Very few people will be smashing cakes into the faces of their loved ones this spring.

COVID-19 has brought many couples’ wedding plans, and planned traditions, to a halt. While for some lovebugs, that’s an annoying inconvenience, for others, it poses a nearly life-and-death (or at least financial death) predicament. That’s especially true for people who need to be able to access their spouse’s health insurance.

In early April, the city announced it was making changes to help address those concerns. More than 500 couples applied for “emergency" wedding licenses in the first week they were available.

‘I just cried all day’

“I see nine different doctors. For the first six months of a year, I have 25 doctors’ appointments a month, and the next six months, I have up to 10 per month,” says Kirsten Wazalis, 49, of Mayfair, who, pre-coronavirus, was set to get married on April 18. “I have a rare disease so I was counting on having [my partner’s] insurance as soon as possible. To find out that was going to be delayed — well, let me tell you, depression sets in hard.”

Wazalis has Cowden syndrome, a disease that creates tumors throughout her body. In under five years, she battled, and overcame, breast, thyroid, and endometrial cancer. Routinely, she undergoes tests like MRIs and brain scans to make sure she’s tumor-free.

But recently, Wazalis stopped getting the tests. After making a paperwork error when filing for Medicare, she ended up with a lapse in health insurance. She wrote letters every week to try to sort it out, but wasn’t having any success. She and her partner, Glenn Leader, agreed they needed to get Wazalis on Leader’s insurance plan immediately. So they decided to push their wedding date, originally scheduled for August, to April. Soon after, COVID-19 came crashing down on their plans.

“We were just going to do it at City Hall — four days after making the appointment, the city shut down along with the [Register of Wills] office,” says Wazalis. “I didn’t get out of bed. I just cried all day. It just felt like everything was working against us.”

Then, Wazalis received some good news: Philadelphia’s Register of Wills opened up applications for virtual “emergency” marriage licenses. Wazalis applied immediately, along with the hundreds of others.

Kirsten Wazalis, left, and her fiance Glenn Leader, right, recently applied for an emergency marriage license through Philadelphia's Register of Wills. Wazalis, who has a rare disease called Cowden Syndrome, needed to get on Leader's insurance plan in order to keep up with regular doctor's appointments.
Courtesy Kirsten Wazalis
Kirsten Wazalis, left, and her fiance Glenn Leader, right, recently applied for an emergency marriage license through Philadelphia's Register of Wills. Wazalis, who has a rare disease called Cowden Syndrome, needed to get on Leader's insurance plan in order to keep up with regular doctor's appointments.

It became an instant sense of relief knowing that she’ll soon be able to return to her doctor appointments. “I can’t even tell you how much it means to me,” says Wazalis. “We already called Glenn’s union about the insurance. And I already have my genetic specialist on call.”

Wazalis and Leader will wed in their living room, under an arch that Wazalis hand-decorated with ivory cloth. Afterward, they’ll share a dance to Lionel Richie’s My Love. “I always tell him we need more slow dances in the kitchen anyway,” says Wazalis.

Who can get an emergency license

Once an in-person process, the marriage application and licensing process is now carried out entirely through email and video conferencing.

As of last Friday, more than 85 Philadelphia couples were issued self-uniting licenses. Nineteen were denied, and the remaining applications are being reviewed. In Pennsylvania, self-uniting licenses allow couples to marry themselves without a priest or officiant. Just two witnesses need to be present.

Those who qualify to apply include:

  • People with health issues that could lead to a fatality caused by COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Frontline first responders.
  • Military members.
  • People with immediate medical concerns who were planning to marry but now want to accelerate the timeline for health insurance reasons.
  • Individuals on a visa with a departure date approaching.

“At the very least, we wanted to be available for people who need us despite this crisis,” says Tracey Gordon, Philadelphia’s Register of Wills. “Say, for instance, a police officer is on the front line. And he has a fiancée. If he catches the virus and dies, she wouldn’t be next to kin unless they were legally married. How are we going to send people out on the front line, and not at least give them the ability to set their assets?”

A mix of frontline workers and those with visa issues have applied, but the majority of applicants so far are people dealing with health insurance concerns, Gordon says.

With unemployment numbers reaching record highs, it comes as no surprise. People are not only losing their jobs, but their health insurance along with it.

Health insurance relief

Richard Stewart, 50, an immunocompromised kidney transplant recipient, recently found himself confronting this situation.

“I work at an independent bookstore, and they closed up when Mayor Kenney gave the order. My insurance will end in April,” says Stewart, 50. “When I found out we couldn’t get married as planned, there became this constant feeling of anxiety. If I came into contact with coronavirus, without medical insurance, it would destroy our finances.”

Stewart is now in the process of obtaining an emergency marriage license and will have the chance to marry his fiancée, Michelle Shirk, by the end of the month. This means he can join Shirk’s health insurance plan before his coverage ends.

Recently furloughed and with his health insurance about to end, Richard Stewart, 50, an immunocompromised kidney transplant recipient, became worried when he found out his wedding would be cancelled. Philadelphia's new emergency wedding license policy means he'll be able to marry his fiance, Michelle Shirk, by the end of the month and avoid a lapse in health insurance coverage.
Courtesy Adrienne Ingram of Element Photography
Recently furloughed and with his health insurance about to end, Richard Stewart, 50, an immunocompromised kidney transplant recipient, became worried when he found out his wedding would be cancelled. Philadelphia's new emergency wedding license policy means he'll be able to marry his fiance, Michelle Shirk, by the end of the month and avoid a lapse in health insurance coverage.

“We already wrote our vows, so we’ll say those, and I don’t know, eat cake or something,” says Shirk. “It’s definitely a unique way to get married, but we weren’t big wedding people anyway, and it’s actually kind of nice. Now we get to have an elopement and a party later with our friends.”

Next spring, they’ll host a reception at Manayunk Brewing Company. While their dream Switzerland honeymoon is postponed, Stewart says he’s “as happy as can be.”

“Now that we know we can have financial stability, it’s taken a lot of my worry away. Even though I haven’t left the house all but once since the stay-at-home order, I can at least feel a little more ‘normal,’ ” says Stewart. “And really, I’ve been wanting to be married to Michelle since the day I asked her, so after a year and a half of planning, I just couldn’t be more excited that we’re doing it.”