Lakewood says small weddings OK’d — but NJ not on board
LAKEWOOD — The Ocean County Prosecutor's Office and the state Attorney General's office say they haven't approved any plans for small wedding ceremonies at a township catering hall — even as local religious and community officials say they've gotten the OK.
A letter distributed widely on social media Sunday and Monday — as well as published in a since-removed post on the local Lakewood Scoop news site, and by the Asbury Park Press — attributed to Rabbi Aaron Kotler of the Beth Medrash Govoha yeshiva described plans for small, "COVID-19 compliant" weddings that it said were approved by "the authorities charged with COVID-19 enforcement."
Under an executive order by Gov. Phil Murphy issued last month in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, gatherings of any size are prohibited.
Townsquare Media has not yet made contact with Kotler or Beth Medrash Govoha to confirm the authenticity of the letter, but Lakewood Rabbi Moshe Zev Weisberg told NJ.com the plan was for small ceremonies at Ateres Reva, a catering hall attached to a school. Weisberg said local municipal and police authorities were consulted.
NJ.com also quoted Lakewood Mayor Raymond Coles saying township police consulted with the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office "to make sure there were no problems with this."
“The purpose is to make sure any events that happen are done in accordance with all of the governor’s guidelines," Coles is quotes as saying.
Lakewood Councilman Albert Akerman said told Townsquare Media "people keep calling and trying to figure out what they can do."
"Should they push off their wedding because they can’t have any wedding at all and the police will show up and stop it even if there’s less than 10 people?" he said. "Everybody’s nervous. They don’t know what they can do and can’t do. They don’t want to do anything that someone’s going to drive by and take pictures of and they’ll wind up on the internet.”
Lakewood police haven't yet returned messages left late Monday by Townsquare Media.
But Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer, in an email to Townsquare Media, said his office had not "authorized or approved weddings in Lakewood or any other municipality."
Billhimer cited the governor's executive order, which also prevents non-essential businesses from opening.
"Wedding venues are non-essential. So to be clear, no wedding venues have been authorized by ... my office," Billhimer said.
But he also said a wedding ceremony itself wouldn't be an issue if it involves less than 10 people total, and those who attend practice social distancing and wear masks.
A spokesperson for the state Attorney General's office said it hadn't reviewed nor approved any plans for weddings "at catering halls or elsewhere in New Jersey."
"The governor’s executive orders and related administrative orders concerning gatherings and social distancing remain in full effect and are the most effective tools we have to protect the health of New Jerseyans during this pandemic," the Attorney General's office said in an email. "As Attorney General Grewal and (State Police Col. Callahan make clear every day in their daily enforcement updates, New Jersey law enforcement will hold those who flout these orders accountable.”
Coles told NJ.com any ceremonies would follow the rules as described by the prosecutor's office — with only an officiant, bride, groom, parents and a photographer allowed in a facility. Coles also said police would supervise the ceremonies.
The letter attributed to Kotler says Ateres Reva would be available this Sunday for weddings that begin with a "very small COVID-19-compliant religious ceremony, followed by a COVID-19-compliant dinner, with a one-man band, fresh florist, catered compliant Seuda (a Sabbath meal) for parents and immediate siblings, photographer, and video."
It said there would be a "limited ability" for others to offer congratulations from their cars, and that no building entry would be allowed under any circumstances for the "Mazel Tov" portion of the event.
Akerman, the councilman, said he had a conversation with Bentzi Inzelbuch — a project coordinator for Lakewood police whose name is listed as a contact on the letter from Kotler — about creating a spot that could be controlled to ensure all in attendance are properly spaced and supervised by someone in authority.
“Just to have it in one spot — you tell people you want to get married, let us know which day you want to get married and what time. You show up, you’re in, you’re out and that’s it, all within the guidelines,” Akerman said.
Akerman said that funerals are happening in Lakewood under similar circumstances.
“Funerals are being run to make sure they’re under the limit for state and federal guidelines. For anyone else they set up a Zoom conference so they can watch it. I believe the Prosecutor’s Office has been by the funeral parlor to make sure no one is breaking any rules,” Akerman said. “They’ve told siblings of people who died ‘sorry you gotta go. There’s too many people here.’ The max is here already and nobody else can come in. If you need a link to the Zoom we can send it to you but you have to go home."
Lakewood has the most confirmed novel coronavirus cases in Ocean County, with 1,300 of the county's known 4,822 cases, according to the county health department. It also has the county's largest population, with more than 100,000 residents.
Shortly after Murphy issued his executive order, stories of gatherings in Lakewood — including for weddings among the township's large Orthodox Jewish community — made headlines several times. But Murphy and Callahan have both stressed they've seen issues with compliance across the state, and members of communities throughout New Jersey have been charged with violations of the executive order.