front of 150 friends and family members. A four-person orchestra would serenade them first, followed by a DJ, who would spin a mix of Indian and American music during the reception, to be held in a ballroom complete with 360-degree floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city.

But that never happened.

As two NYC doctors fighting on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, Danielle and Ashwin wanted to get married on multiple occasions in the past, but something — residency, board exams, busy schedules — always got in the way. This time, however, it wasn’t work that prevented their plans from following through. “In medicine, you have to submit your vacation schedule one year in advance, so we put in a request to have the week of April 13 off in early 2019,” Ashwin told Travel + Leisure. “We were heavily invested in this time period because it was a good time for us clinically, when we would not have so much work. We put down deposits, got our vendors, put everything together, and then the coronavirus came.”

Meanwhile, Ashley Yuki and Tim Alexander, a couple from San Francisco, spent almost a year planning their dream wedding in Palm Springs, California, on April 4. They had a DJ lined up, and the flowers, photographer, and videographer had been booked. There was even going to be an Old Hollywood glam theme party the night before the big day. It was going to be an entire weekend celebration with 125 guests from all over the U.S.

Instead, they were the only ones in the room.

For Kelsey Christie and Bryan Hanggi, their special day was going to be an intimate affair with 20 close friends and family members. They had planned to tie the knot outdoors on July 10, in Kelsey’s uncle’s backyard in Livermore, California, with roses in bloom. Bryan’s dad was set to officiate the ceremony, which would be followed by toasts and a taco dinner on the back patio. But in March, as the mounting number of confirmed cases grew at breakneck speed, it became apparent that they were going to have to accept the possibility that their wedding may not unfold the way they had intended.

Then there was Andrea Connors and Douglas Wright. The couple had painstakingly planned every detail of their springtime wedding in late March: The men were going to wear gray suits with patterned ties in blush, the band would play “It’s Your Love” by Tim McGraw for their first dance, and the color palette was going to be happy mix of blush and sage with pops of rose gold. There was going to be an anchor ice sculpture with their names on it, to reflect the venue near a marina on the Manasquan River in New Jersey. Even the menu was handmade. Much like the other three couples, however, they were forced to loosen their grip on their ideal wedding day.

As the global pandemic and its effects crescendoed around the country, schools shuttered, offices moved online, restaurants and bars closed, flights were grounded, borders sealed, and cultural events — Broadway, concerts, museums, and sports games — all came to a halt one by one, collapsing like dominos. Weddings were not exempt from the whiplash of change either.

Like many others, the four couples were faced with the same reality: Coronavirus had crashed their weddings. The unwanted wedding guest had steamrolled its way into their plans, making their nuptials not only illegal, but also impossible.

As social distancing requirements and shelter-in-place orders were issued around the country, couples around the world were left to change course, cancel plans and already-paid vendors, and shift their scheduled dates.

Others, like Danielle and Ashwin, Ashley and Tim, Kelsey and Bryan, and Andrea and Douglas, found a different, more modern way to tie the knot: online. Some said “I do” over Zoom, and a few opted to livestream their big day on YouTube, with loved ones traveling from their couch to their computers to support their special union.

Dani + Ashwin wedding party on zoom
Courtesy of Danielle Schwartz

But there was still a lot to figure out: Was it legal to get married online? What about picking up their dress and tux in lockdown? How would they coordinate their guests’ speeches? Proving that love really does conquer all, here are the stories of four couples who decided to make their nuptials digital.

The Lead-up

Although Ashley and Tim had settled on postponing their nuptials to March 2021, they wanted to honor their original date, April 4, somehow. “We had looked forward to the day for so long that we felt like we still wanted to recognize it as the start of our life together as a married couple,” said Tim, who noted that they had already obtained their marriage license. Vacillating between various versions of plan B — a city hall wedding followed by a small dinner reception, an intimate backyard ceremony — the decision was eventually made for them, when a stay-at-home order was issued.

