Like most businesses and governments, the Cook County Clerk’s office is closed to customers because of the coronavirus.
“Life as we know it just isn’t life like that anymore. So we’ve had to readjust and government has had to readjust and do things a little differently. But at the end of the day we still have things that we must do,” Clerk Karen Yarbrough said. “You know, babies didn’t get the message that there’s a pandemic.”
Yarbrough said the clerk’s office, in cooperation with its partners — be they hospitals or funeral homes — continues to issue birth certificates and, in particular, death certificates (the county medical examiner’s office on Tuesday reported 2,551 coronavirus-related deaths in Cook County).
“Those documents are called vital records,” she said. “So you have death records, you have marriage records, you have birth records. All of those are vital.”
Unlike new birth and death certificates, however, marriage certificates have mostly come to a standstill.
Yarbrough said a “skeleton crew” of about seven to 10 employees are still going to the clerk’s office to deal with mail and to process paperwork.
But in order for a couple to be issued a marriage license, they have to meet with a clerk’s employee.
“We need to see their documents,” Yarbrough said. “We need to see that they are who they say they are.”
People aren’t always who they purport to be, she said. There are concerns about identity theft, trafficking and abuse.
“We can visually take a look, ask some questions and make sure that this is not a forced situation,” she said.
In-person meetings are impossible now, due to social distancing requirements meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Yarbrough said her office has been relying on a program that was in place before the pandemic that used technology to fulfill requests for emergency situations.
The office is prioritizing requests “to make sure that the dire-straits situations are put at the top, and we try to facilitate those,” Yarbrough said.
Those situations could include couples wanting to get married when one of the partners is in hospice, or legal situations involving immigration cases, or – as is the case with record-high unemployment — someone losing his or her job, and therefore their health insurance, and needing to get married in order to be on their partner’s health care plan.
Michelle Weiler and Prasad Gadgil had planned to get married in July, with a big party later in the fall.
But the coronavirus changed that.
The couple met in 2018 during a backpacking trip in India (Gadgil was an instructor, working for a U.S.-based wilderness company, and Weiler said she was impressed by his command of situations … and his looks).
They kept in touch over WhatsApp, and met up. He visited her in Chicago, she visited him in India. They fell in love.
Fast forward to this past Valentine’s Day weekend.
They traveled to Spain – saw a soccer match, visited Madrid, then Barcelona — when Gadgil popped the question.
“People knew that this virus was a thing, but our travel was completely normal,” Weiler said.
Things quickly changed.
After their trip, she went back to Chicago; he was working in a remote village in India.
The coronavirus was classified as a pandemic, and it soon become clear that they had to act if they didn’t want to be separated for an indeterminate time.
Gadgil was able to fly to Chicago just before flights were canceled, but they just missed their opportunity to get a regular marriage license from the Cook County clerk.
Weiler said they considered getting married in Wisconsin or Iowa, but didn’t have to: The clerk’s office accepted their application for an expedited, virtual marriage certificate.
They met with a clerk’s office employee via Zoom.
“He shared his screen, so while we were on the call he was going through, filling out all of the necessary paperwork – basically the same that he would have been doing if we were in person. So we were able to see, and verify everything was spelled correctly, etc.,” Weiler said. “And through that process he was able to email us a marriage license.”
Within days, they were married.
It wasn’t the event originally imagined. Gadgil’s parents were there, but via Zoom, to watch a ceremony held in Weiler’s parent’s backyard.
On the menu: “Champagne, Lou Malnati’s and delicious cake,” Weiler said.
Gadgil said it was at least “memorable” and, considering what’s going on with the coronavirus, people are happy to hear good news.
“I just feel like … I feel fortunate, and in the tough times that is all over the world right now, that we got to get married,” Gadgil said.
They’ve already submitted Gadgil’s application for a green card, though they wonder if that too will be on hold, or perhaps require a virtual – instead of an in-person – meeting.
Lovebirds who don’t qualify for the dire-straits situation — most of them, says Yarbrough — will have to wait.
Yarbrough said the clerk typically processes about 30,000 marriage applications a year, so it’s likely there will be a backlog once the office resumes more regular operations.
There may also be a backlog of other applications.
The clerk’s office is not processing requests for copies of birth, death and marriage certificates.
“The Bureau of Vital Records will only be processing new birth and death registrations until further notice, and will be unable to process requests for copies of records due to the emergency facility shutdowns,” an alert on the office’s website reads.
One Cook County resident, who wished to remain anonymous, said he needs a copy of his young child’s birth certificate so the infant will be able to travel with his mother, who holds dual citizenship with a country overseas. Despite repeated attempts, he said, the clerk’s office has not been able to make that happen.
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky