Dating in New York City is notoriously difficult. It’s not easy for anyone, but it’s especially challenging if you’re a woman who wants to date men, whom single women have outnumbered over the past two decades. The prevalence of dating apps has fostered a window-shopping-based economy: a hookup culture built on the act of swiping through a feed of endless options, prioritizing aesthetics without giving much initial thought to whether you’re actually compatible beyond that.
As if the dating scene wasn’t enough of a hellscape already, 2020 added another layer into this romantic Hunger Games: a global pandemic with New York City at the epicenter, forcing us into confinement inside our cramped, overpriced apartments and resulting in 21,941 deaths within the five boroughs at the time of this writing.
I’ve lived in New York City for six and a half years, which isn’t long enough to identify as “a New Yorker” but enough to call it my home. During that time, I’ve been in two serious relationships, the latter of which ended this past fall—meaning that I was finally feeling Ready to Get Back Out There by mid-February, at which point I had maybe three weeks to exchange a few messages and get a drink or two before COVID-19 rendered dating impossible. The NYC department of health released safer sex guidelines, but they’re largely geared toward people who already have an established partner or someone in their immediate circle they can hook up with. Moreover, they offer no guidance as to how to apply or broach these conversations around intimacy if you’re single.
Between the lack of official instruction and a dating pool consisting of men who either had no idea how to cope with the sudden onset of quarantine, didn’t understand the severity of the pandemic, or wanted to move in together before we’d even met, I was over it. I reconciled myself to the reality of stay-at-home life and an indefinite hiatus from dating and decided it was time to delete my profile. But before I did, a guy I’d matched with in late February and with whom I’d DMed a bit before a particularly busy work week prompted me to drop off, followed up again.
“I hope that eventually, it’ll no longer be irresponsible to go on dates with strangers, and when that day comes I’d still love to meet you,” he wrote. It was the only message I received that understood the gravity of the situation, and the prolonged period of dread we were about to enter as the case count began to climb exponentially.
“I think I’m gonna delete this because it feels pretty pointless now, but here’s my number for the post pandemic days,” I replied on March 18. “Or if you get truly bored in isolation, OR if things get so bleak that society resorts to having first dates over FaceTime. Is that weird? Do I care? Be well regardless!”
I have a crush on someone, send help
Flash forward a bit. That guy—let’s call him Paul to protect his privacy—did text me. We messaged for a month and had a surprisingly good first date via FaceTime in mid-April. He got laid off from his job the next day. We continued to talk, and instead of getting irritated or strategically delaying his reply after I would unintentionally drop off for days at a time, he was chill about it, often finding a way to turn my silence into a flirty repartee that kept the conversation going.
By the time the daily number of new cases and deaths began to slow, it occurred to me that I, someone who generally dislikes texting, had been texting with someone I’d never met for nearly four months. And I looked forward to seeing his name appear on my lock screen—I’d actually saved his name in my contacts, which I generally don’t do with Hinge matches. At that point, I’d seen one or two close friends for masked meet-ups and lived to tell the tale. So on May 28, I asked him out on a socially distant date: to-go cocktails from a bar by the Williamsburg waterfront and a stroll through Domino Park, masks and all. He agreed.
When the day finally came, the conditions were less than ideal: 85 degree weather with 500 percent humidity, resulting in inevitable mask sweat; the “pandemic” of it all; the looming 8 p.m. curfew de Blasio instituted during the week following the killing of George Floyd, because his priorities are out of touch and he needs to resign. Despite all this, I had a great time. All of the boxes on the checklist of whether I’d want to see this person again were enthusiastically checked in Sharpie.
And the feeling seemed to be mutual. At one point, we acknowledged we’d arrived at the part where we’d make out with one another. By the way, this is going really well. If we weren’t living in the twilight zone, I’d totally kiss you right now. We settled for hitting our respective hand sanitizers, high-fiving, and sanitizing our hands again. There was also a moment when, under our respective umbrellas in the pouring rain, I closed the six-foot gap between us to crush a spider that randomly appeared on his shirt with the bottom of my to-go drink—the closest I’d come to physical intimacy with a man in months.
So the date was great. Which meant I had a lot more things to think about.
Am I ever going to get laid, let alone kiss someone again, before I die? The experts weigh in
From the NYC department of health guidelines to the New York Times, there’s guidance out there as to what’s possible (and not) when it comes to physical intimacy during the pandemic. But none of it addresses what these conversations around intimacy should look like, or how to broach them in the first place.
So, I decided to find out for myself.
“This is a new situation, but people have been having conversations around STIs and HIV for a long time. It’s just that it’s going to look a little different now because we’re adding in this new virus, and the conversation has to happen earlier,” Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor in the department of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, told VICE. “The ‘safe sex’ conversation has to happen before you have that innocent kiss on the first date—kissing is now high-risk in a way that it wasn’t before, and even just sitting close to somebody there’s a risk.” Based on the guidelines from the department of health, having actual sex is now safer than kissing.
