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On April 19, 2020, Jimmy Rustle (not his real name, obviously) went on a date. He’d been single on and off for a few years and was no stranger to the online dating game, so this wasn’t exactly a rare occurrence… but the then-new pandemic had put a bit of a wrench into things. There were 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 of laps until it got too cold, then we lamented not being able to get a beer,” says 32-year-old Rustle, a consultant who remained active on a variety of dating apps even as COVID fears ramped up. “She was a good conversationalist, so the walking was actually really nice.”
A year-and-then-some later, these Jane Austen-style date-walks are now more than familiar to most Vancouver singletons. The pandemic’s on-again-off-again lockdowns meant that, at any given time, the risk of hooking up went far beyond STIs or heartbreak—and as the stakes shifted, so too did the landscape of romance itself. Instead of pints, the unattached nervously navigated chaste strolls in the park. Newer couples got serious, fast, wanting to lock it in before lockdown. Once-casual lovers grilled each other about bubble sizes. Beyond adjusting to new work lives, social lives, health concerns, and on and on, those looking for love or companionship this past year also faced a mass reassessment of etiquette and behaviour, of communication and commitment. How do we flirt with masks on? Will a “foot high-five” really show a potential lover that you care? If you weren’t seeing your own mother, should you really be meeting up with that guy from Hinge?
The pandemic may not have changed dating and relationships forever… but it certainly changed them for a lot of people this year. Lovers: it’s been a dangerous time.
Early on in COVID, dating apps reported staggering spikes in usage—Hinge’s downloads grew by 96 percent in Canada in 2020, for instance—as boredom and loneliness took hold. For those who were looking for connection without risking infection, technology was there to bridge that gap. 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. Jill Lockley, a 27-year-old teacher, changed her Tinder bio to “Virtually Date Me” in the spring, and quickly scheduled with another interested woman. “We watched a movie on Netflix Party,” she says. (Incredibles 2, if you’re wondering.)
But obviously, the past year has not just been one of distanced chats and Pixar films. Even during times where meetups were discouraged by Dr. Bonnie Henry—and by the apps themselves—propositions flew. Another Vancouver single, a 35-year-old baker we’ll call Abe Hornby, saw an influx of activity over the past year. “People have nothing else to do, and fear makes people horny—that’s science, baby,” he says. “I think most people have been willing to take that risk on a one-off basis… especially since, if they don’t, no sex for them. Historically, that’s been a bit motivator for people.” (Though even for the hot-to-trot set, sanitation was often still top of mind this past year: on Grindr, usernames changed from the likes of LOOKING FOR RN to WASH YOUR HANDS.)
As the months wore on, even those who were anxious at first sometimes found themselves bending the rules. At first, Fantasia Singh, a 25-year-old executive assistant (with a fake name), was hyper-cautious and would get angry with roommates for bringing guys over. “But in 2021 I felt like I had a handle on COVID… cocky of me,” she says. She ended up dating a guy for a couple of months, and the two were exclusive to be COVID-safe, but she found it frustrating. “It was too early, and it wasn’t really for us.” And because there was nothing to do but hang out at each others’ houses, it “lacked proper courtship rituals and doomed the relationship to hookup status.”
It was more about companionship than actual connection, a way to stave off the boredom. But can you blame anyone for reaching out for human touch? We’re in the midst of a “parallel pandemic of loneliness,” as Vancouver psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang put it in a Global News report this year.
For those who feel like dating apps turned into a soul-crushing Thunderdome these past months, the science may actually back you up. The superficial mechanism of these apps, which often rely on a visual first impression, have gotten even super-er, according to Dr. Alec Beall, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia who specializes in the intersection between disease pathogens and signs of attractions. (It truly is his time to shine.) In his recent work, Beall reviewed studies that found fear of communicable disease is high, people tend to value mates who have indicators of health—clear skin, symmetrical faces, bright eyes. “When people are scared of disease, they lean toward attractive mates,” says Beall. In other words: our primate brains think hot people are less likely to get us sick. (Though as the world normalizes again, Beall predicts, we’ll see a shift back to valuing other important qualities, like kindness and humour.)
If you weren’t out there in the trenches competing for the most symmetrically faced lover, though, you may still have faced a struggle during the pandemic. Those in existing relationships were dealing with their own unique recalibration: Beall calls it a “stress test.” If things were going well, these past months have been a time to really enjoy your partner’s company. But if things were tenuous before COVID… well, this was likely a make-it-or-break-it stretch. “It was a major decision point,” says Beall. “People were asking themselves, ‘Do I stick with my partner through this?’”
Twenty-four-year-old dental assistant Audrey Philips (a pseudonym) was about three months into a new romantic relationship with a longtime friend when COVID really hit B.C. Their different perspectives on the pandemic quickly put things on the rocks—starting with the outbreak at the Pacific Dental Conference in March 2020, which Philips’s mom (a dental hygienist) had attended. “He told my mom she was selfish for going back to work, and appeared only to worry about the number of infections, and I was worried about people losing their jobs and being unable to provide for themselves. Job loss was affecting my family,” says Philips. “It was a topic we went back to again and again, and each time we’d be more defensive with each other. I felt like he was judging my family even though we were only trying to get by. I was pretty resentful in the end.”