But then it clicked. “At first, the idea of having a virtual wedding sounded a little crazy. But as we started to talk through the logistics of it, we felt like it was something that we not only could pull off, but have some fun with and make a really special memory around,” said Tim. Teetering on the precipice of taking the plunge, it was the overwhelming support that poured in from friends and family that sealed the deal, and so, just days before April 4, their virtual wedding was confirmed.

Across the coast, Danielle and Ashwin were confronted with a similar situation, weighing potential workarounds, first toying with the idea of trimming their guest list and hosting a smaller event, then contemplating going to city hall to get hitched. But with social distancing requirements and court closures, they were met with roadblocks at every turn. “We started to lose hope,” said Ashwin. Danielle added, “We were thinking that even if things started to get better in the summer, people were still going to be apprehensive and might not come.”

So, after five years together, and subsequent attempts to tie the knot, it took them a mere two hours to pivot and welcome the idea of a digital wedding. “It was very spur of the moment,” said Danielle. Imagine wading in a cold pool, step by step, until you finally duck your head under water — that was the feeling Danielle and Ashwin described: trepidation followed by courage followed by relief.

And so, on Sunday, less than 92 hours before the big day, they emailed their guests — the same group that received an initial cancellation email — detailing the information for their video wedding on Wednesday night. “Within hours, guests emailed back saying ‘Wow, what a fantastic idea,’ and that strengthened our resolve,” said Ashwin. “We were both very down and this was our solution to a lot of problems, including making sure everyone could come together, because that’s what a wedding is all about: bringing family together.”

Andrea and Douglas Wedding in church with two witnesses
Courtesy of Andrea Connors and Douglas Wright

Meanwhile, Andrea and Douglas pressed pause on their wedding, originally scheduled for March 28, when their venue called things off due to COVID-19. Despite the cancellation, the couple planned to have an intimate ceremony at the church in Spring Lake, New Jersey, which they had intended to get married in on the same date. But when New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy banned all large gatherings in the state after 9 p.m., they were faced with a choice: Arrive before 9 p.m. that same day to tie the knot or wait until this was over.

“Everything happened so fast,” said Andrea. “We found out that we had to be married by 9 p.m. at 1 p.m., so we didn’t have time to think about it. We just knew that if we didn’t get married that day, we would not know when we would be able to.” So, the two rushed to contact family, sent them the link to the church’s livestream, got their outfits ready, and drove down to the venue.

For other couples, like Kelsey and Bryan, the decision wasn’t such a swift one; it took them two weeks to iron out the details. “Many tears were shed — pretty much exclusively by me,” said Kelsey. They, too, went through the ebbs and flows, the pros and cons, the questions and answers: Should we push back the date? Can we hold a small civil ceremony with family? Can they even travel here? What about securing a marriage license and picking up the dress on time? “It was so far from what we had imagined,” said Kelsey. “The livestream came about because of all the people we knew who couldn’t be there in person — not just Bryan’s parents, but my sister as well.” While it was too risky for Bryan’s parents to make the trip, his sister packed a twin mattress in the back of her car, slept when she needed to, and did the 30-plus-hour drive herself, going straight into quarantine for 14 days upon arriving.

Kelsey + Bryan Wedding
Courtesy of Bryan Hanggi and Kelsey Christie

The couple decided to use their church sanctuary for their ceremony, following physical distancing in spacing everyone out and keeping the numbers as small as possible to avoid further risk. They chose YouTube to stream their service, given that it required less audio equipment and was easier to set up, and planned to follow up with calls to friends and family after the ceremony. (It helped that Bryan worked in tech for five years, facilitating livestreams.)

Planning the Wedding, Round Two

Most couples spend months — if not years — planning every minute detail of their wedding, agonizing over color schemes, menu options, and the playlist. For Danielle and Ashwin, and Ashley and Tim, that timeline was limited to days.

