You can look, but you can't touch: Dating in quarantine

Wednesday, May 27, 2020 - 1:29pm

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Illustration by Hibah Mirza

“Dating in quarantine is like window shopping,” my 20-year-old brother said to me. He laughed as I lamented that I was on the verge of downloading dating apps— both to pass the time, and to pull a Carrie Bradshaw by placing myself in the center of the most interesting topic in my young, single life: dating in quarantine. 

It’s frustrating. It has low stakes. It’s fun and interesting and sexy and even a little terrifying. Being single in quarantine means dating apps, Zoom calls and for some, phone sex. If you have feelings for someone, or had been on the precipice of a potential relationship prior to the national emergency, the best you can do is lengthy FaceTime calls, the sharing of playlists and far off fantasies of just holding hands. 

Most of us have lacked much remarkable interaction with anyone we aren’t blood related to since March. Prospective relationships or potential flings may have dissolved with the onset of social distancing and led us down a path of disparate loneliness. Has COVID-19 ruined casual dating, hookup culture and single life, or has it just forced a change in perspective? If we have to wear a mask in the grocery store and at the coffee shop’s ToGo window are we ever going to recklessly swap spit with someone we don't know or, more intimately, meet a stranger for a first date? What is post COVID-19 dating? Does it exist in the awkward six feet between us? Will the reward of a potential significant other be worth the risk? 

 

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During one of the last Saturdays at Scorekeepers (“Skeeps”) — the University of Michigan’s most frequented upperclassman bar, the scene was apropos of a typical weekend night. The bar was packed with well over 150 twenty-one and twenty-two year olds, still tanned from their various spring break getaways a week prior, brushing shoulders carelessly and drunkenly spilling drinks on one another. Hips swayed to the same music that always played, plastic pitchers were discarded, cleaned and refilled with vodka cranberry. The air was a sticky mix of beer, sweat, perfume and desire. Skeeps wasn’t COVID-19 friendly that early March evening and it never will be — in its infrastructure, it is the antithesis of social distance. Bars and clubs like Skeeps don’t align within that realm of precaution. We bumped into people we knew or barely knew and met strangers amidst drunken shouts and blurred vision. We watched as people who just met two hours prior ducked into the still bitter Michigan March air, hand in hand. We watched as friends sipped out of the same pitcher and passed around their drinks with ease. Others locked lips publically with strangers they found attractive, leaning up against the wall, drink in hand. 

We were no better than the rest of them. We were doing what we always did — a college Saturday night out — sharing germs, promoting and spreading casual interaction like hot wildfire. Places like Skeeps practically thrive on singles in their 20s — people who want to dress up, pregame and go out with their friends. People who want to be around other people. 

Weeks ago, I was a single 21-year-old, acting in a flirtatious way that today’s world would deem reckless. Yet today, a warm late May afternoon, I wouldn’t even touch a door knob without whipping out the mini hand sanitizer from my pocket. Is this hypervigilance driven by anxiety? Perhaps. But I’m told you can’t be too careful. I can’t imagine kissing someone I don’t know or sharing a drink with a half friend in a crowded bar. Two months ago, both of these things would be routine. 

 

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A study done through Reportlinker and published in Bustle found that 37 percent of people say a primary way of meeting other singles is in bars or public areas. As a single person, I haven’t been to a bar to flirt and mingle, or even just socialize, since March 12 and I don’t foresee Jersey Shore bars and NYC clubs welcoming me back with open arms as the weather warms. Singles have had no choice but to find other ways to flirt and date amidst the COVID-19 crisis. 

Though I would coin myself a “relationship person,” I’ve been single since October, entered the quarantine single and have become engrossed by the world of COVID-19 single life. The ways we are evolving to online meeting and dating is to be expected, yet it entirely alters the world of romantic relationships. I am intrigued by our innate human desire for connection — texting strangers, doing our makeup carefully, even just for a virtual date. When the prospect of meeting in person isn’t a possibility, we trade scandalicious attitudes, awkward coffee dates and salaciousness in clubs for FaceTime and Snapchat.  

According to a September 2019 study done by a Stanford University scientist, meeting online has become the most popular way for singles to meet and connect today. It was once taboo to admit you have a folder on your iPhone dedicated to dating apps, but at some point my generation surrendered to the screen and realized that perhaps, it’s becoming one of the only ways to meet other single people our age. Of course, this survey was done when we had the full range and freedom to mingle with anyone — whenever and wherever we wanted to. Now that we’ve been quarantined away from anyone we do not live with, online dating has surged. Despite the fact that the prospect of actually meeting face to face is but a future hope and not a surefire guarantee, over half of individuals in a May 2020 Statista survey on dating app usage during quarantine said they’re using these platforms more frequently. The minute we were locked in our homes with a stream of bad news on television and banana bread baking habits, we all ran to download, redownload or simply open up Bumble, Tinder and Hinge. 

