In this year of isolation, bubbles, physical distancing and the uncertainty of the road ahead, those seeking romantic love are acutely feeling their singlehood.
It’s pretty hard to meet people when you’re working from home, socializing only with close friends and family, and when there is no such thing as a spontaneous or carefree approach of a stranger.
For writer, actor and comedian Clare Blackwood, “dating has pretty much been the last thing on my mind” during COVID.
“If I’m going to leave my house to go sit and drink six feet across from someone in a park, I would much rather do that with a friend or family member I haven’t seen for months than a random stranger from the internet who I most likely deemed, ‘Not bad, and hopefully not a serial killer,’” she told CTVNews.ca via email.
But Blackwood, who lives alone, acknowledges the last five months have been lonely at times. Her one try at a date stood her up, but still she sees the potential romance in it all.
“There is a lovely Austen-esque quality to COVID dates, in the sense that you must stay a respectable distance away from each other at all times, and one of you probably has the plague.”
Dating coach and matchmaker Laura Bilotta says the pandemic has meant many singles are slowing down their dating games.
“It’s actually a really good time to date right now because the pressures of having sex are pretty much off the table, at least for most people. That may be shifting a bit in Stage 3, but I don’t advocate being physical too early,” said Bilotta.
“I think a lot of people are taking the time to connect. They’re getting to know people on a deeper level, and not jumping around from person to person… I actually think it’s a wonderful time for that,” she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview from her Toronto home.
“Maybe you might be more likely to connect with people emotionally before moving into the physical.”
And there are plenty of big social issues, a global health crisis and racial injustice among them, that make for big opportunities for meaningful conversations that might not always be a fixture of typical getting-to-know-you dates.
A DRONE AND A BUBBLE
COVID-19 has certainly forced seeking singles to search for potential dates online, to embrace virtual dates and to try new things.
A Brooklyn-based photographer made headlines in March with his creative come-ons to a neighbour whom he spotted dancing on her building’s roof. He attached his phone number to a drone and flew it over to her. The two went on a dinner date, spaced out on their respective rooftops, and connected through FaceTime.
When they met in person, he showed up rolling in an inflatable bubble to take a walk with her.
Dates look very different these days. Bilotta says lots of first dates are happening on Facebook or Zoom or even “kicking it old school on the phone.”
Potential matches are meeting for walks, hikes, maybe a coffee or dinner on a patio.
Bilotta has had a pandemic date in a grocery store parking lot. A friend and her date ordered fast-food takeout and sat in their respective cars and ate together.
Bilotta’s Single in the City service began hosting virtual speed dating events during the pandemic. Singles speak one on one for about five minutes before shifting to another potential candidate. Each participant answers whether they would like to meet again. If both answer yes, Single in the City provides their full profiles and their email addresses.
‘PUPPY LOVE ALL OVER AGAIN’
Jasmyn Ellis has loved her dating journey in 2020. She participated in a “whirlwind” of virtual dates during lockdown, including cooking and eating dinner in respective kitchens, and watching a Netflix movie together through an app that syncs the movie for each watcher and allows them to chat while watching.
One guy sent her the same jigsaw puzzle that he ordered for himself and completing it became a kind of ongoing competition.
Ellis, who works in marketing for a cosmetics company, says she found that during lockdown, she was spending more time with her dates that she would in normal times. That kind of time connecting gave her a good idea fairly quickly whether there was a potential connection.
“Some of my friends haven’t enjoyed it, but I don’t have any complaints. It’s been great,” said Ellis. “I’ve never been wooed as much as I have been now.”
Ellis says she has been extremely careful about meeting in person. It’s a big step and means “I already feel something for you.”
So she has met just a few dates after finding them on Bumble, for walks around Vancouver’s sea wall, a picnic in the park, picking up takeout and eating outside. She’s vigilant about precautions, so after each meeting of a new person, she advises her bubble of six friends that she’s going to stay away for 14 days.
“It’s just too scary. I never want to be the reason that someone gets sick,” the 29-year-old Vancouver resident said.
One guy she’s met recently is “really special,” says Ellis, but things are moving very slowly.
Jasmyn Ellis of Vancouver says she’s never been wooed so much as she has during pandemic dating.
“It reminds me of being in junior high and high school again. I’m getting butterflies just about meeting. It’s not really an option to be physical right now, so there is this build up to really get to know someone. It’s like puppy love all over again.”
But there is also a grown-up aspect to many of the long conversations she’s had with potential matches – a mutual sharing of vulnerability and loneliness in a time of crisis and isolation.
“I was by myself for so long and really feeling the lack of human connection. Those virtual dates early on were so great to have.”
VIRTUALLY SLOWING DOWN
Virtual dating has become the “new norm” for singles, says Priti Joshi, vice-president of strategy at online dating platform Bumble.
The use of in-app audio and video calls skyrocketed 70 per cent in Canada between pre-pandemic levels and mid-May, the latest numbers available, says Joshi. And average time spent on those calls doubled from 15 minutes to 29 minutes in that same time frame.
Messages are up 33 per cent.
“People are really using all the tools available to them to get to know each other,” Joshi told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview from Austin, Tex.
