In a more tranquil time last March that almost feels unreal now, when restaurants were open, when it was normal to meet strangers in person, when the coronavirus seemed like an abstract concept instead of a deadly threat, Christy Donahue decided she was finally ready to dip her toe back in the dating waters again.
Donahue, 46, had matched with a man on Bumble who seemed … fine? She figured why not just go on a date with him and see how it went. They made plans and continued chatting. But as the days passed and her date loomed, in the back of her mind, she kept fixating on some of the things she’d been seeing in the news recently: a King County patient was the first person in the United States reported to die of COVID-19, the virus had reached Seattle, research on masks and social distancing was sparse and uncertainty loomed everywhere.
“I had already been talking to him for a few weeks, so I figured maybe I’d just go on the date since I had already invested time into it,” Donahue said. “But I was very clear ahead of time that I wanted to stay kind of distanced.”
When she showed up to dinner wearing a mask, Donahue’s date lightly joked about her “overreactions” and gave her a hug. She felt uneasy about the contact — could this date get her sick? — but tried to shake it off.
“I was already kind of a germaphobe,” said Donahue. “I had read a bunch of articles that lots of people had different opinions and responses to COVID, so I was just trying to be open-minded.”
The coronavirus pandemic has catastrophically altered and complicated almost every aspect of our lives, especially when it comes to socializing with others. A year of COVID-19 has meant postponing large gatherings, moving things outdoors and finding virtual and socially distant ways to connect. And it’s forced people to reevaluate, and in some cases, rewrite, the social norms and conventions that surround dating.
Dating itself is already difficult; it involves meeting new people, building trust and relationships and being emotionally vulnerable around others. But add COVID-19 to that, and people now have to consider myriad other factors pertaining to health and safety. That’s especially difficult now because everyone has different standards for what they consider “safe.”
Donahue finished her date and went home, still feeling unsure about it all. The two met again for brunch the next morning. Her date showed up maskless again, and dressed in sweatpants.
“That was not great,” laughs Donahue. “I mean, sweatpants in general is bad, meeting strangers from the internet is hard, but that plus everything with COVID! It’s … tough.”
The last straw for her came in a text conversation about a week later.
“I remember telling him that Tom Hanks got coronavirus, and he responded with something like, ‘Who cares?’” Donahue said. “And I was like, ‘Who cares?’ Who doesn’t care that Forrest Gump has coronavirus?”
You laugh, perhaps. But at least one academic study conducted jointly by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Washington State University showed Hanks’ March 11 announcement that he and wife Rita Wilson had tested positive for coronavirus highlighted the reality of COVID-19 for a lot of people.
For Donahue and many others across the country, that was the day COVID-19 started to feel real. And it was. Soon after the beloved actor’s announcement, Washington and, subsequently, much of the U.S., implemented stay-home orders to try to slow the spread of the virus.
After that conversation, Donahue paused her dating activities: “There was so much going on, it just didn’t seem worth it,” she said.
We’re in uncharted waters
While government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Public Health – Seattle & King County have released extensive guidelines and recommendations for how to see friends and family while abiding by social distancing rules, much less has been said about dating. So people — often, single, lonely and bored — have been left to muddle through the uncharted waters of dating amid a pandemic on their own.
“I can make up my own rules for myself, but I feel like public health hasn’t given any clear guidance on dating, and especially not sex,” said Molly Simonson, 28, a grad student at the University of Washington. “Is there a way to make things, like sex, safer? Should you have sex with a mask on? Does that even do anything? I remember Public Health – Seattle & King County put out a sort of PSA saying you should get a shower curtain, but it’s so impractical. Who’s going to bring a shower curtain to a hookup?”
(In case you’re wondering, that public health recommendation was for people to use a shower curtain between them to allow for sexual contact, but to prevent the face-to-face contact that could allow the virus to spread.)
With mandated social distancing, mask-wearing and the cancellation of most in-person events, dating has had to move almost entirely online. But even with an abundance of apps, sites and ways to communicate virtually, some say the online dating scene has been dismal.
Simonson says that since the start of the pandemic, she rarely checks her dating apps anymore. On top of the stress of meeting strangers over the internet, the added concerns about who they’ve been seeing and what kinds of COVID-related safety precautions they’ve been taking are just too overwhelming.
She isn’t the only one who’s taken a break from dating apps.
Ben Mussi, creator of the Seattle Dating App (which has over 15,000 registered users), says that after an initial spike in app usage at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a significant slowdown in traffic.