I won’t lie — I’ve used all the typical offenders before. You’re in the minority if you don’t use dating apps, with 84.4 percent of college students in 2017 on Tinder according to a study done by ADOBO. The typical verbiage surrounding applications like Tinder suggests that most people are utilizing these networks just for sex — but the aforementioned study found 91 percent of college students say they download dating apps for more than just hookups. Many also don’t necessarily use the applications actively, meaning they avoid dates or schedule purely physical “meetups'' as idle entertainment. Though I am aware of the biased perspective in my research, of the 207 individuals who answered my Instagram poll asking if they’d ever had an online dating profile,  86 percent said yes. Around me, my peers are actively using these apps to meet singles. Although shelter-in-place isn’t synonymous with go meet up with someone you’ve never met in a nearby town and make out, dating apps have found a new narrative: fostering connections during times of extreme disconnect. Quarantine has afforded us the ability to use dating apps like Tinder to make actual connections with a larger potential for a relationship post social distancing. Quarantine has seen a scarce amount of “You Up?” snapchats and texts — the blatant suggestion of a casual late night hookup — and more FaceTime calls with exes and potential future flames,holding glasses of wine (potentially sans pants), smiling at a relatively clear real time image of someone you find attractive. Those quarantined without significant others are in the heat of a lack of intimacy—and are making up for it with virtual dates with nearby strangers. 

New Jersey resident Emily Munch, 24, has been quarantined with four friends and her new boyfriend (as of Mid-March) in New York City since the beginning of the pandemic. Despite being recently taken herself, one of the friends she was quarantined with entered the pandemic single and has been using Hinge since. 

“My friend had been using Hinge and met this profile of these two guys asking for Zoom double dates,” Munch said, “So us three girls had a FaceTime date with these two cute guys and we played drinking games and got to know each other. Now my friend might go on a real date with one of the guys after the quarantine.” 

Munch has an optimistic view of COVID-19’s implications on dating. She says that the pandemic forced her and her new boyfriend to see one another for an extended period of time without distraction, something their work schedules would not have permitted otherwise. She references how close they’ve grown so early on in their relationship in lieu of essentially living together after only one week of dating. This foundation was built by way of the quarantine, and would have taken longer to construct otherwise. 

“My friend was able to turn that fun Hinge experience into something that may become greater in the future and develop into a full fledged relationship. I would encourage people to shoot their shot, and why not have a little fun on Hinge or Bumble or even Tinder right now,” Munch said. “I think more people will be using those apps to actually go on dates and follow through more with their potential partners than in the past. People are in dire need of real life connection, the dating world is ready to thrive again.” 

Munch makes an interesting point. By way of online dating and virtual relationship platforms and meeting online, face to face, real life dating will thrive post quarantine. We just want to be loved and desired — and we’ve recognized our need for physical and emotional affection when we can no longer have it at our fingertips. When our routines are unexpectedly pulled out from underneath us, we crave them more intensely. 

According to a New York Post  survey of 1,000 people quarantined without a significant other, 67 percent of respondents felt a larger desire for physical intimacy due to social distancing—hence the immediate download of dating apps. The survey, conducted by OnePoll, also found that 37 percent of singles have reached out to an ex significant other during the duration of quarantine. It additionally found that 2 in 5 participants (42 percent) have downloaded a dating app during the duration of quarantine. One can also assume many of the individuals were already on dating apps prior to quarantine and either resparked a habit, or continued as usual. These online dating conventions can lead to intense, mutual and virtual connection — and even in person meet ups for the more adventurous. 

University of Michigan rising senior Julia Woodson broke up with her boyfriend before going home to quarantine, and wound up taking to dating apps to pass the time. The silver lining? She actually found someone she wanted to meet up with. 

“I really hit it off with this one guy and we’ve been talking everyday for a little over a month. I ended up driving across the state just to see him for a night.” She said. “But it’s mostly crazy to me that COVID-19 finally gave me the courage to break up with a boyfriend that I wasn’t happy with. And I hope that the comfort found in building this friendship and relationship from Tinder will last past quarantine.” 

She also said that she feels dating during quarantine has given many the opportunity to get to know people without the pressure being on sex. 

“I think people are turning to dating apps for more than just hookups now because they crave connection during this chaotic time. Because you can’t really see these people anyway, they are open to setting their location anywhere in the country and starting a conversation that probably would have never happened otherwise,” Woodson said. 

