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The Vegas Chapels Are Open, and Waiting

Wedding Industry

January 2, 2021

By: David Degner and Stacy Cowley

Kirsten Bulock and Shawnea Pryor of #MarriedInVegas Studios photographing a masked couple in November.

For couples seeking a quickie wedding, or a whimsical one, Las Vegas is ready.

On some days, the line at the city’s famed Marriage License Bureau — where the engaged need nothing more than photo IDs and a $77 fee — wraps around the block.

The bureau closed for six weeks at the start of the pandemic, but since reopening in late April, it has churned out licenses from 8 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, including holidays. That license is the ticket to a legally valid marriage at one of the city’s dozens of chapels, which offer fast, budget-conscious services in themed settings ranging from elegant to rococo.

Nate Serpico and Ellen Green got married at the Little White Wedding Chapel’s drive-through window on Nov. 27. “I didn’t believe you could actually get married in three hours until I actually did it,” Mr. Serpico said.
The Serpicos, who live in California, began planning their wedding in September. “I’m turning 26 next month,” said Ms. Green, now Ms. Serpico, who lost her job early in the pandemic. “He has health insurance and I don’t,” adding, “With everything going on, it was great to have this to look forward to and to have a reason to celebrate.”

“In a way, Vegas is set up for something like this,” Lynn Marie Goya, the clerk of Clark County, Nev., said of the safety restrictions and other social changes the virus has wrought. The city’s neon chapels are filled with stand-alone rooms and private nooks for small ceremonies, which can be quickly cleaned between bookings. And they’re stocked with all the nuptial trappings — flowers, a photographer, props and even rings — for those seeking one-stop shopping. Some venues offer drive-through ceremonies and video streams of the events for friends and family.

Charolette Richards, the owner of the Little White Wedding Chapel, with her dog, Franswai, has been offering drive-though weddings since the early 1950s. “One day I asked my son to make a window over there. He said, ‘What?’ And I told him ‘I’m gonna have a window and have people drive up and get married in their car.’”
A couple from California drove to the Little White Wedding Chapel to get married. The Clark County clerk, Lynn Marie Goya, said Las Vegas has seen an influx of engaged couples from nearby states, where government offices and event venues have curtailed services.
Rahul and Jessica Mahajan spent much of this year separated by coronavirus travel restrictions: He lives in California, and she’s from Portugal. After Jessica returned to the United States on a temporary visa, they decided to get married. “Her family watched the wedding on a live broadcast,” Mr. Mahajan said. “They are all waiting to meet me, and I am waiting to meet them.”
David Tapper, director of catering at the Mirage, with flowers for a wedding banquet in a socially distanced dining room at the hotel.
Kevin and Silke Lyons were married at Bliss Wedding Chapel, with friends and family watching online, on Nov. 28. “We both jumped into the wedding, like we both jumped into the relationship. We met on Nov. 19,” Mr. Lyons said. “I’m 47, so we don’t want to waste time.”

Despite its popularity, the city’s wedding trade, like many other industries, was battered this year by the slowdown in tourism and shutdowns caused by the virus. Losing the city’s normal deluge of international visitors has especially hurt. Ms. Goya’s office issued just over 50,000 licenses this year through the end of November, a 24 percent drop from last year’s total over the same period.

Brendan Paul — an ordained minister, Elvis impersonator and co-owner of the Graceland Wedding Chapel — signed the last wedding license of the day at the chapel late on Nov. 28. It was a slow day for him: The chapel normally hosts 25 weddings a night, but that Saturday, it had only six.

But those in the business see glimmers of hope. October was the busiest month ever at Vegas Weddings, said Melody Willis-Williams, the venue’s executive director.

“There are couples who have planned two or three weddings already and don’t want to go through the pain of telling everyone and rescheduling again. So they say ‘Enough, let’s go to Vegas,’” Ms. Willis-Williams said. “With the way things are going, people don’t want to wait to express their love.”

William and Jennifer Norris, from Boise, Idaho, choose their wedding package inside the Love Story Wedding Chapel, a small venue in a strip mall between a toy store and a bail bonds office.
At Vegas Weddings, rings can be bought on the spot for the ceremony.
Coronavirus safety measures mean that only a few couples at a time are allowed inside the city’s Marriage License Bureau, so lines are common. On the year’s busiest day, Oct. 10 — a popular pick for those who liked the numerology of the date 10/10/20 — the bureau issued 1,599 licenses.
Machelle Sagun and Rene Poblete waiting at the Marriage License Bureau after driving in from Arizona. They originally planned to marry in the summer, but had to delay their wedding.
Thomas Strannigan III and Andrea Leahy, from Kansas City, Mo., traveled to Las Vegas after discovering that their local courthouse was closed. “We came here just because they are open every day,” Mr. Strannigan said. “We were in and out the door in 10 minutes.” They were married at sunset in the Strat Hotel’s tower overlooking the Las Vegas Strip.
North of the Strip’s glitzy casinos is a group of standalone wedding venues, like the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel, clustered around the city’s Marriage License Bureau.