Both couples had a mutual friend officiate their wedding, and Ashley and Tim even held a virtual rehearsal with key players a few days before the big day to work out all the technical kinks. “We were concerned that some of our less tech-savvy participants would struggle with getting into the meeting and getting their camera and audio set up, so we had a few trial runs with them before the day to get them comfortable with it,” said Tim.

This dictated the small number of guests invited to their Zoom wedding, though they recorded the entire event and sent it to all guests who planned to the attend the live wedding. They also purchased a good USB microphone and played around with lighting beforehand to make sure everything went as smoothly as possible.

“We also realized that in order for us to both be in the video frame together, we would both need to be sitting down due to a rather large height difference between Ashley (5’3) and me (6’9),” said Tim. The rehearsal made all the difference, according to the couple.

As for attire, Tim wore the tux he purchased for the wedding, while Ashley decided to keep her original outfit for their postponed celebration, to be held in March 2021. Instead, she donned a white dress from Rent the Runway. (Andrea also opted for wearing a backup dress — one from her bridal shower — since hers was still stuck in the store.)

Bride and Groom pose on front steps of their home where they wed, virtually
James Isbell

And although the couple had a friend from Austin livestream in to serve as their officiant, they also needed someone physically present, by law, to marry them, so another friend carried out the ring exchange and solemnized the marriage.

For Danielle and Ashwin in New York City, there were different rules to consider before moving forward. For their wedding to be considered official, the bride and groom had to be in the same room, but the officiant could be anywhere in the world, as long as they were licensed in New York state. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also recently signed an executive order allowing folks to get their marriage licenses remotely and also permitting clerks to perform ceremonies over video.

Once things were a-go, legally speaking, Danielle and Ashwin started planning their wedding for the second time, first rearranging their furniture to see how things would look. The backdrop for their ceremony — a curtain room divider with the Manhattan skyline — was chosen last minute. They even placed candles in front and LED lights behind, which changed colors as the wedding went on, making it appear as if the buildings on the curtain were lighting up.

Dani + Ashwin Virtual Wedding on Zoom in New York City
Courtesy of Danielle Schwartz

Then came the question of what to wear. With stores closed, Danielle did not have her wedding dress and Ashwin was without his tux. After emailing the tux company, however, Ashwin was able to pick up his suit the morning of, and Danielle used a substitute dress and veil from her bachelorette party. “I’m a big bald guy, so I didn’t need to get my hair done, and Dani did her own makeup and hair and it looked fantastic,” said Ashwin.

But they weren’t the only ones operating on a time crunch: Ashwin’s parents somehow managed to get their rings made within two days. Their officiant, who had the bulk of their ceremony already written, pulled an all-nighter to put the finishing touches on it, and everyone made their toasts the night before.

They held a virtual rehearsal, too. About an hour before showtime, the two jumped on a call with their officiant and a few close friends to walk through the ceremony, as well as conduct an audio and video test. Still, Ashwin recommends getting a cohost to coordinate the event from behind the scenes — someone who could have muted and unmuted people as necessary.

Kelsey and Bryan, who had the help of Bryan’s coworkers to set up the speakers and microphones, agreed. “It could become a distraction for the couple if there is no one to help with it on the day of,” he said. “Unless there is someone to run the equipment and connect the livestream for you, it will mean a lot of extra logistics and running around right before the ceremony to make sure everything is working. Because I had people that I trusted and some built-in backup plans for both audio and video, I was able to forget about it during the ceremony and enjoy the moment with Kelsey and Dan, our pastor and officiant.”

However, Kelsey and Bryan had other hurdles to overcome. “Every girl dreams of walking down the aisle to some special song. But since this would be posted live, using licensed music would put us at risk of having the video pulled down mid-stream. That was a hard one for me,” said Kelsey. “Eventually, we figured out that we could play the music for us in the church to hear, but it would be muted on the livestream. This whole process was really about compromise.”