“I think it’s probably most important to talk about what somebody has been doing for the past two weeks,” Marcus continued. The two-week period is when you’re most at risk of being contagious after being exposed to the virus, so evaluating it is crucial. “In general, what are their social distance practices? How are they approaching this whole pandemic? Who else are they living with, who are they exposed to?”
Zoë McLaren, an associate professor and health policy researcher in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said that both parties should be upfront about their respective dating habits—especially during the past two weeks. “If the other person has had multiple partners, how many partners have their partners had? We’re looking for the risk of transmission chains—that if your partner has been engaging in activities where they might have acquired COVID, that’s going to be more risky for you. The local prevalence rate also matters: where is your city or state on the curve? Because that influences the likelihood that any person will have picked up COVID.”
Both Marcus and McLaren pointed out that this won’t be a one-and-done discussion: the communication lines must remain open so that both parties can transparently discuss ongoing risk. Do they take public transportation every day? Do they work in an ER? Do they wear a mask when they go grocery shopping; did they wear a mask when they recently saw their friends? And, vice versa, what risks do you pose to them? Ultimately, it’s a multi-faceted question of quarantine compatibility.
McLaren cautioned that trust should be taken into consideration. “Part of meeting new people is that you don’t know whether you can trust them or not. Dating is tricky because everybody has an incentive to portray themselves as less risky and more trustworthy than maybe they are,” she explained. “There are incentives to misreport the truth, which adds another layer of risk. You’re evaluating what they’re actually telling you, but then you also have to think, ‘do I trust that this person is telling me the whole truth and nothing but the truth, or not?’”
All of this ladders up into a larger question around monogamy and physical exclusivity. “If everybody could kind of agree that we’re just going to do this one person at a time, the community level of risk would be much lower than if people were exploring multiple partners at a time, and going back and forth,” Marcus explained, noting that some countries, such as the Netherlands, have actually advised this. “That’s a fundamental infectious disease epidemiology concept, and we talk about it in the HIV world as concurrency. If you have concurrent partners that you’re switching back and forth between, the risk of transmission is much higher.”
In principle, this makes complete sense. But in practice, when considering modern dating culture, it feels easier said than done. Single people generally operate on the basis that the person they’re interested in is also seeing other people.
Until you’ve established that you only want to see each other—the “defining the relationship” conversation—both parties are free to do whatever and whoever they want. In a pre-COVID world, trying to establish physical exclusivity and having the discussion about concurrent partners before you’ve even kissed would strike me as a major red flag. It’s certainly not something I’d feel comfortable asking myself.
But we’re not in a pre-COVID world anymore. If you’re single and you choose to ignore the situation we’ve collectively found ourselves in and instead elect to operate as if we’re all still living in 2019, you’re jeopardizing the health of yourself and everyone around you. We’re in the midst of a pandemic with no vaccine or herd immunity in sight. The reality is that navigating intimacy at a basic level now involves dismantling everything you thought you knew about dating and buckling up for some complicated conversations—including ones that happen in the bedroom.
The exclusivity discussion goes hand-in-hand with a dialogue about risk reduction during sex, too. McLaren offered some logistical insight. “Most types of physical intimacy are going to carry some elevated risk of transmission because you’re close and breathing a lot of the same air. Physical intimacy often happens indoors where there’s not a lot of air ventilation, so the risk of transmission is high. Make sure your environment is one that’s going to reduce the spread; that the windows are open to ensure air ventilation, and wear masks as much as possible. Also, engaging in certain types of positions that don’t involve face-to-face breathing of the same air.”
It’s worth looking at the cadence of your dates, too. “The more time you spend with someone, the more likely they are to transmit it to you if they acquire it. You may want to consider having a mix of seeing them in person and seeing them on video chat, or talking on the phone, than you would otherwise. It’s the idea that, yes, you’re already being physically intimate, but you’re reducing your overall risk of passing the disease.
In a situation where you weren’t actually going to get very physical—just going for a walk, or having dinner together—you might consider doing that over the phone.” She added that eating and drinking, even from a distance, involve more risk than one might think. “They make a date riskier because you’re often taking your mask off. You might be coughing more.
Normally pre-gaming for a date is a bad sign, but the idea might be, ‘have a drink in your apartment and then go for a walk together where you don’t drink.’ It seems weird, but it’s an additional thing you can do so that you have your mask on the entire time you’re together. It’s about thinking of the different choices you can make at every stage that might lessen your risk of transmission.”
Moreover, if you or your partner develop symptoms or learn they were exposed to the virus—whether at work, home, or via someone else they know—you need to communicate that and take a two-week pause. When in doubt, it’s best to err on the safe side.