In a big city, the chance of stumbling upon an acquaintance or even a friend’s profile on a dating app is much less likely than in a small town like where I grew up, or even Ann Arbor. Location permitting, these dating apps have been a nice way to connect us with those individuals around us whom we already know, but never had the chance to associate with otherwise. Many have even taken advantage of Tinder’s free passport feature—which allows one to set their location to anywhere in the world. Perhaps internet relationships crossing international borders will thrive post quarantine as well. In the age of COVID-19, many of us just want to feel human connection and affection outside of our parents and siblings and roommates. I never in my life imagined I would be desperately yearning for small talk with a stranger, and yet here we are. 

Molly Foulkes, 21, a recent University of Michigan graduate, said her experience with dating during the quarantine has provided her with a reflection on single life, and thus changed her entire outlook on post quarantine dating. 

“Now that it’s like towards the end of quarantine, well, kind of toward the end, my standards and expectations have risen for what it’ll be like after. My friends and I have come to so many epiphanies about what we want, what we’re not going to put up with, how we want to be treated and we’re feeling very confident about knowing what we want,” she said,  “Not necessarily being blunt and rude, but knowing how to show that we’re not going to just be led on by guys or trailed along as a booty call. Going into real life like dating life as a twenty something, that’s the mindset that I’m having, and I really was able to figure that out because of quarantine.” 

Though quarantine has removed us from our typical dating habits and the relative regularity of hookup culture, perhaps there will be positive consequences on our lack of ability to date normally at this time. 

“It’s forcing a lot of people to realize that if you don’t know how to have a conversation and you can’t be interesting with just conversation…. It won’t work out. I hope dating will be more old fashioned and turn to courtship versus get my number at a bar and come home with me 2 hours later. I think that won't really happen because people can’t wait to rip their clothes off after this, but the romantic in me hopes that we can be more old fashioned with dating going forward,” Foulkes said.

Our search for romance is important to us. Our desire for human connection, moreso. 

Perhaps single Americans took the ability to freely hookup for granted when there were no restrictions on who we could and could not, or should and should not see. Friends and non roommates have been deemed practically off limits, so strangers are of course not exactly who we’re running to find. We’re counting down the days until we can hug our grandparents and see our best friends, and those we’ve never met are probably left in phase five or six of our state’s reopening schedules. As a romantic, I crave that idyllic movie “meet cute” moment with my future or prospective significant others—coquettish eye contact across the bar, tripping into someone’s arms on a subway platform, some other accidental albeit rather serendipitous moment of primary interaction. But life hasn’t been feeding us into those interpersonal moments of human connection in the last five years as we err toward the screen. More recently, due to the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve gone from fleeting human interaction to a flatline. I’ve spent the past weeks wearing protective masks instead of lip gloss when I go out, with the grocery store as the only real social outing. There is no possibility to meet anyone I don’t already know, let alone a romantic partner. 

There certainly will be an aftertaste of the COVID-19 pandemic on every facet of our world for a long time to come. But within all of these consequences, some may shed positive light onto different spheres of life, one possibility being the world of dating. Would it be easy to have gone into COVID-19 in a long-term, blissful relationship? Maybe — I won’t lie, the security blanket of having someone to quarantine with or a Facetime call every night could be nice. But is part of me looking forward to the lift of quarantine and our cautious tiptoe back into our daily routines, even eventually, our casual dating lives? Yes — honestly, even moreso. 

I think love has always been worth a risk. It is the chase for love, after all, that so many of us crave. Though I refrain from saying “when this is over”—as our world will forever be marked when quarantine is lifted and we transition back into our typical routines—I doubt we will be cramming our bodies back into sweaty bars when stay-at-home orders are dissolved. All of that said, with masks covering our mouths in public places and caution written in the six feet between pairs of eyes, there will still be love, still be affection, still be the coquettish fumbles at the beginnings of romance. People will find ways to meet, because it is in our carnal nature to want to meet other people, get to know one another and maybe even fall for each other. 

Currently, I sit on my porch in my pajamas, the thought of doing makeup or my hair to go anywhere beyond unimaginable, talking to my mother about Hinge — something that did not exist when she was my age — which she finds to be a great way for a generation that cannot be separated from our devices to meet. She met my father when she was my age, the summer after she graduated college, and did not yet own a cell phone. Her reality at 22 was starkly different than the one my generation now faces. She peers over my shoulder to look at what I imagine to be my well curated, funny profile. 

“Is this the opposite of how to lose a guy in ten days?” She asks, “How to gain a guy in COVID?”. 

I don’t reply, just keep scrolling. “You should add something else funny,” she remarks, before turning to walk away. I consider her advice briefly, though my profile already answers the question: what is your irrational fear? with “umbrellas” which I personally find to be hilarious. I’m in my home, healthy and safe, wearing a sweatshirt and a baseball hat, drinking coffee. I’m buzzing with anticipation for the day when we can all get dressed to go out, feeling confident and tipsy, and brush shoulders with people we don’t know. No matter the change, the circumstance or the challenge, I decide that I think love will win after the dust of this has settled. 

Because love does win. It always has.