PROVO, Utah — Five days a week, in a small beige room in a plain office building here, couples all over the world are granted a golden ticket: the ability to reunite after being separated by Covid-19 travel restrictions, in some cases for more than a year and a half.
And to get it, they don’t even have to set foot in the room.
Since May 2020, the Utah County clerk and auditor’s office in Provo has performed virtual weddings for more than 3,500 international couples, including brides and grooms from Azerbaijan, China, Estonia, Finland, Denmark, France, Guam, Iceland, Kenya and Madagascar.
“We have become an international marriage venue completely by accident,” said Burt Harvey, who oversees marriage licenses at the clerk’s office. “But we’re leaning into it.”
On a Friday in early August, Jessica Alexander and Lukas Steyer came to the county clerk’s office via Zoom — she from Jupiter, Fla., and he from Burgstädt, Germany — for their civil ceremony.
They connected online in 2020: Mr. Steyer is a social media personality who goes by the name Gaming Grizzly, and Ms. Alexander, a sales executive for Zillow, has daughters who watch his gaming videos on YouTube. They started dating late last year but have never met in person.
The officiant, Ben Frei, sat facing the screen, wearing a tie covered with pink flamingos.
“Both of you are fires, and that’s important because everywhere you go, you leave a little mark,” Mr. Frei began. Muffled sounds came from some of the guests’ videos. Mr. Frei paused to mute them, then spoke for about 15 minutes — on good and bad fires, the importance of date nights, love languages and “cleaving together.”
He called repeatedly on “Sebastian.” As it turned out, Mr. Steyer was using his uncle Sebastian’s Zoom login. There was a brief correction, then the ceremony resumed.
Once Mr. Frei concluded his speech, Ms. Alexander and Mr. Steyer exchanged vows. “This pandemic has kept us apart, but it has also given us the time to learn about each other and to build a solid foundation for the rest of our lives,” the bride said. “I have learned so much through your love for me, and if there’s one thing I’m certain of in life, it’s you.”
Ms. Alexander slid a ring on her finger, Mr. Steyer slid one on his, and Mr. Frei pronounced them “legally and lawfully married.” To mark the moment, he suggested a “Covid air hug”; the bride and groom symbolically held each other across nearly 4,800 miles.
For couples like Ms. Alexander and Mr. Steyer, the virtual marriage process offered by Utah County has been a lifeboat in the midst of the pandemic, which caused many countries to close their borders to noncitizens in March 2020. Though travel restrictions have shifted and evolved since then, the United States currently bans entry to most travelers from China, Iran, Brazil, India, Britain, the Republic of Ireland, South Africa and much of Europe.
“Couples have been separated going on two years,” said Rosanna Berardi, who has practiced immigration law for 25 years and owns a law firm in Buffalo. She described Covid-19 and its restrictions on immigration as the cause of “the biggest disaster I’ve seen in my career.”
Amid the crisis, Utah County has emerged as an unlikely stopgap.
‘Love Knows No Bounds’
Right now, an obvious incentive to marry — aside from affirming the love two people feel for each another — is the ability to bypass travel restrictions. A marriage certificate enables partners to apply for visas and to cross borders even when they’re closed to most visitors.
While several American states have allowed local couples to file application paperwork and even marry online, Utah County went further. After making the entire marriage process virtual, from the license application to the ceremony, the county clerk started accepting applications from couples in different states — and soon, in different countries. Only the officiant needed to be in Utah.
“Word got out really quick,” said Joshua Daniels, the clerk and auditor of Utah County, who was elected to the post in the spring.
Members of groups like Love Is Not Tourism, who share advice on cross-border relationships, spread the news. Private wedding officiants, such as Web Wed, caught on and began shuttling clients — virtually — to Utah County, Mr. Daniels said.
“Love knows no bounds, whether geographic or otherwise,” Mr. Daniels said. “We’re making it possible for couples to come together despite circumstances that might keep them physically apart.”
Hundreds of couples from Israel have used the service because civil marriages are not performed in the country. Before the pandemic, same-sex couples, couples of mixed backgrounds and couples in which one or both people could not prove they were Jewish would travel outside of Israel to wed and register the marriage in Israel afterward.
Once borders were closed, some couples tried marrying aboard boats far enough from land to be considered outside of Israel’s territory. “It’s not a pleasant experience, but it’s legal,” said Vlad Finkelshtein, whose law firm works with Utah County to wed Israeli citizens.
The Interior Ministry in Israel is not recognizing marriages performed through Utah County’s virtual system, but Mr. Finkelshtein and his clients have challenged the decision in court. “This is the perfect case study on how technology can help promote basic human rights,” the lawyer said.
Always Be Officiating
It might seem surprising that getting married is so simple in Utah County, where about 82 percent of the residents are members of the Church of Latter-day Saints. But that’s not how Mr. Daniels sees it.
“We’re a conservative place where people want a government that’s small and lean, and doesn’t cost a lot,” he said. And, he said, Utah County is “known as an innovator.” A number of companies, like Adobe and eBay, have opened offices slightly north of Provo, in an area referred to as the Silicon Slopes. “The county government was behind in using that tech to serve the public,” Mr. Daniels said.
Before Mr. Daniels’s predecessor, Amelia Powers Gardner, was elected as the clerk and auditor in 2018, the Utah County clerk’s office was seen as something of a mess. During the 2018 midterm elections, the lines to vote in Utah County were so long that the governor at the time, Gary Herbert, called it “the epicenter of dysfunction.”
After winning the Republican nomination for the clerk role, Ms. Powers Gardner went to the clerk’s office to apply for her marriage license. “The people there were people who were going to be my employees,” she said. “It was kind of a test case for me.”