The couple did a test-run at home, in which Bryan asked a couple to verify that they could see and hear him. But once they were at the church, there wasn’t much time to hold an actual rehearsal. We were just kind of like, ‘Okay, you’re going to stand here, so let’s test that mic and make sure it picks up your voice. Ready? Let’s start.’ And all of a sudden, I’m standing at the back of the aisle and we’re going,” said Kelsey.

Luckily, Kelsey was able to get her dress from the tailor in time for the festivities. A friend lent her veil, and she already had her shoes and supplies to create the bridal bouquets. All of the attire for the bridal party had also been ordered — and those who were local were able to attend.

“We were really conscientious about not asking people to do anything they were uncomfortable with so we gave them the option,” said Kelsey. “Come if you want, wear a mask or gloves or whatever you need to feel at ease.” One bridesmaid sat in the audience, about 20 feet from others.

Overall, a virtual wedding required a lot of coordinating, much like an in-person affair. “I think we were also a little surprised with how much practice and planning still needed to go into a virtual wedding,” said Tim.

Is Everyone on Mute?

Tuning in from separate corners of the country, with diverse rituals and guest lists, the couples shared a common conclusion: A virtual wedding feels a lot like a real one. Vows were recited, toasts were given, rings were exchanged, and the cake was cut, but beyond the sequence of events, the emotional elements of a wedding (pre-wedding butterflies, glassy-eyed guests, sweet, tender moments between the bride and groom) found their way on screen, too.

“The whole virtual wedding day really felt like how we imagined a live wedding would feel,” said Tim. “The entire day felt so special from the moment we woke up.”

From bottles of Champagne to typical wedding accoutrements like cake and flowers, the couples were showered with gifts leading up to the big day. Ashley even worked with a hair stylist from Nioxin, who helped her get wedding-ready over Zoom. The stylists coordinated a virtual session the day before the wedding and sent her a number of products, too. “Everyone got dressed up and poured their drink of choice to have on hand for the toasts. It really made it all feel very real and not at all virtual,” said Tim.

Their officiant, set up on a monitor between the couple to mimic a live wedding, even changed her Zoom background to reflect the scenery of their original venue in Palm Springs. The couple also shared a romantic first dance, which they did out in the San Francisco rain. “We were both surprised at how special it felt, and how it was so much like what we had imagined a wedding with all our closest friends and family would feel,” said Tim.

While Ashley and Tim kept their guest list intimate, with 18 bridesmaids and groomsmen plus family, Danielle and Ashwin were joined by 90 devices and nearly 200 people — a number much larger than their original guest count.

Thanks to Zoom’s waiting room feature, Danielle and Ashwin were able to greet each guest as they logged on. And they were all there: parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and friends. Although they were separated by screens and state lines, that night, the two families very much came together.

Once everyone had “arrived,” the festivities kicked off with a song from Dr. Elvis Francois, a well-known "singing surgeon" at the Mayo Clinic, followed by the ceremony, vows, toasts, and a cake-cutting. Danielle’s aunt also read a poem, and her dad managed to pull off a screen-share, showing a montage of photos from Danielle’s childhood as well as the couple’s life together. The couple then cracked some glass and received a blessing from a rabbi (both of which are done in the Jewish tradition), as well as participated in an Indian wedding ritual of putting a necklace on the bride.

“We did a lot of things that you would do at a wedding, just all in the comfort of our own home,” said Ashwin. “People were dancing in their own homes. One of my friends, who would have gotten drunk at our open-bar wedding, got drunk at home at his own open bar. And some of my single friends texted me after asking for a girl’s number. All the stuff that happens at a wedding took place on the Zoom wedding in many ways.”

Following the two-and-a-half-hour ceremony, Danielle and Ashwin invited their guests to stay on, have a drink, and share any thoughts. “Essentially 100 devices, 200 people, and every single person — one by one — said something,” said Ashwin. “They gave us their blessings and well wishes. I think it was a little bit of happiness in everyone’s life... everyone echoed that theme. This was a mental break for everyone.”

