On a recent Friday, a 28-year-old Torontonian named Natalia was on the first date she had been on in months, since her city and much of the world shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It was going well. She and her date met in a park near where she lives and shared a blanket, her sitting on one end, him on the other. He drank beer; she had cider. They seemed to be succeeding in both having fun and staying 6 feet apart the whole time.
Eventually it was time to say goodbye. “I was a little buzzed. He was also probably a little buzzed,” Natalia said. “I was like, ‘Oh, should we hug? I guess we shouldn’t hug.’ And then he was just like, ‘Yeah, I guess we could.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, OK … ’ ”
Natalia went in for a hug. Her date went in for a kiss.
“It just kind of happened,” she said. “I’m definitely not proud of the fact that I ended up kissing this guy.” (She, like several of the people quoted in this article, asked to be identified by her first name to preserve her privacy—and to prevent future dates from judging her.) She worried that she caught the virus and would expose her family, who lived nearby and who she’d been continuing to see throughout the pandemic. Or that she’d have to tell them the embarrassing reason she couldn’t visit them: “They’re gonna say, ‘What is wrong with you? Control your hormones.’ ”
Two days later, she went for a COVID-19 test. “It did come out negative, so that’s good,” she said.
It was a rookie mistake on a “socially distanced” first date—but it’s one many people in the coming weeks seem poised to repeat, as restrictions related to the virus start to loosen, especially in places that officials hope have put the worst of the crisis behind them. In New York, for example, last week marked the beginning of phase two, which allowed bars and restaurants to open for outdoor seating. To some single people, this looked like one more sign, after the widespread protests didn’t appear to result in large outbreaks, that some version of in-person dating could work again. Not full-blown dating like people used to do, in the olden days of January and February, but phase two dating. Socially distant dating. And after months of video dating, in-person dating sounds great, even if has to be 6 feet apart.
A dating app called Iris attempted to quantify how many people are dating in person again with a survey it commissioned and published last week. In it, 1,000 single New Yorkers were asked, “How long will it be until you’re comfortable doing an in-person date with someone?” Fourteen percent of respondents answered ASAP, 20.8 percent answered in a month, and another 21.3 percent answered in two to three months.
When I started to ask people this question, I found a considerable amount of excitement about going on dates again—“I’m being asked out left and right,” said Jessica, a 31-year-old lawyer in Brooklyn—but also a sense that now is a time to be choosier.
“Pre-COVID, I would be eager to say, ‘Hey, let’s go meet up for a drink’ with just about anyone,” said Jonathan, a 45-year-old web developer in Santa Barbara, California. Now, he said, “I’m a lot more careful about who I meet and why. I make sure before I even meet someone that COVID-19 is a concern for them. There was a woman I matched with back in May who was like, ‘Oh no, I don’t wear a mask.’ I noped outta that.”
Of the handful of socially distanced dates he’s been on, Nico, a 25-year-old law student in Charlottesville, Virginia, admitted, “I probably should have asked more bluntly, ‘Have you been social distancing? Here’s what I’ve been doing.’ I guess it’s just hard to make conversation flow naturally after that.”
“At some point, we should probably talk about it,” said Rebecca, a 20-year-old student in Panama City, Florida. But it could be awkward: “I don’t want it to come across as being controlling by asking him, ‘Are you wearing your mask to go out?’ ”
Nina Lam faced a related impasse on a recent date in New York’s Central Park. Lam, who is 23 and works as an event planner, had already gotten together with a friend to sit in a park on a different day, and they’d taken their masks off, so she figured she would do the same on her date. “I got to the park and I sat down with [my date] and I was like, ‘Should we take our masks off?’ and he was like, ‘I’m gonna leave mine on.’ I was like, ‘Oh, OK, then I guess I’ll leave mine on too.’ I felt kind of awkward at that point taking mine off and seeming like I’m shirking the rules. I had this really long date with him—we were there for like five hours—and we had masks on the entire time.
“It felt like I couldn’t really tell what he was thinking as much, I couldn’t really see his expressions,” Lam said. “It was really fun to go on this date and get to flirt and be a normal person, but then it was so apparent for the entire thing that it was not normal life. Maybe we aren’t a good match for a pandemic date, which is different than being a good match for a date in normal life.”
In Providence, Rhode Island, Orion Dommisse’s recent date was almost the inverse of Lam’s. “I was wearing a mask,” she said. “When I saw [my date], he wasn’t wearing a mask, and then as I was walking, I saw all these people around not wearing masks, and it completely freaked me out. I felt like I was the weird one. I felt peer pressured into not wearing one.” Dommisse said she took her mask off but wished she hadn’t, or that she had discussed it with her date. But in the moment, she was flustered. “It’s kind of like trying to have a safe-sex talk,” she said.
