‘I had a date in the rain’: Singles keep faith in finding love amid pandemic

‘I had a date in the rain’: Singles keep faith in finding love amid pandemic

Why We Wrote This

Hope springs eternal. The pandemic, with its masks, its social distancing, and its closure of normal hangouts, has put a damper on dating. But this Valentine’s Day, most singles still trust that love will find a way.

Ciro de Luca/Reuters/File

A couple wear protective masks on the second day of a lockdown across Italy, imposed to slow the outbreak of the coronavirus, in Naples on March 11, 2020.

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February 12, 2021

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Everybody’s lives, almost everywhere in the world, have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among those uncertain about their future, as Valentine’s Day comes around, are singles.

Dating has become next to impossible in many countries, where standard meeting places such as cafes and bars are closed – along with cinemas, museums, theaters, and restaurants. And it’s hard, when you’re wearing a mask and standing outdoors, two meters from a stranger, to build much of a rapport.

Dating apps have boomed, but how exciting can you make a screen conversation about daily life in your living room? And if you are allowed to actually meet someone, everything is more complicated than it used to be: choosing a safe place, deciding whether and when to take your mask off, judging the other person’s comfort zones.

The pandemic has prompted many singles to rethink what relationships mean to them, and some are even wondering whether they need a partner after all. But beneath the anxiety and uncertainty, most are hoping that love will find a way.

Amman, Jordan

A year ago, had you told Emma Phillips that before long she would choose a visit to the world’s first cast iron bridge as the best way to spend her first date with a man she had never met, she would have laughed in your face.

But then the pandemic struck. Around the world, everything about dating changed. Ms. Phillips, a young Englishwoman, began to have second thoughts about the whole business.

“Given all the restrictions, I thought that maybe we shouldn’t meet at all,” she recalls of her outdoors, socially distanced blind date last December in Ironbridge, in the English Midlands. A mutual friend had put her in touch with the man. Still, it felt odd “figuring out whether you feel attracted to someone, if you’re wearing a mask and standing two meters away.

“It takes away the spontaneity of dating,” says Ms. Phillips, who worked for an engineering firm in Paris before returning home to be with her parents during lockdown. “It’s like COVID is the invisible chaperone and there’s no escaping it.”

Gonzalo Rodríguez, who still lives in Paris, knows how she feels. The 37-year-old Spanish data analyst was used to packing in with friends on a cafe terrace in the evening, or spreading out on blankets along the hip, tree-shaded Canal Saint-Martin on a weekend; that is where he sought romance.


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Suddenly, Mr. Rodríguez saw this vibrant dating scene shrink to an app on his phone. 

Like singles all over the world, Mr. Rodríguez is now wary of physical contact. He meets only for outdoor dates – walks or picnics in the park – and bumps elbows to say hello rather than exchange the customary Parisian kisses on the cheek.

“With dating now, you deserve a medal if you succeed,” Mr. Rodríguez says.

Love and personal relationships are basic human needs that are not always at the top of a pandemic discussion agenda crowded with infection rates, vaccination rollouts, and job losses.

As those who are looking for love around the world enter their second pandemic year, many are rethinking what relationships mean to them, and some are even wondering whether they need a partner after all. But beneath the anxiety and uncertainty, most are hoping that love will find a way.

Making Wi-Fi connections personal

Gordon Davis, who works at a nonprofit helping ex-prisoners in Hurley, New York, had been waiting for more than two decades to start dating. His first chance was blighted by the pandemic.

Incarcerated at the age of 16, Mr. Davis was released last May, 25 years later. While imprisoned, he had looked forward to dating for the first time – even just socializing – upon his release. But the pandemic changed everything.

Social distancing and New York’s constraints on bars, restaurants, and other venues mean there are few places left for singles to mingle.  

“You finally have the ability and the freedom to do and go as you please, but there is nowhere to go,” he says. “There’s no one to hang out with. You can’t go on dates. It’s almost like we’re still in prison.”

For singles across the world, there is one place to turn: their smartphones.

Dating apps such as Tinder and Bumble report soaring user numbers in the United States, Europe, India, and China – up to 100% increases. Where once singles used such apps to arrange in-person dates, they are now gateways to open-ended internet dating.  

The move to online dates has been a stark change for Londoners whose fast and loose pre-pandemic social lives were built on casual evenings and chance encounters in pubs and at parties.

“Dating reflected our busy lifestyles,” says Katharina Riekemann, a 28-year-old working in public relations in south London. Hopping straight from work to after-work drinks, late nights to the next morning’s commute, she and her housemate never saw each other. “I never really got to know people that well before. You might have met someone but you wouldn’t really connect with them.”

Suddenly, she was browsing apps from her parents’ home in Bath.

The pandemic may have given her the time to make such connections, but “it’s hard now because you talk to people but you don’t see them” in person, she laments. “I basically have a list of pen pals.”

And as the world faces another year of restrictions, global fatigue with app dating is setting in. Zoom “dates” feel like job interviews. Messages on dating apps stack up, conversations about daily life in the living room quickly grow stale, and relationships go nowhere.

Ted S. Warren/AP

Two people walk hand in hand near Pike Place Flowers at the Pike Place Market in Seattle on Feb. 9, 2021. Valentine’s Day is Feb. 14, and a worker said they would be busy all week getting ready.

It’s complicated …

After swiping right and making a match, singles across the world face an existential question: How does one “date” amid a pandemic? What is the proper etiquette once restrictions are loosened? Public space or at home? Elbow bump or – if not too forward – a kiss?