And there was an after-party, too. A few friends set up a video call to catch up and continue the celebration, just as they would have in person.

But it wasn’t without its challenges. “We couldn’t make anyone else a cohost, so while giving vows or doing speeches or coordinating the event and going back and forth with the officiant, I had to mute and unmute people,” said Ashwin. “We had grandparents on the screen, who didn’t understand the concept of muting and unmuting themselves, so I had to mute everyone, unmute certain people, and then unmute everyone again for an applause, so it was a little hard.”

Still, like Tim, Ashwin was surprised by how real it felt. “I definitely got the jitters right before… and when we read our vows, it was very moving to see other peoples' reactions. We could see everyone and ourselves on the screens — it was a striking moment,” he said. “It was surprising for me; I didn’t anticipate it to be that real.”

Kelsey and Bryan also held an after-party of sorts. While the ceremony was the only portion that was livestreamed, the couple hosted what they called a “parade,” in which guests were given an address and told they could drive by to offer their well wishes if they wanted. The location, near a school, had an extra lane for morning drop-off that people could pull into and say hi. “People had signs and streamers and silly string. It was really fun,” said Kelsey. “Over the hour that we stood outside, there were about 30 to 40 cars that came by. It was nice because we got to talk to every single person who drove by. I think the hard thing — and really the only negative thing — about it was not being able to hug people!”

The Bloopers Reel

Much like the real deal, a remote wedding was not without its own ups and downs — even more so with no rehearsal and minimal time to plan. But it was the improvised flashes, the spur-of-the-moment surprises, the unexpected mishaps, and the occasional technical difficulties that ushered in a few chuckles, that made it all the more memorable.

From a Champagne spill in the middle of the event to guests unintentionally making private comments public, Danielle and Ashwin encountered their fair share of slip-ups. But they remained in good spirits — they had dealt with worse, after all.

“People stood up at one point to show us that they weren’t wearing any pants, and Danielle’s sister did it during her toast,” Ashwin said, laughing through his words as if it was happening all over again. “One of our friends also had a whole dinner while attending our wedding. He was starving, he had worked a 24-hour shift, and he wanted to be a part of this, but he was eating the whole time.”

Ashley and Tim, too, had a comical fumble. “There was one instance where we ran into some technical difficulties, as we had some delays getting the first dance song, ‘How Deep Is Your Love’ by The Bee Gees to start playing,” said Tim. “The video of the dance was a little choppy, but it was funny and everyone got the idea.”

For Danielle and Ashwin, however, being on camera made things uncomplicated, easing a bit of the pressure when something didn’t go as planned. “When these ups and downs happen in a real wedding, you get more bothered or stressed by them, but it was okay because you’re video chatting with people,” said Danielle.

Ashwin chimed in, saying, “I think everyone knew this was low stress — just a moment of love. Everyone just showed up and did it live, and I think doing it live had its own advantages. We’re watching the video now, and it’s really raw. I think the rawness is good.”

The Benefits of a Zoom Wedding

No, it wasn’t the event they initially envisioned, but in many ways, it was even better.

“At a 150- or 200-person wedding, you can get lost in the shuffle, and you might not even be able to see all the guests and greet them. But in a Zoom wedding, you know exactly who is there, and they all talk to you. You can see everyone and their reactions. The whole event becomes more memorable and way more in touch… It was all on display, so it created a sense of transparency,” said Ashwin.

And those weren’t the only advantages of going digital. Not only was their ceremony more robust in length and substance, with no added time pressure, but they were also able to expand their guest list and invite people more liberally than at a traditional wedding, which often comes with space and cost constraints. Even grandparents across the country, who have limited mobility and might not have otherwise made the event, were able to log in and participate.

Plus, Danielle and Ashwin still plan to hold a party when the time is right, giving them even more to look forward to. “That gives us a lot of joy spaced out over time. We get the double benefit of having an online wedding — we get some joy today and we get some joy in the future,” said Ashwin.

