When the pandemic started, Stephanie, a 39-year-old real-estate agent and single mother of two, assumed she’d be putting dating on hold indefinitely. With her sons going back and forth between two different households — and the friend she rented out her spare room to — there was too much risk in seeing anyone else. But in early May, she began perusing OKCupid, where she started talking with a father of two who had the same concerns about his living situation. After three months of phone and FaceTime dates, she finally agreed to brunch on his patio — homemade buttermilk pancakes and coffee, served at separate tables placed 10 feet apart. “We’ve joked about our very Victorian courtship,” Stephanie tells me.
So far, putting in the time to get to know each other has worked. They’re still together and still more or less keeping their social distance — always meeting outdoors and rarely violating that 10 feet of space between them (as such, they’ve never even kissed). But in just a few weeks, they’ll get COVID tests and an Airbnb for a weekend, before getting tested again and quarantining for another two weeks. “It was his idea,” she says, noting it came up naturally. “We’d been trying to find a way for unmasked time to happen. I’m just excited that I finally get to kiss him!”
The coronavirus, of course, has changed everything, including the meaning of the question, “Have you been tested?” After all, in a corona context, the answer isn’t just about STIs; it has consequences that reach far beyond sexual partners and into the realm of roommates, parents and Postmates drivers.
“It’s a good idea for both of you to be tested [for COVID] before being together inside,” Tina Tessina, psychotherapist and author of Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today, explains. She also recommends a phone pre-screen, ideally on FaceTime, to confirm not just that the person is who they say they are, but also that they’re taking basic precautions like wearing a mask. She then suggests moving on to mask dates outside, to see if there’s enough of a connection to take the next step — testing. All of this, though, comes with a crucial catch: “Keep in mind that testing isn’t a guarantee and either of you could turn up positive shortly after testing, but it does improve your odds.”
Obviously, there are practical limitations to testing, too. Although free testing is available through the Department of Health and Human Services at select health centers and pharmacies, they often require symptoms and insurance. (For the uninsured, getting tested can cost anywhere from $352 out-of-pocket to more than $2,000 at the emergency room.) Another challenge is that the testing-before-smashing approach can feel both impersonal and all-too-intimate at the same time.
“I feel like it’s a whole ass relationship proposition,” says Paige, a 26-year-old research assistant in Montreal. After going through a breakup at the start of the pandemic, she only recently started swiping again, and has been surprised by the number of options. (“Tinder got good?” she jokes.) Debating whether or not to bring up testing — or COVID at all — before an upcoming date, she asked her match what his pandemic approach was. “He suggested a walk and then we reevaluate if it’s worth getting tests,” Paige says, a cautious demeanor that made him that much more attractive to her. “I definitely wouldn’t be okay with having to convince someone to be more cautious. There’s no way I could ever trust them.”
For the time being, she’s taking it slow and plans to bring up testing before things become physical, no matter how much she wants to hook-up. “I have yet to try out the ‘Hey, so want to get tested so we can kiss?’ but I look forward to liking someone enough,” she tells me.
On the other end of the spectrum, Jeff, a 29-year-old working in tech in Chicago, doesn’t think there’s really a way to be totally safe — test or no test. In fact, he believes the virus is an excuse to “bail out of nowhere, move too fast or ask too many questions about your social life.” Plus, he continues, “Even if you have a small circle and get tested, you’re still putting the other person at risk. If you’re not okay with that, you’re not ready to date right now. It’s that simple.”
As harsh as Jeff’s take is, it isn’t inaccurate. You can ask someone about their perspective on masks, the size of their pod and how often they’ve been tested, and still run into a much more timeless challenge: They’re lying about any and all of those things.
That said, dating experts note that Jeff is wrong about one thing: The virus isn’t an excuse to move too fast, but a great reason to slow things down, much like Stephanie has done. “Slowing things down allows for an emotional connection to really develop and allows you to focus more on one person at a time,” says Robyn Exton, a matchmaker and founder of the dating app HER. (Like Tessina, she recommends COVID testing before any indoor activities, at the bare minimum.)
Exton acknowledges that the concept of taking it slow is confusing when people have to define relationships so early with things like coronavirus tests and exclusivity, a subject many singles sweep under the rug and struggle to broach even now when it feels like the world is ending. But if you’re attempting to date amidst the pandemic, it’s vital to have that conversation. “We’d definitely suggest no physical or indoor contact until you know you’re just dating one-on-one,” Exton says. “We get it — it’s defining things very early, but these are unusual times and we all have to adapt.”
Think of it this way: Instead of asking someone to be your boyfriend or girlfriend, you’re basically asking if they’ll be your indoor person. If the answer is yes, you have to agree on these basic things to keep everyone safe while also accepting that you could still end up sick with the coronavirus and dumped at the same time.
As for Stephanie, her main objection to taking things slow in the past was the fear that it might waste her time. But now, she has more time than ever, so it makes sense to try dating in a completely different way. “Honestly, this approach is a first for me, and it’s been so good,” she says, discovering that getting to know someone in a slower way has upsides other than just avoiding a deadly virus. “We’ve been able to be open and honest and real with each other, and build this really solid foundation.”