The inefficiency was obvious. Ms. Powers Gardner and her fiancé filled out all the forms by hand, then watched two people type everything they had just written into a computer. “Every time they couldn’t read my fiancé’s handwriting, they had to ask him what it said,” Ms. Powers Gardner said.
It became clear to Ms. Powers Gardner that her second priority after fixing the election system would be to fix the marriage process. “It’s a pain in the butt, it’s onerous, it’s causing a ton of inconveniences,” she said. “This is all so we can execute a permission slip from the government for two consenting adults to get married.”
By January 2020, most of the process was online: application, payment and a virtual ID check. The officiant could use a QR code to sign the marriage certificate online.
So when the pandemic hit in March, the Utah County clerk’s office was prepared. Calls started coming in from around the country and then from around the world.
Before working in government, Ms. Powers Gardner was a regional operations manager for Caterpillar, the construction equipment company, and Mr. Daniels worked in the online education division at Pearson, the publishing company. “We brought in a lot of ideas to change the culture from a bureaucratic local government culture to more of a customer-service- and high-performance-oriented culture,” Mr. Daniels said.
To that end, they began to offer management training to employees; emphasized customer service in meetings and with placards around the office encouraging “innovation” and “accountability”; and required every employee to read “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” by Dale Carnegie. This year, Mr. Daniels added another book to the list: “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” (Copies of the book are scattered around the office.)
In April, Ms. Powers Gardner was elected to be a Utah County commissioner in a special election, and Mr. Daniels was elected to replace her. But just before the election, the Utah County Attorney’s Office released the results of an investigation that found that comments Ms. Powers Gardner made toward an employee, including referring to that person as “my gay Democratic assistant,” violated the county’s workplace harassment policy.
Ms. Powers Gardner completed workplace harassment training, and according to the report, the complainant felt that his desired outcome had been reached.
“The incident mentioned involved one of my all-star employees, whom I also consider a longtime close personal family friend,” Ms. Powers Gardner wrote in a statement. “In the course of resolving the issue, county human resources became involved. Our director of human resources handled the matter appropriately, conducting interviews and gathering information. I regretted my part in letting personal friendships creep into the professional environment with such a valued friend and committed to improve moving forward.”
In the Eyes of the Law
For the most part, countries around the world recognize the legality of marriages performed abroad. But international couples using the virtual marriage system in Utah County have run into challenges.
Destini and Mark Lowrie met on Chatroulette in 2013. He lived in Royal Tunbridge Wells, England, and she lived in Graham, Texas, so they talked often on Skype but never met in person.
Last year, something changed. “We started talking more seriously,” said Ms. Lowrie, who changed her last name from Searcy. “I always had a thing for him, but it always seemed like an unfeasible relationship.”
Last November, she flew to England. When she returned to Texas two and a half months later, Ms. Lowrie was pregnant and engaged. When Mr. Lowrie tried to visit her, he was turned away at the airport. After a few months of panicked research, they wed virtually in Utah County.
After the Zoom wedding, Mr. Lowrie went to the airport in England again and was turned away a second time; immigration officials said his marriage was not valid because he and Ms. Lowrie had not consummated it, since they had not been together physically after the marriage and had not had an opportunity to have sex. Ms. Lowrie had to call the U.S. embassy in Britain and beg for a National Interest Exception for her husband. The embassy granted it a few days later.
Finally, Mr. Lowrie arrived in Texas on Aug. 2, exactly a week before his and Ms. Lowrie’s son was born.
When it comes to entering the United States, federal immigration law trumps state law. According to the Immigration and Nationality Act, Zoom ceremonies performed by Utah County in which the bride and groom are not physically together are considered “proxy marriages.”
Under federal immigration laws in the United States, a proxy marriage is not considered legitimate until it is consummated, as old-fashioned as that might sound. So even though marriages performed on Zoom in Utah are legal, they are seen as illegitimate in the eyes of immigration officials. This presents a problem for couples who are living in different countries and cannot meet in person to consummate the marriage because of Covid-related travel restrictions.
“They would have to find a location that allows both Americans and foreign nationals to enter unrestricted,” said Ms. Berardi, the immigration lawyer in Buffalo. Then, “the couple needs to prepare an affidavit stating the date and location of the consummation.”
As for virtual consummation? “Phone sex doesn’t count,” said Susie Kim, who specializes in immigration and nationality law in New York. “Immigration law is ever-changing, but it hasn’t caught up to that yet.”
According to Hendrik Hartog, a professor of the history of American law at Princeton University, under state laws, consummation has not been a formal requirement of a valid marriage for about 200 years.
“This isn’t a matter of the state law of marriage, it’s a matter of immigration practices, the ways in which the immigration officials can test and challenge the reality of the relationship,” Dr. Hartog said. He added that immigration officials “are free to use any number of criteria to challenge the legitimacy of a relationship.”
The consummation requirement raises more questions than answers, said Rebecca Davis, a history professor at the University of Delaware and host of the podcast “Sexing History.” When the consummation requirement was written into the law, she said, “immigration administrators understood marital consummation as male-female sexual intercourse.”
“How does this apply to same-sex couples?” she said. “What do we mean by sex? Is oral sex indicative of consummation? Is it dependent on orgasm? It’s a bizarre, really regressive way of thinking about what marriage is and what sexuality is and how people express their sexuality.”
Challenges notwithstanding, Mr. Daniels does not expect a dip in application numbers anytime soon. “It’s a service that’s very useful for certain people in certain situations,” he said. “I don’t see it going away.”