“Transparency is so important, but also, these are difficult conversations to have,” McLaren said. “If you have some sort of exposure that puts you at risk, it can be stigmatizing. In the regular world, it would be a red flag if someone were to say they didn’t want to see you for two weeks without providing a reason. But in the COVID world, it should be no excuse needed—you’re just pausing the physical [aspect] for two weeks. It shouldn’t be that you need to show a doctor’s note or exactly where the risk came from—and some of that might be abused in certain way [as a passive means of putting the relationship on ice, or even ghosting someone]—but people are more likely to come clean and just say ‘hey, there’s a risk here’ if they’re allowed to maintain some opacity.”
Similarly, in the event that you want to stop hooking up and see other people, you should quarantine for two weeks before starting the process over with someone else.
Both McLaren and Marcus stressed that it’s crucial to set the terms and expectations around physical intimacy up front. Both reiterated the point that the CDC has been completely silent on sex and dating for political reasons, which makes it harder for these conversations to be normalized.
“We need to recognize that people are going to be engaging in these types of activities. Fundamentally, talking about this can hopefully help save lives, and save people’s health,” McLaren said. “Yes, it’s awkward. But if you don’t have these conversations, you might be taking on a lot more risk than you realize, and might regret afterwards the actions you took. It’s just about getting as much information as you can to be able to put everything into perspective.”
So, I’d learned that all I had to do was ask Paul if he was kissing or even seeing anyone else outside his immediate circle, determine whether I could believe what he said, and then also commit to not kissing anyone else myself as long as he and I were doing stuff—or, if I did, I’d have to tell him I couldn’t see him for at least two weeks. All before we’d ever actually touched each other.
I found all of this a bit daunting, but reminded myself that the end goal will be much more fun than the uncomfortable conversations I needed to have in order to get there. Hopefully.
But wait, what happened with Paul?
I saw Paul in person again two and a half weeks after our first date. During that time, both of us tested negative for COVID-19 and its antibodies. The space also allowed me to digest my conversations with Marcus and McLaren, and hash out a plan for applying their guidance to my own life.
New York City entered Phase 2 of reopening on June 22. Paul and I originally planned to get to-go cocktails from a bar halfway between our respective apartments and then watch the sunset along the waterfront, but instead decided to post up at one of the socially-distant bistro tables on the street. After having been quarantined for 105 days and counting, the experience of sitting across from a date, drinking out of a glass instead of a to-go cup, was surreal. I didn’t eat anything because I wasn’t comfortable with the risk associated with consuming food in a public space, even though our server was wearing a mask and the other customers were six feet away.
When we went back to Paul’s place, I noticed his windows first: one in each room, all of them shut because the air conditioning was on. His apartment was extremely clean, which was reassuring.
Just because I had a framework for the initial conversation around hooking up didn’t mean I was any less uncomfortable having it. As the two drinks I’d consumed settled in my otherwise empty stomach, so did the sexual tension in the room. Steeling myself, I decided to rip the Band-Aid off.
I started by outlining the concept of concurrency and how it increases the risk of transmission. Paul and I had already discussed what we’d been up to for the past two weeks over the course of the evening, but up until that point I hadn’t asked him outright whether he’d gone on other socially-distant dates or hooked up with anyone else.
He said that he hadn’t. He was still on the apps, although he said his use of them had dwindled over the course of quarantine—no point in keeping up with it when the possibility of safely meeting people was slim.
I told him that if we were going to do this safely, we needed to establish physical exclusivity. “I don’t want to call it ‘monogamy’ because that word stresses me out,” I said. “And I don’t want either of us to feel trapped. But it’s one thing for us to see friends that we know and trust to take this seriously, and it’s another to see a random person from the apps that’s totally outside your circle. There’s more risk in that, to me, to my roommates—anyone we come into contact with—even if it’s just a to-go drink and nothing physical happens.”
I repeatedly stressed that this was not an attempt to entrap him in a relationship and make him my boyfriend, until he rolled his eyes at me and told me to stop worrying about that.
After talking through some specifics about our respective dating histories as they pertained to present interests (why not open the Ex File before you’ve slept with someone? It’s 2020 and we live in hell, after all), we agreed to the following terms: see each other exclusively; get tested for COVID on a more frequent basis; smash the pause button if one of us became symptomatic or learned of a possible exposure within our circles; be upfront about wanting to see other people, should we get to that point; be overly blunt and transparent with one another; and just figure it out as we go.
Paul was into it, but the overall conversation made both of our heads spin a bit. “It’s just a lot,” he said.
“I get that. When it feels like a lot,” I said, emboldened now that the discussion was in the rear view mirror, and the vodka in my system had morphed into something resembling butterflies, “try to think of it this way: I like you and I just want to get to know you better. And I’d like to get to know you better while also having a lot of great sex with you and climbing you like a tree. OK?”
I won’t get into what happened next because it’s simply none of your business. But I will say this: it was much more fun than killing errant spiders.
Meredith Balkus is the Associate Managing Editor, Digital at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.