“People didn’t know how long COVID would last and many people thought that COVID might just be the equivalent of a snowstorm,” Mussi said. “As the early months of the lockdowns continued, it seemed a virtual dating fatigue set in.”
The summer months brought both rays of literal, rare sunshine to Seattle, along with glimmers of hope that things might return to “normal.”
“Starting in July, activity on the app spiked even more than in March, perhaps due to the summer weather, easing political tensions and the softening of COVID lockdowns this summer,” Mussi said.
Warm weather meant an excuse to go outside and see people in person. It gave single folks the opportunity to cast aside the dreaded Zoom date, and instead meet up for walks, picnics and more. But even then, COVID-19 was still a backdrop to every interaction.
“I’d always show up to a date with a mask on and keep a reasonable distance, then take cues on behavior from there,” said Joe Riley, 30. “It’s just figuring it out on the fly really.”
But summer inevitably gave way to the cooler fall months, bringing both a rise in COVID-19 cases in Washington, and the dreaded, gray, rainy winter. On top of a global pandemic, and an already difficult dating scene plagued by the Seattle Freeze, bitterly cold temperatures have further complicated matters for those trying to date.
“Reentering the dating scene in December made me realize how great I had it in the summer. It was so easy to suggest a park meetup back then,” Riley said. “Now, with the weather and early nightfall, there are only maybe 16 viable hours a week, and that’s only if it’s sunny at the weekend.”
Is there hope for singles in the future?
So, it appears that everyone in the Seattle dating scene is back at square one — trying to navigate chaotic, volatile times, while simultaneously figuring out how to meet new people safely.
But there are little silver linings to be found everywhere. For some, the coronavirus quarantine has brought the opportunity to reassess their dating priorities.
“I was never meeting the right guy, the one that would make me feel like Drew Barrymore at the end of a romantic comedy. But I realized it wasn’t the dating apps that were preventing me from finding that person, it was me,” said Jimmy Bales, 27.
Bales found that working from home and spending time alone in quarantine gave him time to reflect on everything — what he was looking for in a relationship, the state of the world, what kind of person he wanted to become. That continues to shape his ruminations on what he’ll want in a future partner, once he’s ready to get back out into the dating scene.
“Chivalry has sort of shifted from opening a door for someone to now pulling your mask up if you’re around others,” said Bales. “I’ve learned so much about myself this last year, I’m ecstatic to lean into somebody that makes me happy for me, and not for anyone else.”
But there’s still hope for those seeking to find human connection amid the pandemic.
Since her disastrous date with the maskless Tom Hanks hater last March, Donahue has found someone she likes.
Over the summer, she returned to Bumble, hoping to cure the loneliness she had been feeling since the start of the pandemic. But this time, she was determined to find someone who would take both her and the virus seriously.
She had a few matches, but none seemed to understand or respect Donahue’s reluctance to quickly meet up.
“With online dating, everyone wants instant gratification, they want to get together immediately, there are a lot of expectations,” said Donahue.
But there was one match who stuck around. They talked on the phone, texted and video called for almost six weeks — an eternity in the world of online dating — before finally meeting in person. Donahue says all that time made their relationship stronger.
“I’m just happy with a companion, and getting to know somebody the way I did, I knew we could have conversations and just hang out,” Donahue said. “One of the great things is that in those first couple dates, we would just go walk down by the water and we didn’t even have to talk, and it wasn’t awkward. And I think we could have that because we had those weeks of getting to know each other. It made us more comfortable with silence.”
With the recent vaccine rollout, an end to the pandemic might finally — hopefully — be in sight. But even after we can go back to first dates at the movies with hand-holding and no masks, some hopeful singles say coronavirus has changed their expectations of dating culture forever.
Donahue says she’ll continue to keep to a monthlong chatting period before meeting anyone in person.
“I like feeling that level of comfort when we finally meet,” Donahue said. “Pandemic or not, I want to have that time to get to know someone before I meet them in person.”
And seeing glimmers of those who have stepped up to help others during the pandemic has set a higher bar for what some people are looking for in a potential partner.
“I’m starting to think more about not only how people come off as humans, but also as a community member,” said Bales. “Seeing stories of good in such a terrible time has shown me that there are incredible people out there, and I’ve built the confidence to think that I can pursue people like that.”
Seattle Times dating writer Marina Resto contributed to this story.