All the traditional uncertainties of early dates are magnified in unfamiliar ways, making everything more complicated. Choosing the right place to meet, judging the other person’s comfort zones, deciding if and when to take your mask off; all this adds pressure.

Health worries have also made singles choosier, as they weigh the attraction of a date against the need to protect loved ones at home or to preserve “bubbles” created with friends and co-workers.

That means added complications for Matt Mohr, who met his girlfriend in weekly Zoom dinners with a group of mutual friends last year.

They both self-isolate for two weeks before he makes the two-hour drive from his home in Columbus, Ohio, to her place for weekends of cooking and watching Hulu, and then self-isolate again after their time together.

“There’s a certain amount of acceptable risk that we’re taking now every time that I go up,” says Mr. Mohr, who works in health care IT. 

Dating logistics are even more complicated for socially and religiously conservative singles who have long met their potential partners only in public areas under the watchful eyes of chaperones, within the bounds of tradition.

In Israel, cafes, restaurants, and hotel lobbies – popular venues for first dates among ultra-Orthodox couples – are closed. The pandemic has also disrupted other religious Jews’ reliance on social networks rooted in synagogues and Sabbath and holiday meals.

Dates, when they happen, have been relegated to the outdoors, with the cold and winter rains acting as a damper.

“I had a date in the rain. I’m 33,” says Zehava, a teacher. “I came home in tears. It’s not menschlech,” she adds, using the Yiddish word for dignified.

Allona Urbach, director of the couples programs at Tzohar, a rabbinical organization, says that even under normal circumstances “it’s as difficult for a person to find their match as it is to part the Red Sea. In corona times, it’s even harder.”

But for those who do meet the right person now, she adds, “the connection often seems richer and evolves more quickly.”

Some break up, some bond

Not everyone is so fortunate, and breaking up is even harder than usual amid COVID-19; no “night out with friends” to commiserate, turn the page, or forget your heartbreak; no blind dates to dip your toe back into the dating pool.

But there was a silver lining for Emily Maggs, a 27-year-old business development director for a health nonprofit in Atlanta when she and her boyfriend broke up just before last year’s lockdowns.

“I think it was kind of a blessing, because it helped me distance myself. I mean I had to distance myself from him,” she says.

Ms. Maggs has been single throughout the pandemic and hasn’t gone on a date, or even downloaded a dating app, out of health concerns. But she, like many, can feel the pressure mounting “to meet someone.”

“It feels like there’s this timer that has been turned on. You always feel like you’re missing out; you’re losing time. I’ve never felt this before in my life.”

For many couples and casual dates, the pandemic has been a pressure cooker.

Soon after lockdown went into effect last year, Parisian Jorge Sánchez Guitart’s roommate moved out and his girlfriend moved in. The sudden, constant togetherness caused tensions. They broke up a few months later.

“The situation just accelerated what would have happened further down the line,” Mr. Sánchez Guitart says now.

But sometimes the pandemic has brought new couples even closer. 

In early 2020, Tlangelani Nyathi and Selina Weber, both in their early 20s, decided to move in together in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, less than a year after sharing a whirlwind fling at the university where they were both studying.

They then unexpectedly spent an entire nationwide lockdown in their cozy studio apartment, sharing a single room all day, every day. For five months.

“We learned how to really be together because we were always together,” says Ms. Weber, who is German.

When she returned home last August, the couple applied for a German visa for Ms. Nyathi, supporting the application with evidence of their commitment to each other such as affidavits, photographs, and lease agreements. They were reunited in Hanover in December.

“Everything we went through in the pandemic underscored how serious we are about each other,” says Ms. Nyathi.

In Jordan and elsewhere in the Arab world, the pandemic has shortened the traditional multistep courtship and engagement period from months to weeks, and in some cases, just days.

It was while trading daily messages during a nationwide lockdown last April that Jordanian engineering student Osama Nasser and his university sweetheart decided they wanted to marry.

Meeting after the lockdown ended in August, their families expedited a back-and-forth process of vetting and visits to sign a marriage contract. Not waiting for the pandemic’s end to hold the traditional big fat Arab wedding, they will have a small ceremony this summer at home and add to the wedding drums, clapping and songs pulsing from Amman apartment windows each Friday.

“With all this uncertainty, you either get married now … or you risk missing out,” says Mr. Nasser.  

A fresh outlook

The pandemic has led some singles to change their outlook on love and fulfillment.

“I’m not giving up, but I imagine my future alone,” says Mr. Rodríguez, the data analyst in Paris. “Not lonely, but alone. It is hard to imagine when life will back to how it used to be.”

Some are embracing being alone.

“It’s not the moment for me. There are too many risks and not enough benefits,” says Nina, a 40-year-old Parisian. She is potentially giving up her “last chance to have a baby” to avoid rushing into the wrong relationship and to protect her mother, with whom she lives.

After a few “bad experiences” with pushy matches, she gave up on apps and instead is using the pandemic to focus on her interests, reading and exercising at home – putting herself first, and enjoying it.

“It is really a one-of-a-kind chance to focus on ourselves and do things we never had the opportunity to do before,” says Nina.

Amid loss, long odds, and dating apps deleted and reloaded, love’s hope still springs eternal on this Valentine’s Day.

Having tried his hand at “every app you can think of,” Mr. Davis, the nonprofit worker from New York, is still waiting to meet someone for “a little dinner, a walk, to enjoy nice views.

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“If I get a chance to go on a date, I’m going!” he says.

Shafi Musaddique in London; Colette Davidson in Paris; Nick Roll in Cincinnati; Dina Kraft in Tel Aviv, Israel; and Ryan Brown in Johannesburg contributed reporting to this article.

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Mark Sappenfield
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