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Dating During the Pandemic: Online and Restless

man swiping love symbol

Oct. 22, 2020 -- The desire for human connection and a significant other hasn’t waned during the pandemic but may have increased. Singles, some for the first time, turned to virtual dating this year when the usual ways of meeting people vanished and the pandemic goes on and on.

Online dating sites report record use as lonely singles look for someone to enrich their lives for a day, a month, or even forever. Dating in the age of COVID-19 is simpler in some ways, yet in addition to the regular fear of rejection, there’s now also the fear of infection.

In March, Luxy Partners, a dating app for well-off singles, found that 87% of senior singles wanted to wait to meet in person until the pandemic was over. But by June, many had changed their minds and only 43% wanted to wait.

Match, a popular dating site, reports having “a record-setting past few months in terms of user activity, engagement and dates happening through our app -- with a 40% increase in people sending messages on our platform. In fact, this past July was busier than Valentine’s Day -- our typical ‘peak season’ for dating app usage,” Match’s chief dating expert, Rachel DeAlto, says in an email.

Messaging on Hinge increased 30%. Tinder saw its biggest day ever on March 29, with over 3 billion swipes, and on OKCupid, virtual dates shot up 700%, according to Business Insider.

Selective Search, a luxury dating service for commitment-minded singles based in Chicago, is busier than ever this year, with 15 marriages taking place so far, says senior director of matchmaking Sara Heimerl. “People have started to reassess things in their lives and realize that relationships are a huge priority.”

Public health experts are not discouraging people from dating as long as they do it safely. “Everything we do has a risk/benefit -- it’s totally reasonable to date if the benefits, such as social interaction, outweigh the risks, such as underlying medical conditions. Loneliness can be a big problem too,” says Abraar Karan, MD, an internal medicine and global health doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Americans are looking for partners who take precautions against COVID-19 seriously, according to an online survey of 1,321 singles in July by YouGov, a public opinion company. Many say they won’t go on a second date if their potential romantic partner: refuses to wear a mask (57%); disobeyed stay-at-home orders/social distancing guidelines (55%); or is unwilling to date virtually (21%). In fact, nearly half of singles say they are pickier about who they decide to meet in person than before the pandemic, and 32% say they are pickier about who they date virtually.

More Time to Communicate

Couples who met during lockdowns say they have had more time to talk to each other with fewer distractions, which led to deeper conversations.

Jordan and Brittany Tyler, both 33 and professionals in Allegan, MI, met in March on Match.com. They became engaged in May and married in July. “We did a lot more talking, which escalated the [dating] time frame because we were both working at home and had more free personal time. We weren’t going out during the lockdown, which ran until the second week in June,” says Jordan.

“I didn’t pretend to be somebody. At that first dinner, I cried and shared intimate things about myself. We talked so much by the time we met, it was very different,” says Brittany.

Marc, 51, of Scottsdale, AZ, met his fiancee in March just before the state went into a 2-month lockdown. He didn’t share his last name or his girlfriend’s name for privacy reasons.

They talked by phone and texted more than usual before deciding to meet in person, says Marc. When they met up, it wasn’t for dinner at a restaurant or coffee, but a walk that turned into a 4-hour stroll.

“We agreed to get to know each other without [typical] dating. Besides, there weren’t many other things to do. We just kept going for walks and bike rides, and later took car rides to places outside of Scottsdale,” says Marc.

Vincent Perrelli, MD, 77, a geriatric hospitalist in Providence, RI, came up with a creative first date --meeting at a shuttered zoo and then eating takeout in his convertible with the windows rolled down. He and Charlotte have been together since April, when they were introduced by Selective Search. They will be moving to Texas at the end of the year.

Video Dating Takes Off

Health experts recommend virtual dating as the safest way for people to engage with each other, especially for singles who have health conditions. It’s also the best time to discuss people’s routines and interactions, given the pandemic.

Virtual dating has become popular because of the pandemic, says Lisa Bonos, a dating and relationships writer for The Washington Post Style Section.

“A lot of first dates are taking place on FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype before people take the leap to meeting in person, such as a socially distanced walk. I am hearing from daters that virtual dating is not as awkward as they expected,” she says.

Video dating features weren’t popular before the pandemic. “Now, people don’t want to return to in-person first dates because this is more convenient -- people don’t have to dress up and go somewhere -- and it’s cheaper,” says Bonos.

Dating services are encouraging singles to date safely and follow their state and local rules.

Selective Search screens clients for their comfort level with meeting or traveling. “If someone only wants to virtual date right now and not meet in person or not fly to a date, we take that seriously and try to find people who want the same thing,” says Selective Search’s Heimerl.

The lockdowns changed people’s ability to travel to meet prospective partners. “It was totally transformative -- before the pandemic, I didn’t specify a specific radius of introductions and was often flying to other parts of the country to meet them. That changed overnight,” says Perrelli.

But long-distance relationships are coming back. The difference is “they are taking longer to get to know each other virtually or by phone before meeting in person,” says Heimerl.

Having the COVID Talk

Health experts suggest talking about COVID-19 precautions before meeting in person. “Each party needs to understand what the other person is doing, their attitudes toward mitigation measures including mask wearing, disposition to testing and/or quarantine, before meeting,” Dolores Albarracin, PhD, a professor of psychology, business, and medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says in an email.

