Pablo Diaz dreamed of a room jam-packed with family and friends as he says "I do" to the love of his life. But after getting engaged in June, he and his fiancée, Savannah Rocha, realized that massive wedding celebrations seemed to be yet another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We wanted the big wedding. We wanted to the big family gathering. We’re party people," says Diaz, 27. "But with COVID, we decided it would be irresponsible for us and we were looking for something smaller."
One night in early August, Diaz and Rocha, 24, saw an ad on Facebook that the wedding company Elope in Austin was offering COVID-compliant drive-thru and microweddings.
"We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be crazy if we did this?’" he says.
Elope in Austin has been hosting intimate microweddings starting at $250 at local venues including Star Hill Ranch, which is so picturesque that it frequently doubles as a movie set, since it opened in 2015. Lorelei Starbuck, owner of Elope in Austin, has been in the wedding industry since 1996 and previously owned a Las Vegas wedding chapel. She says her business has had to postpone, cancel or reschedule over 80 weddings since March.
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"That's a lot of broken dreams, and it broke our hearts," Starbuck says. "Not only was it hard on business, but it was devastating on couples that had built their wedding dreams on a certain day with a certain look and feel."
Despite the impact of the pandemic, as a purveyor of microweddings, Elope in Austin was uniquely positioned to use its existing business model to add and promote socially distanced weddings. Elope in Austin moved a historic 150-square-foot chapel, called the Chapel of Love, to Star Hill Ranch in Bee Cave and earlier this month began offering drive-thru weddings out front.
"We have fielded hundreds of calls, texts and emails from couples that wanted to get married on their original date. They always start the conversation with, ‘We had another event planned, but…’" Starbuck says. "Now that we are once again allowed to perform small, intimate ceremonies, our model is even more relevant than it was before."
There are two drive-up wedding packages, one that includes the officiant, a photographer and 10 social-media-ready cellphone photos for $200 and one that includes the officiant, a ceremony on the porch of the Chapel of Love, up to four guests, a photographer and 25 social-media-ready cellphone photos for $250. Couples must have already obtained a non-expired Texas marriage license.
"Family and friends can also drive up and watch from their cars, all socially distanced," Starbuck says, adding that couples can also share the ceremony with friends and family via Zoom, Facebook Live or Facetime. "Even in these times, we can still have a sacred, personal experience of a wedding and it can be everything the couple wants it to be. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. People are still falling in love and want to get married. We can do it safely and still have that intimate, ah-ha moment."
Under Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders, businesses that are hosting an indoor wedding or wedding reception are not subject to a 10-person limit but must limit capacity to 50%. Outdoor venues are not restricted to an occupancy limit but must comply with face covering and social distancing requirements. If a wedding is a religious service, however, there are no indoor or outdoor occupancy limits; additionally, face mask requirements do not apply to "any person who is actively providing or obtaining access to religious worship, but wearing a face covering is strongly encouraged," under July 2 orders.
At Elope in Austin, Starbuck says, photographers must stand no closer than 6 feet from the couple and guests; guests who are not in the same household must stand 6 feet apart from one another; and all staff and guests over the age of 10 must wear a face mask. Health screenings and increased sanitation also have been implemented.
Diaz and Rocha, who opted for a microwedding at the Chapel of Love, say having a smaller wedding was a blessing in disguise. On Aug. 8, in front of their four guests – his mom and sister and her mom and sister – the two tied the knot in a ceremony that Diaz now calls "beyond perfect."
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"It was a beautiful morning and the weather was good, and on the drive to the location I played a playlist that I made for her a few weeks back. It was really sinking in and the emotions were overflowing," Diaz says. "When we got there, there’s a gate and you open the gate and as soon as you turn left you can see the little chapel. It was like a scene out of a movie. Everything was right. I wish we could relive that day. It was amazing."
Looking back, Diaz says there’s nothing he’d change about his wedding day.
"I know people who were like, ‘Oh, you might regret not having that big wedding.’ I don’t think we’ll ever regret it," Diaz says. "The intimacy added more to it, to the moment. When she started walking down the aisle, in that moment, it was just me and her. It was engulfing. It was like it really did feel like we were one and only one. It really did feel like a union."