When Coronavirus Hit, We Knew We Had to Get Married—ASAP
When Sarah Bertness and Justin Glawe faced the reality of the coronavirus pandemic and the practical benefits of marriage, they knew they had to tie the knot as fast as possible.
In order to properly preface our last-minute elopement during a global pandemic we probably need to start with how we met.
It was July 7, 2016 when I received the call. How far was I from downtown Dallas? A man had gone on a shooting rampage, injuring and killing police officers, and The Daily Beast needed a reporter on the ground ASAP.
Never mind that I was an art and music writer, or that my phone was about to die or that I was in my gym clothes. I hopped in my car and headed a few blocks up from Dealey Plaza, where John F. Kennedy was shot and killed, and pulled out a notepad. The next day I returned to the sudden and jarring normalcy of my day job, honing influencer social strategy and discussing the ins and outs of our next viral marketing campaign at New York Fashion Week.
When an editor reached out with yet-to-be confirmed information about the shooter, I very soon found myself out of my element as I sat in my car outside the South Dallas Nation of Islam mosque, where the shooter, Micah Johnson, once attended services. I was in over my head, so unbeknownst to me I decided to get even more so. I went to meet the reporter the Beast sent in to take over the story. He was in town from Chicago. His name was Justin Glawe—my now-husband who will occasionally chip in with his recollections as the story progresses.
Justin: I’d figured out who had covered the shooting and looked her up, obviously. After that, it wasn’t a difficult decision to meet up with her and get the lay of the land, which I would have done regardless of the beauty and intelligence or lack thereof of the reporter on the ground. I just happened to be very lucky she had both.
Despite this albeit abnormal “first date,” Justin soon relocated to Dallas, and we moved in together in a house on a creek which we lovingly called the hideaway. Three years later my work took us to Savannah, Georgia—a town with enough charm in each square for a billion Instagrams, bachelorette parties, and year-round vacationers combined. I remember when we first came here we looked at each other and said, “this wouldn’t be bad for a wedding.” Though maybe that was The Grey’s fried chicken biscuit talking.
Justin: I remember the conversation being more like, “Maybe we should move here.” But that could have been the post-chicken biscuit whiskey obscuring my memory. Apparently she had other ideas.
Fast-forward to this past January and we were engaged (romantically enough on a night at home watching the Showtime documentary 16 Shots about the shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, which Justin also covered), and from that night we agreed—Mexico City destination wedding.
We’d spent our first New Year’s there, and countless trips after—visiting my best friend who would be our officiant, and falling in love with the sights, smells and sounds; Casa Azul and its cactus garden, a night at the lucha fights, the pre-recorded chant of “tamales oaxaqueños” coming from street vendors.
Though we’d never been in any hurry, things started to fall into place quickly. Within days I’d found our dream location (Proyecto Público Prim, in case you want to join me in fantasizing about our ideal backdrop for a proper wedding fiesta that won’t happen any time soon), and a week later Justin—in Mexico City for a story—was doing a walk-through and sending me videos.
We started making guest lists, picking songs, and checking dates for an engagement party. It was the most fun free-time activity we’d ever had—dreaming up this great big celebration of everything and everyone we love.
Then the world stopped.
“For two weeks I pushed it from my mind completely. Then reality hit.”
It began unassumingly. My parents cancelled their vacation to Asia as COVID-19 consumed Wuhan, China. Then the fears turned stateside as COVID-19 cases exploded in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, making clear the virus was headed here. At the beginning I was so busy managing crisis communications at the office that all things wedding took a firm back seat. We cancelled our March wedding-planning trip to Mexico City. I pressed pause on the dress hunt and my DIY veil project. And then the longevity set in.
We self-quarantined and began to work remotely from our one-bedroom apartment—a feat alone which might as well count as a self-filed marriage license. We set up Zoom happy hours with friends and family in Dallas, New York, and Illinois and the default question remained “how’s wedding planning?” And the answer was, it wasn’t.
Justin: My wedding planning always entailed just getting back down to Mexico City as much as possible, so whatever was happening late at night on Sarah’s phones and laptops, I was only vaguely aware of. Still, I had some ideas—mainly involving giant trompos of pastor and bottles of chucho—all of which are now on hold. We’ll get back to it some day, when the world returns to a more normal state.
With no indication of when we’d be able to travel again, I’d stopped endlessly scrolling floral inspiration and decor ideas. I watched as friends cancelled or rescheduled their own weddings. Meanwhile, ours became completely out of reach. The CDC recommended that those planning weddings should cancel them. Who knew when 150-plus of our nearest and dearest would be able to meet in one place? Let alone travel to another country.
Never mind the pre-planning—without being able to see the venue in person we couldn’t set a date, which determines every other detail. All of the bridal boutiques had closed—not to mention the gym where we’d kicked off our clichéd “sweating for the wedding” routine.
