Preparing for a first date looks very different right now than it did last year for Toronto resident Rob Loschiavo.
When the novel coronavirus pandemic first hit, the 30-year-old, who works in PR, would only connect virtually, and dates would consist of things like cooking a meal together through FaceTime.
But as the pandemic stretches on and lockdown measures have lifted, Loschiavo is more comfortable going on physically distant outdoor dates in spaces like parks — but he still takes precautions.
“It’s about navigating the conversation before you meet up, just knowing that you trust the person and that they’re not necessarily being reckless with their habits and behaviours,” he said.
“Then you have to prepare before you go on the date, like, ‘I’m going to bring hand sanitizer.’ It’s really weird, but it’s just become the new normal.”
The pandemic has changed nearly every aspect of “normal” life, and the looming threat of COVID-19 has seeped into dating. Gone are the days of crowded bars and speed dating events, and even organic meetings are affected now, too; it’s harder to make small talk under a mask in the produce aisle while practising physical distancing.
“It is very difficult to feel like you can meet somebody in person,” said Kristen Mark, an associate professor and director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky.
Mark and a team of researchers at the Kinsey Institute are currently working on a study called Sex and Relationships in the Time of COVID-19 about dating during the pandemic. They began collecting data in March and have since analyzed information from more than 3,000 respondents.
“We’ve found that people, not surprisingly, are not physically going on too many dates, but rather they’re engaging with each other in different ways online,” Mark said.
“Normally, you wouldn’t video chat with someone before you meet them, but that’s completely changed during this time.”
Mark said this reliance on technology has helped some people connect; instead of rushing to meet in person, video chats or text messages have allowed some folks to build trust and depth before deciding if they’d like to get together.
“There’s not that same level of pressure as when you meet in person, where maybe there’s a physical expectation that you’re going to kiss or you’re going to have sex,” she said.
“That’s sort of taken off the table when you’re getting to know somebody in a different way.”
Date options have changed
One of the biggest challenges with dating right now for Elyse, whose name Global News has changed for privacy reasons, is the limited date options.
The mid-30s Toronto woman says a big (and enjoyable) part of dating pre-pandemic was going to places like art galleries and concert halls. Just weeks before the pandemic became a reality in Canada, Elyse went on a date with someone she liked. But then when things locked down in March, the two only communicated through text and continued to do so for three months.
Elyse and her date agreed to meet again in-person a few weeks ago, after they both were on the same page about comfort level and COVID-19 precaution measures.
“It probably took, like, a couple hours just to feel the vibe and remember what the other person sort of feels like,” she said.
“That part was strange.”
Now that they’ve begun an in-person relationship again, she’s finding the limited date options frustrating. As health experts say it’s safer to socialize outdoors than indoors to limit the spread of COVID-19, many activities are off the table. The safest options now include hiking and park hangouts.
“I think you get to know people by doing things together,” Elyse said. “It’s sort of through shared hobbies… that you learn how to partake in other people’s experiences and what they like.”
While Loschiavo agrees there are limits on what you can do and where, he says that now, you have to be able to hold conversation without crutches or distractions. If you’re sitting in a park with a date, you’ll know pretty quickly if the two of you can talk for hours or not.
He also thinks the pandemic has offered people a chance to get creative with how they date, even perhaps challenging them to come up with thoughtful ideas. While the current warm weather allows for options like going to the beach or on a bike adventure, technology can still play a part.
“People can definitely find things that are interesting, like looking at a virtual gallery online together and swiping through that on your phone,” he said. “There’s ways we can still have different experiences.”
Because the spread of COVID-19 is still a top health concern in Canada, having “the talk” with your date about who else they’re seeing and if you’re exclusively dating each other is happening earlier on in relationships.
For Noelle, whose name Global News has changed for privacy reasons, the pandemic has sped up her relationship at a rate that likely wouldn’t have happened before. The Montreal resident started seeing someone, and to ensure both of them were as safe as possible, they talked about exclusivity early on.
“We started this relationship as a casual-dating thing, but it’s become a relationship that was never really what we planned,” she said.
Intimacy is also a part of relationships, so when things progress to a physical level, it’s important to be on the same page. Kinsey Institute researchers have found that the pandemic has hampered many people’s sex lives when it comes to in-person interactions.
“Physical distancing and isolation rules have imposed a number of limits on our ability to have sex for leisure,” Kinsey Institute acting executive director Justin Garcia, who is involved in the COVID-19 and dating study, said in a statement.
In April, researchers from the Kinsey Institute analyzed responses from about 1,200 participants and nearly half of those surveyed said their sex life has declined during the pandemic and that they are currently less sexually active.
On the other hand, respondents also said they were getting more creative with how they pursue intimacy.
“Some 17 per cent of participants reported having incorporated at least one new activity into their sex lives since the pandemic began,” the researchers wrote.
“The most common additions included sexting, sending nude photos to someone else, trying a new sexual position, and sharing sexual fantasies with a partner.”
When someone does decide to take their relationship from offline to in-person, it introduces them to their “bubble.” By extension, this means a partner is now linked to members of that bubble, too.
When Elyse became exclusive with the person she’s dating, she let her parents know right away — something she wouldn’t normally do. Her parents are immunocompromised and in her bubble, and she didn’t want to put them at risk.
“All of a sudden, I had to talk to my parents, and say, ‘So there is a person, here’s what he’s been doing. And now you have to make a decision about that,'” she said.
“That was an interesting complication.”
The future of dating
Mark says people may move away from online dating once the pandemic is over. People are getting fatigued from technology, Mark said, and miss in-person connections.
It’s important to note, however, that loneliness and isolation have played a role in how people are coping during COVID-19, she said. It’s human nature to crave social interactions, and support is vital to our well-being, she said.
“Skin hunger” is a factor that Noelle says drives singles to continue dating right now, even if there’s more risk.
“Sure, there is a romantic element to dating, but single people also date so that they don’t go to dinner alone, or to a concert alone,” she said.
“What no one’s really talking about is the motivation that comes from loneliness.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.
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