When Erilia Wu and Alex Washburn got engaged earlier this year, there was initially no hurry to get hitched. They made the decision around March, just as the COVID-19 crisis hit, and didn’t rush to set a date or make big plans.
“I assumed getting married is something we could probably do in a week or two — just file some paperwork and go to the courthouse,” Washburn said.
By the summer, however, getting hitched took on new urgency.
First, Washburn got the news that his grant-funded research job would be eliminated by the end of June — nixing his health insurance, he said.
On top of that, Wu, a research scientist from China living in New York on an H-1B work visa, became increasingly worried about how the Trump White House might threaten her legal status. Then the president banned most work visas going forward, including the H-1B.
“It just made me think that it’s just a matter of time that I’m going to be affected, even though I am legally granted a work authorization sponsored by my employer,” she said.
The pair became determined to tie the knot as soon as possible. But like many other couples who spoke with THE CITY, they hit a major roadblock almost immediately.
The City Clerk’s office, which had started conducting marriages remotely under the much-heralded Project Cupid in early May, was overwhelmed. When the couple logged on to the site to register and find a time to virtually get their marriage license, appointments had already been fully booked in all five boroughs — for months.
“There was a web page with some red headline on it that said all of their appointments were scheduled full through September,” Wu said. “They weren’t taking any new appointments at all.”
The system was flooded when it opened in May — and the backlog has not let up, according to half a dozen New York couples who spoke with THE CITY.
Online, the frustrations of betrothed New Yorkers are plain to see — in messages pleading for more appointments sent to the Twitter accounts of the City Clerk’s office, as well as to Project Cupid backers Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
‘People Get Upset’
City Clerk Michael McSweeney said his staff is doing the “best we can,” while acknowledging they are inundated.
“The demand has been intense,” he told THE CITY on Thursday.
Summer is typically the Marriage Bureau’s busiest time, when the five borough offices together would see between 200 and 300 customers on the highest-traffic days, McSweeney said.
Project Cupid’s current capacity is 140 marriage license appointments per day, split among 32 staffers who have been trained to operate the system. The main challenge, McSweeney said, is overcoming technical issues couples may have with the software or their own devices, which “can slow things down tremendously.”
“Yesterday afternoon, one of our most proficient clerks had an appointment that lasted two hours because it was a couple that had a brand new laptop and they had no idea how to use it,” he said. Appointments are scheduled in 20-minute increments.
For emergency cases, he said, the staff try to expedite the process and the office will “prioritize people who have health care coverage issues,” he said.
“We try to help people as the requests come to our attention. We get hundreds of emails, we get phone calls,” McSweeney said. “People get upset.”
When Molly Greenberg couldn’t book an appointment, she tried calling the City Clerk’s office directly, but couldn’t get through. Staff at 311 couldn’t help, either, and told Greenberg they had no information about how to connect to Project Cupid.
“You’re offering something to New Yorkers, but not quite able to follow through,” she said of the remote marriage system.
Greenberg and her fiance, Adam Shaw, had planned a wedding in late August, but cancelled it due to the virus. Now, they’re hoping to pull off a small ceremony with immediate family and close friends in the backyard of a local restaurant in Prospect Heights.
But without the license, it’s hard to coordinate even that.
“My mom sent me an email with like 60 questions” about the day, she said. “And I can’t answer anything! This is not something I have been able to plan at all.”
Hacking Their Nuptials
One New Yorker frustrated with Project Cupid coded his way around it.
Chuck Ha, a Brooklyn-based computer programmer, was supposed to get married in late May but had to cancel the wedding due to COVID-19.
When he later tried to book an appointment through Project Cupid he had no luck — so he coded a script to comb the site and alert him when new appointments popped up.
“It’s sort of an annoying process to go and click on the little calendar that they have and click through each month individually just to find out that the one appointment slot that they have is in September,” Ha said. “It was just sort of a little time-saving thing.”
In a few days, he nabbed a spot, and got a marriage license virtually last week. Now, he and his fiance have 60 days to find an officiant.
Ha posted his appointment tool on the code-sharing website GitHub so that other tech-savvy New Yorkers can use it, too.
McSweeney said his office tries to release a new batch of open appointments every week or so, but the schedule is fluid. People cancel appointments, or his clerks are able to take on more work, so they add to the schedule.
New appointments, he said, “go very fast.”
One New Yorker who talked to THE CITY said he and his fiance were so frustrated with the Project Cupid backlog that they made plans to drive out to Oyster Bay, in Nassau County, to get their marriage license.
The town’s city clerk was very accommodating, he said, though required more proof of identification than New York City does.
The couple, who did not share their names with THE CITY, would need originals of their birth certificates, they were told. His partner had her birth certificate overnighted from California to Brooklyn so they could make a July 10 appointment.
But then, the day before their Oyster Bay date, more appointments appeared on the Project Cupid site — and they snagged one.
“Five minutes after we booked it and told Oyster Bay, you know, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ … We got the notification that the birth certificate had been delivered,” he said with a laugh.
Wu and Washburn also made plans far beyond the five boroughs to get their license. On Thursday, they filled out an application in Cecil County, Maryland — a two-and-a-half hour drive from their apartment in Sunnyside, Queens.
Then on Thursday, Washburn checked the Project Cupid site “out of habit,” Wu said in an email. Appointments had appeared, and they grabbed the first one that was available: July 20.
“We’re so very excited!” she wrote. “Now we just need to figure out how to get an officiant.”
With all marriage bureaus closed, officiants must register by mail, McSweeney said. He recommended people “be patient” and keep checking the website for more appointments.
“We want people to be happy,” he said. “We’ve invested a lot of time and effort to make the system work.”