“We are hearing from our users that they are having more open, deeper, bigger and long conversations with potential matches. This time is allowing everyone to slow down for a second, take a beat, and be open and honest and vulnerable with others.”
Bumble, which requires women to make the first move, has launched a suite of tools during COVID-19. They include a get-to-know-each-other questions game, an audio notes feature for profiles, and a virtual dating badge that tells potential matches whether someone is open to video calls, or meeting for physically distanced dates.
Then there is the partnership with Airbnb Experiences, which allows Bumble’s 100 million users worldwide to have a date with a global flare. That could mean cooking Thai curry with a chef in Bangkok or doing a wine tasting with a sommelier in Tuscany.
“We know our demographic loves to travel and they are forming connections and spending time together in video chats. So this brings the two together.”
DATING BECOMES A FAMILY DECISION
“It’s a ridiculous time to try to date. It’s really crazy,” said Rebecca, a 51-year-old mother of four who lives in Hamilton, Ont.
She wouldn’t have chosen online dating if it weren’t for COVID-19, but after her 30-year marriage ended in January, Rebecca (who didn’t want her last name used) is in a place where she’s enjoying being single and meeting new people.
She’s found potential dates in unexpected places, including video social media platform TikTok and an online Scrabble game. Anything with a chat function can be a place to find matches, she says.
But live dates have been a challenge. One guy she really liked is too cautious about the virus to meet in person.
Rebecca’s 18-year-old daughter, who is worried and stressed about COVID, wishes her mother would keep her dating virtual, too, but Rebecca is eager to socialize. And she’s equally eager to get past virtual, which she says is an “awkward” way to get to know someone.
“The energy is missing through a screen.”
After talking to one man for a while, the two decided to enter each other’s bubbles for dates that involve walks, picnics and drives. The two recently took a trip to Niagara Falls, but didn’t get out of the car because the crowds were too thick.
“We both have to be careful because we live with our families. And I have to consider my kids. We’ve made decisions together about who is in our bubble.”
‘SIMPLICITY’ IN DATING
For Ross Bridges, a 43-year-old realtor in Burlington, Ont., dating seemed too difficult when COVID-19 turned the world upside down. He says he was too frightened of the virus in the early months to even consider meeting strangers.
So he threw himself into his work, connected with his family and friends, exercised, read, and cooked. His backyard pool became a hub for his bubble.
But the pull to find love was strong.
Bridges prefers meeting romantic partners through friends or colleagues or through spontaneous meetings, but he turned to online and virtual speed dating to seek out connections.
“I’m more skeptical now than ever if someone wants to meet without having a conversation. I just won’t do it,” says Bridges. “We all have a responsibility to be careful in all of this. There is no timeline for when this will end.”
His dates have included long walks, and drinks and music in his backyard, though he’s yet to find a true spark.
But he remains a true romantic and expects he will meet his true love in a chance encounter in a park or a grocery store, even if COVID-19 makes that difficult.
“There is a simplicity in dating now. It’s bike rides and picnics. It’s not about showing off or spending lots of money. Maybe some beautiful love stories will come out of this godawful experience we’ve all faced.”
LOVE IN THE TIME OF COVID-19
Were it not for COVID-19, Stephanie Matthias and Marc Pinard would be living 4,000 kilometres apart and likely struggling to keep a new relationship alive.
But instead, they are living together in Vancouver and about to celebrate their first anniversary.
The couple, both living in Toronto, connected on dating app Bumble last August and after weeks of messaging, had their first date in September. By December, they were getting serious, but in January, Pinard took a new job as products manager with Amazon Web Services. It meant he’d be moving to Vancouver in March.
They were preparing for a long-distance romance as Pinard said his goodbyes in Toronto. He gave up his apartment and sent his belongings across the country. But then he got word that he should stay put and work remotely.
It was a “no-brainer” when he asked to move in with her, says Matthias. And that “dry run for living together” – an intense few months in lockdown where the couple spent 24 hours, seven days a week living and working together showed them it was meant to be.
She cooked, he cleaned and they easily worked out how to manage each other’s work obligations. They were both grateful to be coping with quarantine together.
“Had the pandemic not happened and he moved, I’m not sure what would have happened,” Matthias, 31, told CTVNews.ca by phone. “Long distance is challenging in any relationship, but in a new relationship, it’s almost certain death.”
Pinard and Matthias moved to Vancouver two weeks ago, after she was able to secure permission to go remote with her job handling corporate partnerships for a non-profit.
“Both of us couldn’t be happier with how it went.”
WHEN THE PANDEMIC IS OVER
While there has been a surge in online dating that has come out of necessity, K. Rasmussen, a writer and editor with online dating coach platform As You Wish, isn’t sure that’s here to stay.
“Over the last few years, many people were moving away from it and finding other ways of meeting and connecting. So once it’s safe to be more socially active and interactive, it’s likely that online dating will experience a bit of a down-swing again,” she said in an email to CTVNews.ca.
Bilotta agrees. She thinks when the black cloud of COVID-19 recedes, in-person, face-to-face dates will surge.