For two weeks I pushed it from my mind completely. Then reality hit. There was no new timeline. Our current quarantine—the world’s, that is—is our reality for the foreseeable future. And for me, Justin, and, I’m sure, scores of couples across the world in a similar predicament, there was no safety net of technicalities if things really went south.
While the wedding would be nice to have, we were getting married to make it official. We were each other’s family, there for each other in case of emergency and—with our very broken system for freelancers and independent business owners like Justin—making it official meant getting him proper health care just in case the unthinkable happened and COVID-19 found its way inside our quarantine. If one of us got sick, the technicality of being married would be an important one.
So our brainstorming every detail—hours of streaming and back and forth on the perfect Rolling Stones riff to walk down the aisle to, my bottomless mood board of local painters and collage artists we could commission to make the design details uniquely ours, the venue aesthetic (my call), and the menu (his)—quickly pivoted to the only thing that now mattered: making it official.
Justin: We were always going to get married in the United States first, but the pandemic brought some immediacy to those plans. It just seemed right to be husband and wife just in case the world actually ended. Plus, there’s the not-so-insignificant matter of needing health insurance just in case I end up getting sick.
The day before Savannah went into a mandatory shelter-in-place we went down to the Probate Court and applied for our license. It was the first time I had put on makeup, earrings or real shoes in weeks. We took a selfie. There’s no such thing as a courthouse wedding in Savannah, so we researched local officiants.
I found one advertising “elope to Savannah,” and a quick “simple signing” ceremony on her website. It was cheap, quick and official. We reached out immediately. And then came the silver lining: due to social distancing and safety procedures, all signings were moved from their office conference room to an outdoor venue—the fountain at Forsyth Park.
We wanted to keep things celebratory, so we booked it for that Saturday afternoon, coincidentally my birthday. At first we figured we’d keep it a secret from everyone apart from our parents. After all, would anyone want to come to an eventual wedding if they knew we were already hitched? So we asked a friend to help us shoot some “engagement photos” by the fountain and surprised him. We met our officiant with a wave from 6 feet away, and within a minute we’d said our “I Do’s.” Done deal.
We had all of Savannah’s historic district—80 degrees and sunny—to ourselves that afternoon, so we took a post-ceremony walk through downtown, snapping photos and reveling in a marriage that happened faster than the episode of Cheers we watched the night before We treated ourselves to a bottle of bubbly and FaceTimed our parents (in Illinois and Rhode Island, respectively) from our front porch. Then I made a box of funfetti cake, we put on The Blues Brothers, and we had our first dance to “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Justin: Without the pandemic, the historic district would never have been so deserted. There are silver linings in all things. As for the first dance, before we were engaged I decided not to spend a bunch of money on season tickets for the Chicago Cubs like I’d planned for a decade as I waited on the waiting list (responsible), so I thought I’d remind her of the sacrifice that I’d made and pay homage to the city I happily left behind for her (for real).
“There wasn’t any debate that this was the time to commit to each other”
What we did is not uncommon in these times. Knowing things can change by the day or hour, we made a decision to solidify our commitment for the historical record. People across the world are doing the same, taking time to note what’s truly important in ways large and small.
When it came time for us to face the reality of this pandemic and make decisions that were best for us, there wasn’t any debate that this was the time to commit to each other. But it was a responsible decision too. Now, Justin can get on my employer-provided health care after he was unexpectedly dropped by his provider two months ago for reasons that remain a confusing and ridiculous matter of disagreement between the government and the health insurance company.
In a way, our decision is not dissimilar to decisions being made across the country as everyone from governors to mayors to pastors and everyday citizens implement policies and procedures that they believe are best for them in the stunning and likely criminal absence of presidential leadership.
Our decision was less noble but nonetheless similarly rooted in the profound uncertainty of our current moment.
Justin: While everything about now remains uncertain, I always knew that this day would come—I knew it that first night amid the chaos and confusion of a downtown Dallas reeling in tragedy and horror. Odd, I know. It’s just the timing that’s different.
We’re impulsive people—you have to be to get on a plane and fly somewhere to cover a story just to make a living (me), and to meet a person over a weekend and start a long-distance relationship (both of us). So faced with our collective uncertainty, it seems only right to make things more stable, even in this small and personal way.
Our secret wedding was too difficult to keep quiet about. Once all was said and done we figured we’d told all of the most important people—his parents and mine, his best man, my bridesmaids (the photos were too good not to share). So word got out, and we decided to spread the news with the big wide social media web. Because at this point, we all could use some joyful surprises—and who knows when we’ll be able to get back to planning the dream wedding.
Until then, we’ll remain quarantined, doing little daily rituals to keep ourselves sane during our cohabiting and co-working honeymoon. When we do get a second chance at getting hitched, we’ll savor all the seemingly mundane details and stressors that come with planning a wedding, because it will have meant that the world has made it through this crisis and returned to something resembling normalcy. And so did we.