Masked Marriages and ‘Slow’ Weddings: Loudoun Couples Reinvent Tradition During COVID-19

They took their masks off for the kiss.

When Faith Albers and Adrian Gerber got married last week, they took the idea of a small, intimate ceremony to a new level. Their April 20 wedding at the Loudoun County Courthouse in downtown Leesburg included just the couple and their officiant, Leesburg Town Council member Suzanne Fox. Everyone wore a mask.

This spring, Loudoun couples are postponing, retooling and rethinking their weddings in the midst of COVID-19. Some are pushing back and holding off, while others are pushing up and jumping in. The changes are creating ripples for families, venues, vendors and celebrants and in some cases inspiring creative approaches.

For Albers, 30, and Gerber, 39, of Aldie, the pandemic created a “let’s do it” moment. After a three-year engagement, the couple decided to take the plunge on a Monday in April.

“We had always planned to have a small ceremony with close friends and family, knowing that it was going to be small … Obviously with COVID, our options became very small in terms of what we could do,” Albers said. “I feel like we kind of had to reinvent what that would look like. We said, ‘You know what—let’s do it. Let’s go to the courthouse.’”

Faith Albers and Adrian Gerber of Aldie were married at the Loudoun County Courthouse on April 20. The couple plans to celebrate with friends and family down the road. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]

The couple had a spring 2020 wedding in mind but hadn’t made firm plans. When Albers discovered they could make an appointment to get their marriage license and hold a civil ceremony the same afternoon, they opted for weekday vows at the courthouse. The couple are foodies and love downtown Leesburg’s restaurant scene, Albers said, but they realized many restaurants are closed for take-out on Mondays. So they decorated their kitchen, and Gerber made a candlelit dinner.

“We made the most of it. After everything, we had nowhere to go but home. …We honeymooned at home for a day,” Albers said. “It was really enjoyable to be at home and be in that happy moment together.”

Albers says she and her new husband have no regrets about their quiet, couple-focused ceremony. They did miss the presence of friends and family, including both sets of parents who live nearby, and are planning a party down the road. But they’re not scheduling anything firm yet.

“I think every family wants to be involved in those special moments, but they’re happy for us, and we certainly want to have an opportunity to celebrate with them in a more social way,” Albers said.

For Albers, there’s a new paradigm in the crucible of COVID—and maybe even a new normal.

“I told a friend I felt like we were elders of yesteryear. …Weddings have become this huge thing where you spend $30, $40, $50 thousand dollars on one day. Part of me thought maybe this will be a new trend. … It felt so incredibly intimate,” she said. “If nothing else, it will be so memorable.”

Faith Albers and Adrian Gerber of Aldie were married at the Loudoun County Courthouse on April 20. The couple plans to celebrate with friends and family down the road. [Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]

Sally Ontiveros and her fiancé Ian Fuze have strong western Loudoun ties and were planning a big, colorful party in late May at a Lovettsville-area barn.

“It was going to be low-key, but it was going to be big because we have a lot of friends and family,” Ontiveros said. “My family is Hispanic, and we were going to have a Mexican fiesta with a taco bar and a margarita bar and mariachis … a big party with all the people that we love.”

Their plan at this point is to push back and scale back to a smaller event later in the summer.

“It’s just so up in the air that we just decided to take the first break we can and whenever some of this dies down, take that as an opportunity to go get married,” Ontiveros said.

Fuze’s mother, Barbara Lamborne, owns Greenstone Fields flower farm near Waterford, and Ontiveros says they’re now considering a small ceremony at the farm this summer, with hopes of a bigger party for out-of-town friends down the road. Ontiveros calls her new approach a “slow wedding” that will likely unfold in phases. They have a credit for a tent rental from an area small business and plan to use it for a bigger party when they can. Ontiveros, 28, says she and Fuze, 31, may have different expectations about what a wedding is supposed to be than past generations.

“It really is just more about the couple,” Ontiveros said. “We’re kind of taking it in stride. I’ve never really had big aspirations for my wedding. I’ve always just wanted something laid back with a lot of good food and good people. I feel like we’re still getting that.”

Ontiveros is also looking at the COVID crisis from another perspective: she’s co-owner of The Hive bakery in Brunswick, MD, where she and Fuze recently bought a house. As a bride-to-be, Ontiveros said, she understands that cakes are a big investment, and both couples and small businesses need support during challenging times.

“We’re being really flexible with the wedding orders,” Ontiveros said. 

Since most weddings go way beyond the couple, affecting venues, a range of vendors, celebrants, travel and lodging, when something as disruptive as COVID comes along, the ripple effects are significant. Many couples are pushing weddings back until this fall or 2021 during an already challenging time for wineries and breweries, including some of the county’s most popular wedding venues.

“The vast majority are postponing,” said Visit Loudoun’s social sales and client services manager Dana Henry, adding that most of the outright cancellations she’s seen are from military couples who don’t have flexibility to reschedule. With couples pushing back to the already popular fall timeframe, this means more couples looking at Friday and Sunday weddings with fall Saturdays already booked.

“Most venues have their own approach to this. What I can say is they’re all very willing to work with the couples to rebook the wedding within a reasonable time frame,” Henry said. “A lot of the venues are finding that they’re having Friday, Saturday, Sundays [in the fall] … With all of these weddings that have had to pivot.”

Starting in May, Stone Tower Winery near Leesburg usually hosts three weddings each weekend, said Jillian Zimmerman, senior weddings and events manager. Zimmerman says she’s already postponed nearly 75 events this spring, including 30 weddings. The winery is giving couples a calendar year to reschedule their events, with most pushing back until this fall or the spring of 2021. 

“We’re trying to make that as easy as possible on them,” Zimmerman said. 

