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‘Our numbers are crazy’: Despite the pandemic, Orange County is busy issuing marriage licenses

Paulina Cruz marries Alonso De La Torre and Viridiana Tapia at the Old Orange County Courthouse.
Paulina Cruz, a county clerk with the Orange County Clerk-Recoder Department, marries Alonso De La Torre and Viridiana Tapia Diosdado at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana on Feb. 5.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

You may now kiss the bride, the clerk behind the glass announced after a young masked couple exchanged vows the other day at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana.

“Like, actually kiss her?” asked Alonso de la Torre Vega, prompting guests watching the ceremony on a Zoom call to laugh out loud.

Yes, the clerk confirmed.

So Torres tore off his mask and planted one on his new bride Viridiana Tapia Diosdado.

Then they strapped their masks back on and turned to a computer that the bride’s brother was holding up so that they could wave to their friends and family members watching the nuptials from the safety of their own homes.

“Thank you for logging on,” Torres told the Zoom crowd, laughing and waving.

Welcome to love in the time of COVID. The pandemic has shut down all sorts of life events but it is no match for amour.

Alonso De La Torre places a wedding ring on Viridiana Tapia's finger.
Alonso De La Torre places a wedding ring on Viridiana Tapia’s finger during their wedding ceremony at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana on Feb. 5.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

In fact courthouse ceremonies jumped from roughly 11,000 in 2019 to 14,000 in 2020, according to county Clerk-Recorder Hugh Nguyen.

“My God, our numbers are crazy,” he says. “We were busier last year than any year in a long time.”

Total marriage licenses issued, whether the ceremony was at the courthouse or somewhere else, rose from 22,230 in 2019 to 2020 27,816.

Nguyen said he was forced to shut down courthouse weddings for several weeks last spring when the pandemic first hit and it unnerved him.

Then one day while driving down the road a brilliant idea popped into his head. What if he borrowed some ticket booths from the Orange County Fairgrounds? That way his clerks could be protected behind glass while they performed marriages.

Fair officials were happy to help. So he asked the Honda Center in Anaheim, where the Ducks play hockey, if he could put three ticket booths in their ghost-town parking lot to perform marriages.

On April 9 Hitched at Honda Center went public. By day’s end, Nguyen says, 10,000 phone calls had poured in, crashing the county line. Turns out many neighboring counties were still closed for wedding business or at least super limited.

Angela Rugelio photographs the wedding of Gabriela Gutierrez to Diego Gonzalez.
Angela Rugelio, left, photographs the wedding of her daughter, Gabriela Gutierrez, to Diego Gonzalez at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana on Friday, Feb. 5.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Nguyen borrowed three more fair ticket booths (for a total of six) to meet the demand. Over the next three months, couples from across California — and eventually 36 states — drove to the Anaheim parking lot to tie the knot.

“It was huge,” Nguyen says, adding they wound up doing up to 160 marriages a day, double the pre-COVID number. “We were jamming. It was crazy.”

With brides floating across the asphalt in flowing white gowns and grooms popping champagne on the hoods of their car, it became one of the bright spots in an anxious summer, making headlines as far as Dubai, London and Argentina.

Weddings are back at the courthouse now, but by appointment only. Couples must wait outside until they are called. And bride and groom are allowed only one guest — as opposed to up to 100 allowed prior to the pandemic.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in May an order permitting virtual weddings, Nguyen jumped on it, so that’s another option.

Diego Gonzalez and Gabriela Gutierrez kiss following their wedding ceremony.
Diego Gonzalez and Gabriela Gutierrez kiss following their wedding ceremony at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana on Feb. 5.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“A lot of military people use the virtual weddings, first responders who can’t get away from their job, and people who are sick,” he says.

The county did 1,560 virtual marriages in (the second half of) 2020. Usually weddings are not performed on Sundays, but Nguyen booked two dozen virtual ceremonies for today, since it is Valentine’s Day.

“People are in love and they’re just so happy they are able to get married,” Nguyen says.

That describes Alonso and Viridiana. After exchanging vows, the high school sweethearts drove back to their Santa Ana house, sipped tequila, ate cake and danced around their living room.

Take that, COVID.

Alonso De La Torre and Viridiana Tapia pose at the Old Orange County Courthouse.
Alonso De La Torre and Viridiana Tapia pose for a photo after being married at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana on Feb. 5.
(Scott Smeltzer / Smeltzer)

Lori Basheda is a contributor to TimesOC.

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