Both Andrea and Douglas and Bryan and Ashley also plan to have a reception in the future — in December and July, respectively. “We're hoping that all this will settle down in time for it to still happen in July, but if it doesn't, we know we can reschedule to later in the year or push it way out and have a killer one year anniversary party,” said Kelsey.

What’s more? For Kelsey and Bryan, a livestream on YouTube allowed them to relive the experience. “We could go back home that night and watch the wedding… We got to laugh at our little jokes and the fun moments all over again,” he said.

And Andrea and Douglas were surprised by how many people watched their ceremony. “People we didn’t even invite to our wedding were watching and posting our ceremony,” said Andrea. “Of course, everyone was free at 6:30, so we really felt a sense of community.”

The Aftermath

Dealt an unfortunate hand, the couples turned a bleak moment into a bright spot. “It was a way for us to feel somewhat ‘normal’ for a little bit in the new world we all find ourselves in these days,” said Tim. “We are hopeful that we will still get to celebrate in person with everyone in March 2021, so this is just something extra that we were able to experience. And now we have a unique story to tell for the rest of our lives.”

And though they have a party planned next March, Ashley and Tim feel like a weight has been lifted. “Now that we are technically married, it takes a lot of the pressure off that date to get it all ‘perfect,’” he said.

The same goes for Danielle and Ashwin, whose emotional turbulence has finally settled. “The Zoom wedding helped distill down the most essential and powerful elements of a wedding that matter,” said Ashwin. “We turned a sad thing into something very positive, and we really needed that… The key point of a wedding is being together. The party doesn’t matter, the flowers don’t matter, the dress doesn’t matter, the DJ doesn’t matter — none of that matters. What matters is who you’re marrying, that you’re together and love each other, and that your friends are there to support you.”

Tips for Other Couples

Two words: Do it. Danielle and Ashwin along with Ashley and Tim overwhelmingly shared this perspective.

“Do it! It was really so much fun and felt so special. In a way, we think it was even more special than our live ceremony would have been because it stripped away all the distractions of a big wedding event and made us focus on what the ceremony is all about: our commitment to and love for each other, and promising ourselves to each other in front of the people closest to us,” said Tim.

Ashwin acknowledged the unorthodox nature of a Zoom wedding, understanding the hesitation many couples might feel with going for it. However, he felt like this was the best decision.

“Absolutely do it and don’t think about it. Don’t hold back, just do it,” he said. “Getting married is the first step of starting a life together, and if the first thing you’re going to do is let your circumstances and a situation you can’t control call the shots, that’s not going to bode well. The first thing you want to do is show resolve and strength.”

Andrea and Douglas also had friends and family who encouraged them to wait, but as disappointed as they were that not everyone could attend, the couple went with their gut, and recommends others considering a virtual wedding do the same: “Be true to yourself and your significant other. We knew in our hearts that we just wanted to be married, especially in these times of uncertainty,” said Andrea. She added, “Being able to livestream our wedding was such a blessing because it gave us a little control over something that has really overtaken all of our lives.”

But it’s alright to be sad about it. “Leading up to our wedding, I wrote a post on my personal blog about our process. I talked about how this was a death of a vision,” said Kelsey. “We had both imagined our wedding being a certain way and watching it all slip away was really devastating. What was helpful though was allowing ourselves to grieve that loss.

"I struggled for a little while. I thought to myself, ‘There are people literally dying around the world right now and you're worried about a wedding? Get over yourself.’ That only made it harder. By not allowing myself to fully feel sad and disappointed and angry, it only tired and stressed me out more. And it made it more difficult to start thinking about a plan B wedding. I was resistant because I was still in denial. Once I gave myself permission to feel all those things, it got a little easier. My advice would be to go through that emotional process. You've dreamed and planned and put so much effort and energy into this day and the idea of it falling apart is legitimately heartbreaking.”

Bryan added, “But at the end of the day, if you’re married, the day was a success.”

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