Some couples are doing small elopement ceremonies on their original dates and rescheduling their receptions, Zimmerman said. And with uncertainty continuing as the summer and fall move forward, couples are having to get creative, with some planning two-part receptions to split family and friends up into smaller groups.

“We’re hearing a lot of very innovative things that are happening,” Zimmerman said.

The shutdown in the wedding pipeline is also affecting celebrants. The Rev. Guy Johnson of Leesburg is a United Church of Christ pastor in Walkersville, MD, and a civil celebrant who performs weddings in Maryland and Virginia. 

Johnson is a self-described extrovert who’s missing both his congregation and his wedding couples, and a spring without a calendar full of weddings is a big adjustment.

“As a pastor, once people know you do weddings, you never have a free Saturday for the rest of your life,” he said with a laugh. But both Johnson and his husband have underlying health conditions, so even taking on a small ceremony would present a risk.

For the Rev. Guy Johnson of Leesburg, COVID cancellations mean losing a chance to do one of his favorite things: joining couples in marriage. [Courtesy of Guy Johnson]

“Until we know what’s going to happen, I can’t take the risk of going out, doing a wedding, interacting with someone who’s asymptomatic and bringing it home. …Two high risk people can’t take the chance,” he said. “And while I love doing weddings, I love living a little more.”

Like many celebrants, Johnson uses the Thumbtack app to connect with couples looking for officiants. Johnson has so far canceled 20 ceremonies since restrictions were announced. He still has one wedding on the books for October, but other opportunities are drying up in the face of uncertainty.

“When I tell you that it’s dried up, it’s become a drought,” he said. “There is nothing coming down the pike.”

Weddings are also an additional source of income for the pastor of a small congregation.

“The money is a side benefit,” he said. “To not be able to help people celebrate what should be one of the most important days of their lives and to have that denied is heartbreaking for me.”

For the Underwood and Bassett families, a canceled May wedding brought a little heartbreak but also plenty of creativity and resilience from a young couple and their families. For Ashlyn and Drew Bassett, a big wedding in Loudoun turned into a tiny wedding in Florida in just a few short weeks, while Ashlyn’s Loudoun-based family channeled their emotions into an adorable YouTube lip sync video to show support from faraway.

With help from her mom, Anne Underwood, Ashlyn Bassett, who grew up in Ashburn and now lives in Tampa, was planning a May 8 wedding for 250 people at a large venue near Purcellville. In the end, Bassett, 22, married her college sweetheart at an April 10 wedding with just a dozen guests in Florida. 

“We joke that we were at Plan Z by the time that we actually did the wedding,” Bassett said.

Bassett and Underwood watched as maximum numbers rapidly dropped as the weeks moved forward the week after Governor Ralph Northam’s March 12 emergency declaration.

“We were just kind of watching it and everything was changing day by day,” Bassett said.

For Ashlyn and Drew Bassett, a 250-guest wedding in Purcellville turned into a 12-person ceremony in Florida in the wake of COVID-19. [Courtesy of Brandi Richardson]

After the initial declaration, with gatherings of under 100 people still allowed, the couple planned to keep the wedding in Virginia with close family and their bridal party—around 50 people—at their original venue. But as the commonwealth put in place a 10-person limit, the couple realized that a Virginia wedding this spring wasn’t in the cards. Both bride and groom have large immediate and extended families, and both sides were worried about possible travel-related problems. The decision then became whether to postpone indefinitely or make a big shift. Bassett said she and her husband were ready to start their lives together, and in the context of their Christian beliefs, the celebration was secondary.

“For us it was about being able to get married, our marriage and being able to have that. Between the two options of waiting ‘til the fall or waiting ‘til next year or doing it now, it was kind of a no-brainer,” Bassett said “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t difficult. … I was not always gracious about it, but I will say that I’ve learned a whole lot.”

The Bassetts put together a small wedding in Tampa on April 10 with a total of 12 people, including Drew’s parents and four siblings, with his sister Anna filling in as maid of honor in place of eight planned bridesmaids. Drew’s father officiated the ceremony in a friend’s backyard, followed by a parade of cars filled with well-wishers. Back in Virginia, the Underwoods dressed up and joined family and friends from around the country watching the wedding on Zoom.

“Once the day came and passed, I felt a lot of peace. I feel good about it,” Bassett said.

For Underwood, her husband Tip and Ashlyn’s siblings and their families in Virginia, the decision was tough but understandable.

“I cried really hard as the mother to not be there, to accept the reality that we’re not going to be there, that my husband can’t walk her down the aisle. It was emotional,” Anne Underwood said. “At the end of the day, we’ve said this all along: we value the marriage not the party. We want the party, we want the celebration and we want everybody to love on them. But we value the union of the marriage and them beginning their life together.”

Inspired by an upbeat viral video of a Texas father and daughter, Underwood convinced her family to create a musical tribute to her youngest child. The Underwoods, their son Austin and his wife Mckenna in Richmond, older daughter Meagan Smith, her husband Grant and their children Piper, 3, and Bishop, 2, in Ashburn, all got on board. The family created a funny and sweet Brady Bunch-style YouTube video in support of their daughter, sister and aunt with three generations lip-synching Jess Glynne’s “I’ll Be There.” The video was recorded in three separate homes in just a day, and Grant Smith edited and posted the final product by the day of the wedding.

“It just kind of came to me—we needed to do something happy to make us able to be joyful about this. Yes, we had to grieve. We had to be sad, but she needed to know we’re okay to be joyful,” Underwood said. “I said, ‘We’ve got to go big or go home.’ That video was an expression of our pure love for Ashlyn. We’re there with you. We’ve got you. It’s going to be okay. Now go have a blast—get married and be happy.”

Check out the Underwood family’s COVID-19 wedding tribute to a faraway bride below.

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