This was not the only time the safe-sex comparison came up. Natalia, the Toronto accidental kisser, said, “I did, when I went to go get that COVID test, think, ‘Shit, if it comes out positive I’m going to have to tell him, and it’s going to be like telling somebody that you have an STD.’ ”
Exclusivity has generally become a topic of conversation earlier than it usually does in the standard relationship timeline. Daniel, a 25-year-old tech writer in Brooklyn, said that he wouldn’t, under normal circumstances, exclusively date the woman with whom he went on two socially distanced dates recently. But these aren’t normal circumstances. “This weekend, we had an actual conversation about that, which was good, a more explicit setting of the terms,” he said. She was cool with them seeing only each other for now. “She was like, ‘I think this serves both of us.’ ”
A lot of people are still trying to figure out how to flirt without touching the other person. “At one point [my date] kind of, I guess, instinctually touched my arm,” said Jessica, the Brooklyn lawyer. “I was like, ‘I’m really enjoying myself here, but I feel like we shouldn’t be touching yet,’ which was awkward to say to someone that you’re actually vibing with.”
The question of what to do after sitting in a park not touching each other a couple times is also tricky. “There’s a billion things I would do before,” said Andrew Leamon, a 30-year-old copywriter in Chicago, ticking off concerts, museums, bocce ball. “It’s been significantly reduced now to, I would say, about two options: video and walk. Not the greatest.”
Ana Moss, a 30-year-old New Yorker, echoed this concern. “After the park, what the hell do you do?”
It’s also just harder to get to know someone, Jessica said: “For me, seeing someone in their natural social setting, to see how they interact with their friends or what activities they do in their free time, if they know about cool events like concerts and movies and stuff like that, feeds into my attraction for someone. Now, all those things are canceled.”
Lam said she wasn’t sure how to proceed after the date she went on in Central Park—the one where they wore masks the whole time. “I would definitely go out with him again, but it feels like the thing to do is to go to a museum or to get dinner at a cute, romantic restaurant, or see a show or go to a movie or something, which obviously we can’t do. It feels kind of silly to be like, ‘Well, should we just do a repeat? Meet in the same place? Sit on a blanket again?’ Is that really worth it?”
“I can’t figure out whether or not it would have been different in a bar,” Moss said of her park rendezvous. “It’s hard to feel chemistry with someone. In some ways, we’re creating the conditions for that in a wine bar: There’s alcohol, there’s mood lighting, it’s nighttime, you dressed up, the seating arrangements. … There is a part of dating that is like we buy into the magic and the suspension of disbelief and the illusion that we’re creating for each other. This is not that. We’re just literally going to the park and having a walk.”
Despite these drawbacks, certain previously unforeseen advantages have presented themselves. Jennifer Wexler, a dating coach who has been displeased to hear from her clients that men are trying to hug them, said that more time isn’t always a bad thing: “What this pandemic is doing is really slowing everything down. People are not rushing to have sex, and they’re not rushing into relationships. People are really taking the time to get to know one another.”
“It’s been really nice at the end of a date to not have to worry about whether he’s going to try and kiss you,” Rebecca, the Florida 20-year-old, added. “I just throw up a peace sign like, ‘Stay 6 feet away!’ ”
This brings us back to the challenge of the socially distanced goodbye. Jessica, the lawyer, said park dating provides an easy out if the other person is a dud. “One of my dates was just bad,” she said. “I just was not feeling him.” The two had gotten to-go cocktails, then sat down on a bench. When she was ready to leave, “there was no waiting for the check. I was just done with my drink, and then I was like, ‘Nice to meet you, bye!’ ”
Mackenzie, a 26-year-old Vancouverite, devised her own exit strategy for hiking dates. “I will give myself some credit. I was pretty clever,” she said. “I picked some trails that actually had a shorter route or a longer route, so about halfway through when we reached the fork and I wasn’t having a good time, I was like, ‘All right, we’re turning around and taking the shorter route. I’m going back to my car.’ ”
Nico, the law student, said wrapping up a date as a guy feels different now too: “It did increase the tension or the stress to some degree as you started nearing the end of walk, because it was so apparent that that was the end of it. I think I saw a couple of the girls go through the same mental calculus of like, ‘OK, we have about five minutes left on this thing. What do we do—do we hug at the end, or do we just kind of wave at each other?’ That’s so weird.”
Nico hasn’t been hugging on first dates. But even those with the best of intensions are bound to slip up occasionally, especially when they’re up against extenuating circumstances.
Laura, a 30-year-old government worker in London, recently planned an in-person date with a woman who didn’t live in her city whom she connected with on a dating app. They decided they would meet halfway between them and have a picnic.
The date was off to a good start, and Laura said she could tell from the woman’s body language that she liked her. Then, a few hours in, “it started to rain really, really heavily, which is not what you want when you’re having a picnic in the park.”
They only had one umbrella, so they tried to share it. There goes the 6-feet rule. Then it got windy, and before long, her date invited her to sit in the date’s car. So much for any social distancing at all.
“We did end up having sex in the back of her car,” Laura said.
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