“We are social creatures and we’ve really had to change how we connect, but once we get that greenlight, look out. People have been pent up and will want to get that out their systems.”
And online dating can be an “gruesome” reality of rejection and disappointment, not getting responses, conversations that go nowhere, and being ghosted and catfished, says Bilotta.
“Or you put in all kinds of time with someone only to find there is no chemistry when you do meet.”
The answer is video chat and that’s here to stay, she says.
“It’s a better gauge of their personality. You get to see how they carry themselves, their smile, the twinkle in their eye, how they dress. It just eliminates wasted time because it shows if there is chemistry.”
Speaking through video is a great test of comfort in being together and whether meeting face to face is worth the risk during the COVID and the trouble when it’s no longer around.
“I think more people are going to say if there is no video chat, they aren’t going to meet you. It’s going to become a required step.”
Blackwood, the comedian, doesn’t believe coronavirus will have long-lasting effects when it comes to dating, because human beings will always find a way to return to a sense of normal.
“Thus, I’m fairly certain that as soon as we are told that it’s safe to go back to drunkenly making out with our Tinder dates in the back of questionable dive bars, most of us will. I’m not saying doing that was ever a GOOD idea, but by God we’ll do it.”
SEX: ‘SCARY’ TERRITORY
You know you’re living in weird times when Canada’s ever-serious chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, weighs in with dating advice. She told Canadians in early July to go virtual, keep partners to a minimum, and to stay home if they’re sick. She encouraged outdoor, physically distanced dates and warned that being intimate is a “serious social contract.”
“Singular dating or smaller numbers is probably the wisest thing to do,” she said, noting that this allows people to “know each other more” and therefore know the risk levels involved with any droplet-involved interactions.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control was much more explicit with its advice.
Its guidelines say “group sex” and “sexual positions with close face to face contact” should be avoided, while the safest sex is masturbation or acts done virtually.
“If you have multiple sex partners or make a living by having sex, consider taking a break from in-person dates. Video dates, sexting, or chat rooms may be options for you,” the website notes.
The BCCDC suggests that to minimize risk, sexual partners should wear a mask, avoid or limit kissing, or use glory holes to prevent face-to-face contact.
There are plenty of unanswered questions, says the BCCDC: “The virus has been found in semen and feces (poop). It is not yet known if the virus is found in blood or internal genitalia/vaginal fluids. It is not yet clear if the virus can be transmitted through sex.”
That’s a lot to worry about.
Sex is “scary” territory these days, says Bilotta.
“The safest sexual partner during this pandemic is yourself… Sex with a stranger? I don’t recommend it.”
If safe sex options, including sexting, phone sex and video sex aren’t enough, Bilotta says it’s critical to take on real-life intimacy with someone who’s been tested and who you know is taking COVID-19 as seriously as you are.
If that happens for her, Bilotta says masks won’t be required.
“I just don’t really think that’s a realistic option.”
TIPS FOR NAVIGATING PANDEMIC DATING
Of course, meeting for a first in-person date is much more complicated and fraught than ever before. It requires having clear and honest discussions about boundaries, says Bilotta. Mask or no mask? Indoors or outdoors? Handshake, hug, or two metres distance? What could be left to spontaneity before, has to be clearly spelled out now.
Bilotta recommends that daters practise physical distancing on a first date. If there is a second, that’s the time to start talking about bubbles, potential exposures, vulnerable family members. She advises that if there is a mutual desire to keep meeting and maybe get physical, or if one or both are high risk, Bilotta says both should get tested.
Rasmussen at As You Wish, which offers services across Canada, says a profile should be clear about how the dater wishes to interact. Does that mean live chats, texts and emails or physically distanced meetings?
Then, if both parties agree to meet, Rasmussen strongly recommends clearly establishing what physical distancing practices will be used, and meeting outdoors in uncrowded public areas. Bring hand sanitizer, consider wearing masks, and don’t shake hands, hug, or share food or drinks.
And pandemic or not, remember that it’s never safe to meet a stranger in secluded areas, at a private home, or after dark, she warns.
Just as important, be aware of scammers who are capitalizing on those feeling vulnerable and desperate to connect, says Rasmussen, who lives in Victoria, B.C. Cyber-bullying has had a huge upswing in recent months, she says, with scammers creating fake profiles, building some trust and then requesting nude or sexual photos or videos.
Victims are then threatened with having those images going public if they don’t pay.
This is a time to be careful, wary and protective of yourself.
“No matter how charming or trustworthy someone seems, no matter how bored and lonely you feel, it’s not worth exposing yourself to potential harm in any way. Make your safety boundaries very clear as soon as you begin messaging with someone. Don’t send explicit images of yourself. Don’t meet up with anyone who doesn’t agree to practice social-distancing in safe areas. Don’t have physical contact of any kind with anyone outside of your ‘bubble.’”
If you must have sex, says Rasmussen, after waiting for the aphrodisiac of anticipation to build up, both parties should get tested for COVID-19 at the same time, wait for the negative results, and then both self-isolate for two weeks before there is any physical contact.
“All of these extra precautions aren’t fun or easy, we know. But they won’t be necessary forever and they’ll make all the difference in keeping everyone safer right now.”