Even in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home health orders, Santa Cruz County Elections Clerk Gail Pellerin never considered halting weddings at the county building. That made her an outlier among county clerks in California.
“I was one of the only ones at one point, so we got very busy, with people coming in from all over the state,” Pellerin says.
She adds, “There’s a lot of essential reasons why people are needing to get married, so I didn’t see any reason why we should close our doors.”
The demand for Pellerin’s wedding services has been steep. At one point, she was doing a ceremony every half hour, she says.
“There were couples that were facing visa issues,” she says. “There were couples where one of the partners had lost their job, and in order to get health benefits, they needed to get married.”
Pellerin was accommodating the rush during an already busy time in her office. Santa Cruz County’s health order went into effect while she and her colleagues were in the thick of counting votes from the March 3 election. Now, she’s gearing up for the November election, which for California will be conducted almost entirely by mail.
In the meantime, Pellerin has been happy to help couples go through with their wedding plans. Their reasons for tying the knot amid the Covid-19 pandemic are often personal.
“There are people with health situations, other than Covid, who are in a situation where they’re feeling vulnerable and they want to have that legal relationship with the love of their life,” Pellerin says. “I’m happy I can be here to do that. That’s something I can do. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a nurse. I’m not law enforcement. I’m not a farmer. I’m not any of those other essential things, but I can keep love alive.”
MARRY GO ROUND
Many of the happy couples who strolled into the county building have had great personal stories, Pellerin says.
One bride showed up with “a Covid bouquet” that a friend had made for her. It was wrapped in facemask, complete with hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes and also a few white roses.
From an emotional-wellbeing perspective, it’s been important for many couples to carry on in spite of the uncertainty that surrounds them, Pellerin says. One couple planned to wed in Hawaii before their ceremony got cancelled. “So they showed up in their aloha wear and got married under the trees in Santa Cruz. It’s a pretty close second to Hawaii,” Pellerin says.
Pellerin’s staff has worked to make the office as safe and insulated as possible from the novel coronavirus.
One of Pellerin’s colleagues came into the office one weekend and installed plexiglass dividers to protect staff. Pellerin ordered masks from Etsy. Some volunteers made extra masks and dropped them off. Pellerin has gloves ready for anyone who wants them. The staff also purchased as much disinfectant spray and as many disinfectant wipes as they possibly could to stock up, she says.
When she does ceremonies, Pellerin says she uses a face shield, instead of a facemask. A mask would fog up her glasses, which she needs in order to read her officiating speech.
She’s modified that speech, which now makes references to the shelter-in-place orders and to the current pandemic. At the end of the ceremony, she tells each of the two partners to take a deep breath and focus on where they are in the moment. In the midst of this pandemic, a couple’s love is something to draw strength from, Pellerin explains.
“It’s just nice to take that moment away from all of the chaos and heartbreak and tragedy happening in the world and find that centerpiece, that center of love,” Pellerin says.
Another essential service in these times is handling the paperwork for fictitious business names, which entrepreneurs need in order to apply for loans, she says. While Pellerin navigates the pandemic, most county elections staffers have been working from home. For several weeks, the only ones in the office were Pellerin and Senior Account Clerk Daisy Willaims.
Other employees were routed to emergency response efforts. Assistant County Clerk Tricia Webber worked on managing quarantine hotel rooms for the homeless.
Emma Gordon, who manages precincts, mapping and petitions for the department, helped get a Watsonville homeless shelter for veterans up and running. Pellerin checks in regularly with her reassigned colleagues, all of whom will be coming back by August to prepare for the election.
Several weeks ago, Pellerin heard from Gordon that the shelter needed bath towels and toothpaste. Pellerin jumped into action.
“I went to Costco and got bath towels and toothpaste and drove it out to them, because in the beginning, there were lots of unknowns, and there was a lot of difficulty getting the supplies everyone needed,” says Pellerin, who views all of her fellow county staff as all part of a big family. “But they’re up and functioning really well now. We all have to work together. We can’t expect one person or one department to do it all. We all have to do our part, and everyone was doing that.”
Pellerin says the precautions she has taken around the office have paid off, as she recently went to go get tested in Watsonville—a really easy process, she says—and the test came back negative. After the test, Pellerin tweeted that the test “definitely is a nose tickler!”
The swab had to far up enough up her nose that it made her eyes water, she tells GT.
“It was a little uncomfortable. If I did it again, I’d probably be a little bit more ready for it,” she says.
FALLING IN LINE
This November, California’s election will be conducted almost entirely by mail, in line with an order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom aiming to limit the spread of Covid-19. As a result, the Elections Department will be mailing out 166,000 ballots on Oct. 5.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that difficult,” Pellerin says. “We already have close to 120,000 people that were getting ballots by mail in March, so we’re adding another 46,000. So it’s not a huge leap.”
Pellerin says the county will be expanding the number of drive-up ballot drop-off boxes.
She advises voters to make sure that they’re registered at the right address. Also, if they sign up for informed delivery from the Post Office, they will know what mail is coming and what to expect in their mailbox.
November ballots should arrive by mid-October, and Pellerin says, if voters don’t receive them, they should call their Elections Department.
“We can send you a second one,” she says. “If you’re a person who prefers to show up in person to vote, by all means, you’re going to be able to do that. We just want to make sure you do it safely. It’s going to be utilizing the physical distancing and the masks.”
Meanwhile, Pellerin is trying to figure out how to run an election-day phone bank—without cramming a dozen people into a small room.
Pellerin’s companion through it all is her hypoallergenic miniature labradoodle Darwin, who she’s had since January. Pellerin says she wasn’t planning on getting a puppy, but then, she learned that Darwin was born on the anniversary of her husband’s death. She says he provides her with emotional support.
He’s even become something of an ambassador around the county building, she says.
“I think every office should have a dog,” Pellerin says. “They’re stress relievers.”