Karan, the global health doctor, suggests people ask about their daily routines, including what they’re doing for work and whether they’re seeing a lot of other people, to understand their potential exposures to COVID-19.

When the Tylers met in person for the first time during the Michigan lockdown, it was dinner at his place, which Brittany found nerve-wracking because she was used to meeting in public places. “I was fine once I got there and saw him and his place.”  

“We didn’t socially distance because we both had been working at home and self-isolating for a few weeks. I knew that neither one of us was going out since it was winter and everything was closed anyway,” says Jordan.

Perrelli has a higher-risk job as a doctor taking care of older sick patients at Roger Williams Medical Center. “I was less worried about social interactions than [my partner], Charlotte, because the riskiest thing I was doing every day was going to work.” He gets tested regularly at work.

When it comes to sex, many state and local health departments recommend talking about COVID-19 risk factors. New York City’s Health Department says these conversations are important, “just as you would discuss condoms, and other safer sex topics. Ask them about COVID-19 before you hook up.”

Preventing COVID-19

The nation’s top public health expert, Anthony Fauci, MD, says singles must decide: Will they “maintain 6 feet away, wear a mask, do all the things that we talk about in the guidelines? If you’re willing to take a risk -- and, you know, everybody has their own tolerance for risks -- you could figure out if you want to meet somebody,” he told Vanity Fair in April.

“And it depends on the level of the interaction that you want to have. If you’re looking for a friend, sit in a room and put a mask on, and, you know, chat a bit. If you want to go a little bit more intimate, well, then that’s your choice regarding a risk,” he says.

Karan also suggests that couples check local transmission rates before choosing to meet indoors, especially in places that may not have good ventilation. Heimerl has put together a list of local restaurants in the Chicago area that she feels comfortable sending clients to.

Albarracin says, “If there is a good [virtual] connection, both should test and quarantine and then meet. If they decide to continue to date, they may form their own bubble.”

Karan recommends having a strategy that relies on testing, including before getting intimate with a date, which carries a higher risk of transmission. “You want to be sure as possible that the person doesn’t have COVID.”

Marc and his fiancee both have children and got tested twice for COVID-19 this summer, with negative results.

Health experts also encourage singles to limit the number of people they date to lessen the risk of COVID-19 exposure. All three couples decided to become exclusive early on.

Sexual Activity

Kissing can easily pass the virus, and heavy breathing and panting can spread the virus further, says New York City’s Health Department. “Wear a face covering or mask. Maybe it’s your thing, maybe it’s not, but during COVID-19 wearing a face covering that covers your nose and mouth is a good way to add a layer of protection during sex. Also, if you or your partner may have COVID-19 and don’t know it, a mask can help stop that spread.”

If you decide to have sex outside of your circle of contacts, the Health Department recommends that you: 

  • Closely monitor yourself for symptoms.
  • Consider getting a swab or saliva test for COVID-19 on a more frequent basis (monthly or within 5 to 7 days of a hookup). Testing is free at many sites sponsored by state or city governments.
  • Take precautions interacting with people at risk for severe COVID-19 illness, such as those over 65 years of age or those with serious medical conditions.
  • Be vigilant with face coverings and healthy hand hygiene to lessen risk to others.

Silver Linings

Daters seem to be more interested in companionship than before and are slowing down and taking the time to get to know each other better, says Heimerl.

Brittany says that because of the pandemic, she was willing to try online dating, which is how she met her husband.

Spending so much time with just each other was a novel experience for the daters. “We like to say it stripped away the fluff,” she says.

“A typical date would have been to meet in a bar or restaurant, and we would be playing roles based on society and having superficial conversations. Instead, in a matter of days, we shared a lot, laughed, and our comfort level went through the roof,” says Jordan.

“You don’t have access to other people during a lockdown, including the option of introducing your date to friends and family. It’s just the two of you alone -- you can’t use the environment as much to back you up. It was pretty unique. I liked it,” says Marc.

As a geriatrician, Perrelli has a different perspective. “Some people may think we rushed things along in 6 months, but I know there are no guarantees about the future. There have been more than 215,000 deaths since the pandemic started.”

WebMD Health News

Sources

Abraar Karan, MD, internal medicine and global health doctor, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston.

Dolores Albarracin, PhD, professor of psychology, business, and medicine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.Sara Heimerl, senior director of matchmaking, Selective Search, Chicago.

Rachel DeAlto, chief dating expert, Match

Lisa Bonos, dating and relationships writer, The Washington Post Style Section, Washington D.C.

Jordan and Brittany Tyler, Allegan, MI.

Marc, Scottsdale AZ.

Vincent Perrelli, MD, geriatrician, Providence, RI.

The Washington Post: The awkward intimacy of video dates, when they’re in your bedroom but you can’t touch.”

Vanity Fair: “Baseball? Coachella? Handshakes? Tinder? Anthony Fauci on the New Rules of Living With Coronavirus.”

Business Insider: “What's next for dating during coronavirus, according to an anthropologist, pathogen expert, and love-life coach.”

New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Safer Sex and COVID-19.”

Bumble: “Thinking of Hooking Up In Person Again? Here’s What Experts Recommend.”

Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

NPR: “Coronavirus FAQs: What Are The New Dating Rules? And What About Hooking Up?”

AARP: “Dating During a Pandemic: 'Love Is Not Canceled.'”

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