Tom Unova (one more alias for good measure), meanwhile, saw his marriage dissolve last summer; he and his now-ex remain friends, but the magic was just gone. And so, in the strangest of times, the 40-year-old writer found himself experiencing dating again after an eight-year hiatus. The slow pace of pandemic-era wooing has actually felt right, he says. “The meet-ups happen waaay later, after a good amount of just texting back and forth, seeing if there’s a fun energy there that might make the leap to real life. You have to meet outdoors —so usually in the day. You stay six feet apart. Usually I’ve just walked around and talked with women for an hour or two,” he says. “The slow-motion has been great for someone like me, who’s just looking to make authentic connections and very slowly see where things go.”
While he’s certainly not meeting people in real life the way a fresh get-my-groove-back young divorcé might have in days of yore, in many ways the pandemic has actually removed some barriers for Unova to get back out there. More people are on the apps, improving his chances of meeting someone cool. And his social anxiety (“and a completely atrophied ‘game’”) is basically non-existent online, where he can shine in text. “I’ve been able to rediscover my playful side in a mode that plays to my strengths and enables me to put my flirtiest foot forward—my left foot,” he says.
And then, in our safari of pandemic-era lovers, we have those who were in new or not-quite-ready-to-put-a-label-on-it relationships. For this group, COVID either put things on pause (many new lovers report switching from in-person hangouts to Skype or Zoom)… or inadvertently ramped things up. “It made me tell a girl I loved her,” says 23-year-old standup comedian An-Te Chu.
A quick poll on Instagram revealed dozens of couples who got serious early on in pandemic. Sure, maybe they would’ve shacked up regardless—but most agree that the circumstances turned up the heat. “We became each other’s emotional support much faster than we meant to,” says a Vancouver arborist who now lives with his girlfriend. Elsewhere in the city: “We jumped into spending every single night together because there was literally nothing else to do, and we haven’t really changed our habits even as things have been reopening,” says an art handler in “fresh love thanks to the global panini.”
Thirty-year-old content marketer Kayleigh Vayne (you guessed it: another 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 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 was a combination of very stressful and very comforting,” admits Vayne. “At first I found myself especially stressed and short-tempered, and was worried I would totally push him away or self-sabotage. But it was actually 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 saw me cry and watched me freak out more in the first three days of quarantine than anyone else I’ve ever dated has ever seen.”
Vayne and her partner tried not to just talk about COVID, both to avoid anxiety spiralling and to keep getting to know each other. It was an intense situation to be thrown into in the early days of a romance, but ultimately, as Vayne sees it, it was a good chance for a relationship to sink or swim: “It definitely was an early look into how we handle stress and uncertainty—which was probably for the best.” The two moved in together this past September.
Who knows what the state of B.C. or the world will be by the time this story is published, but it’s currently feeling like real life is within reach. It feels not-unrealistic to imagine a day when serial daters can get back to playing the field; we can cry in our friends’ arms again after a breakup and new loves can take it as slow as they like. “We might see more dating in general,” says Beall. “New lovers, old lovers… the times of loneliness are hopefully in the rearview mirror.”
Editor’s note: This story, which appeared in the July 2021 print issue of Vancouver magazine, includes some repurposed content from a digital story — “Love in the Time of COVID-19” — that ran in spring 2020.
REPORTS FROM THE FRONT LINES OF LOVE
“We had to decide pretty much right away after the first couple of dates if we were exclusively seeing each other. It definitely got very serious very quickly. Neither of us were able to go home for Christmas, so we spent it together and it felt very intimate.”—Jamie Hilman, teacher, 28
“Online dating is literally the only option right now. I haven’t come across one person that seems to care about COVID restrictions. There are so many levels to how terrible it is.”—Melissa Grout, event planner, 33
“One thing I’ve found funny is having discussions about COVID safety precautions that seem to mirror an STI chat: ‘how many bubble buddies do you have,’ ‘do you wear a mask…’”—Amy Watkins, content specialist, 39
“Started a new relationship in July of last year. Friends before that. Was it out of desperation? We’ll never know.” —Katie Burrell, content creator, 32
“The pandemic is that perfect scapegoat for that first-year obsessive honeymoon phase.” —Taryn Hardes, marketing consultant, 31
“The pandemic put all social activities on hold and allowed me to be obsessed with my new partner in a socially acceptable way, thanks to being locked in our houses and only allowed to see one person.” —Kayley Monro, art handler, 27
“We started dating last April when things really were locked down. It was a good test to see if we really were interested in each other, because there was truly nothing to do but talk.” —Nathan Hare, digital writer, 25
“I’m only dating right now because I’m a one-person household and I often don’t see anyone for weeks at a time. I look forward to deleting these apps.” —Rebecca Renton, administrator, 26