Love in the Time of COVID-19

Restaurants and bars may have closed, but there’s one thing that a pandemic can’t stop: the search for love.

Even amid the global health panic and cry for social distancing, Vancouver singles are still looking for connection. 

Jimmy Rustle (not his real name, obviously) even went on a date yesterday. Of course, there was no drinks or dinner to be had—just a long walk in East Van at a safe distance. “We went to a park, and walked a couple laps until it got too cold, then we lamented not being able to get a beer,” says 31-year-old Rustle, a consultant who remains active on a variety of dating apps even as COVID fears ramp up. “She was a good conversationalist, so the walking was actually really nice.”

The fear of infection has thrown a curveball into romantic interactions. Vancouver singles are now trying to navigate how exactly one flirts or whether a physical connection is worth the risk of potential infection. “I tried to do the ‘foot high five’ instead of the socially mandated stranger hug, and I’m not sure it went over super well,” says Rustle, who ultimately decided with his date to chance a hug at the end of the night, after observing each other’s lack of symptoms over the course of the two-hour walk. 

Of course, not demonstrating symptoms doesn’t mean someone is COVID-free—and yet, if the activity on apps is any indication, Rustle’s not the only one still dating during increasingly isolated times. “I’m on Bumble, Tinder, and Hinge,” says Rustle. “Hinge has been the busiest. Seemed like there was a bit of a spike on Monday when people started working from home? But yesterday night and today I think people have calmed down and are taking it a little more seriously, so there is less chit chat.” 

Another Vancouver single, a 28-year-old baker we’ll call Abe Hornby, has seen the opposite: an influx of messages on Hinge and Bumble. “People have nothing else to do, and fear makes people horny—that’s science, baby,” he says. “Love in the time of cholera, et cetera. Wait, what was that book about, again?”

Hornby and others see the danger of infection in big public spaces, not one-on-one interactions, even with strangers—an argument that blatantly defies what Dr. Bonnie Henry has been advocating.People don’t really have worries about a single person. You could get it from an asymptomatic person, certainly, but I think most people are willing to take that risk on a one-off basis…especially since if they don’t, no sex for them,” he points out. “Historically, that’s been a bit motivator for people.”

Writer and 35-year-old Clyde Dickens (again, a fun fake name) is currently under self-quaratine after travelling to the U.S., and has been chatting on gay dating app Grindr out of “sheer boredom.” “A lot of people have changed their user names from things like ‘LOOKING FOR RN’ to stuff like ‘WASH YOUR HANDS,'” he reports. While he’s personally not looking to connect with anyone face-to-face, he suspects others on the app are. “I assume lots of people are still hooking up all over the place, sexual impulse is a hard thing to tame,” says Dickens. “If people can’t curb their desires to go get bubble tea I doubt they can curb their desires for casual sex.”

Grindr’s press office, of course, is discouraging meet-ups during these uncertain times. “The health and safety of our users is a top priority for Grindr. We are advising users to follow guidelines provided by the WHO, and have published these guidelines in the Grindr app to help users make the best informed decisions when interacting with others,” says a spokesperson for the platform via email. 

Some Vancouver singles don’t need WHO to tell them that now might be a good time to cool it, if anecdotal reports of people deleting their apps altogether are to be believed. “It’s dropped to the bottom of my list of priorities,” says Joy Pecknold, a 38-year-old freelance writer and editor who has been vocal about the importance of social distancing during this time. “But when this has passed and I put myself out there again (literally and figuratively), whether a dude took self isolation seriously will be a deal breaker.”

For those who are looking for connection without risking infection, technology has helped to bridge the gap.Tinder’s director of communications, Evan Bonnstetter, notes that Tinder has seen an uptick in the number of conversations, and longer conversations. “This epidemic is also changing the tenor of connection in the hardest hit places.  More people are using Tinder bios to show their concern for others (‘how is everyone’) instead of their life motto.” Tinder has responded to the crisis by making its Passport feature, previously available only to premium members, available to everyone through April 30: with it, users can connect with other users across the world. 

Bumble—a dating app designed for women to make the first move—has voice call and video chat features integrated right into the platform for people to connect beyond text. Though a spokesperson declined to comment on current user trends, they did divulge that they’ll be directing users to the CDC and WHO for health guidance and will continue to provide a “great outlet for those who may be concerned with people meeting in person.”

Jill Lockley, a 27-year-old teacher, changed her Tinder bio to “Virtually Date Me,” and has already has a date scheduled with another interested woman. “We’re gonna watch a movie on Netflix Party,” she says. (Incredibles 2, if you’re wondering.)

Though there are obvious drawbacks to digital romantic meet-ups, they also offer an easy opportunity to bail should a date start to go sour, as 24-year-old communications specialist Savannah Erasmus found. She met a guy on Bumble a few days before the pandemic ramped up, and when he suggested a video chat, she found herself face to face with someone who looked nothing like his photo, broadcasting from a dimly lit corner of a basement suite. “He starts with, ‘Hey Savannah, are you still scared of spaghetti fever?’ Apparently that’s what he calls Coronavirus, which is a real turn off—I work in public health! Then, he pulls out a bow and arrow,” says Erasmus. “I just went, ‘The connection is bad, I can’t hear you, bye!'” A bad-date bullet dodged, from the comfort of home.

For those who are in new or not-quite-ready-to-put-a-label-on-it relationships, COVID has either put things on pause (many new lovers report switching from in-person hangouts to Skype or Zoom)… or in some cases, inadvertently ramped things up. “It made me tell a girl I loved her,” says 23-year-old standup comedian An-te Chu. 

Twenty-eight-year-old content marketer Kayleigh Vayne (a pseudonym) had been dating her boyfriend for just three months when they decided to take a golf trip to Oregon for their first weekend away together. The trip was great, but the timing was not: they crossed the border just as Dr. Bonnie Henry was announcing that anyone coming back from the States would need to be quarantined together for 14 days. Suddenly the new couple found themselves in some pretty close quarters.

“It’s a combination of very stressful and very comforting,” admits Vayne, reporting from Day Three of co-isolation. “At first I found myself especially stressed and short-tempered earlier this week, and knowing myself, I was worried I would totally push him away or self-sabotage. But it’s actually been really comforting to have someone to talk to. It’s definitely expedited some honesty which has been helpful—we were already really open communicators, but he’s seen me cry and watched me freak out more in the last three days than anyone else I’ve ever dated has ever seen.”

Vayne and her partner are trying to not just talk about COVID, both to avoid anxiety spiralling and to keep getting to know each other. It’s an intense situation to be thrown into in the early days of a romance, but ultimately, as Vayne sees it, a good chance for a relationship to sink or swim. “It’s definitely an early look into how people handle stress and uncertainty—which is probably for the best.”

Of course, as things change so quickly and relationships new and old are thrown into strange new circumstances, some Vancouverites believe that behaviours really don’t change that much. Taryn Hardes, a 31-year-old marketing consultant, reports that she actually hasn’t seen notoriously cold local loverboys change their habits at all. “No dates before the pandemic, no dates during the pandemic.”