Meet the new woo Social-distancing rules mean COVID courtships take on whole new look

Since time immemorial — or at least since the dawn of the internet — single people everywhere have had to answer one big question: to try online dating or to not try online dating.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/05/2020 (873 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Since time immemorial — or at least since the dawn of the internet — single people everywhere have had to answer one big question: to try online dating or to not try online dating.

In the late 1990s, online dating websites such as Kiss.com and Match.com launched, modelled after the matchmaking services of a bygone era. Later, with the rise of smartphones in the 2010s, online dating apps including Tinder, Bumble and Hinge began to flood the market, with focuses varying from hookups to long-term relationships.

All of them operate under the guise of a digital matchmaking service… but do they work as well as a good old-fashioned blind date, set up by a mutual friend who at least has some sense of your personality?

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Riva Billows and Isaac Tate hang out in Enderton Park. The couple are keeping their families safe by social distancing their relationship — a change that Billows says has actually brought them closer together.

And in These Unprecedented Times, when you’re not supposed to get closer than two metres to another person, has online dating finally become a viable option for getting to know someone?

The answer, it seems, depends on a few different things: your gender identity, your sexuality and your willingness to commit to a sincere bio that isn’t simply a quote from The Office, plus a first message that is slightly longer than “Hey.”

With few options for in-person dates available and a heavy risk factor involved in breaking social-distancing rules, the world of dating has truly gone digital… or at least time-travelled back a century or two to when physical touch was scandalous.

Take Riva Billows, 22, and Isaac Tate, 21, for instance.

The couple — who were introduced via a mutual friend, just as people were before dating apps existed — met just over two years ago and recently celebrated their two-year anniversary… from a safe social distance, of course.

Prior to the pandemic, the two liked to stay in, eat food and watch TV. Oh yeah, and kiss, too.

But that’s all changed, at least for now. Since the two live in separate households, their date nights have all taken place two metres apart.

“Even though we know so much about each other, going for walks has given us the opportunity to ask each other questions and make more eye contact. This is going to sound really GOOP-y but I felt like it re-established our connection.” – Riva Billows

“We’ve really just been going for walks the last six weeks,” says Billows. “We’ve been actively trying to be good and aware and comply with the social-distancing protocols, since we live in different households.

“It’s been tough. It’s definitely super different to not be able to kiss or hold the person you’re seeing, especially when we’ve gone through some big life events in the last few months.”

It hasn’t been all bad, though. At first, they even found the change kind of fun.

“It felt like I was a young lady being courted in the 1800s,” says Billows.

Not being able to curl up and watch TV has meant the two have had some great conversations.

“Even though we know so much about each other,” she says, “going for walks has given us the opportunity to ask each other questions and make more eye contact. This is going to sound really GOOP-y but I felt like it re-established our connection.”

“I definitely feel like we’re closer,” Tate says.

“I think the pandemic has led more queer people to reach out and seek connections digitally, especially since we’ve all been feeling so isolated.” – Ty Ballingall

“The dates are very silly and fun,” Billows says. “I feel like I’m in a new play premièring at the fringe festival next year: Love in the Time of Corona.”

Meanwhile, in the land of single people, 21-year-old Ty Ballingall’s experience with online dating has been pretty good, both before and during the pandemic.

“I met my first girlfriend online when I was 17,” says Ballingall, who has dated people of all gender identities and sexualities, but is exclusively interested in queer people at the moment.

“I think it’s really difficult getting to know people regardless of the pandemic, but I think a thing that has changed majorly is being open to new connections with people who want to get to know me too, rather than it just being a one-sided connection.

“I think the pandemic has led more queer people to reach out and seek connections digitally, especially since we’ve all been feeling so isolated. We just have to be open and responsive to other people, because we have so much to learn from others and we have to share our lives with each other to feel things.”

For those venturing onto dating apps Tinder and Bumble, things are looking a bit different than usual. People are reporting more matches than before the coronavirus swept the country, but fewer — or most often zero — dates resulting from said matches.

“I feel like I’ve matched with more people since the pandemic started, but it’s mainly just texting back and forth right now.” – Eric

“I just recently got on this app,” says Eric, a 25-year old warehouse worker, who, like several people interviewed regarding dating apps, did not want his last name used. “I feel like I’ve matched with more people since the pandemic started, but it’s mainly just texting back and forth right now.”

“I made this profile about a week ago,” says 30-year tradesman Will. “I don’t take it very seriously. I’m probably the worst person to interview about online dating. I haven’t gone on a date with someone I met online.”

No socially-distanced walks for either of them, but a common thread arises from both conversations: the desire for a genuine connection that dating apps can rarely facilitate. Without the opportunity to meet in-person to see if there is real chemistry, it looks as if most single people are simply content to wait the pandemic out.

And even for those who take to FaceTime or Zoom for a first date, there’s never a guarantee that you’re going to hit it off… or that your date won’t reveal a deep, dark secret.

“I met someone on Tinder during the pandemic,” says Mary, a 33-year-old single mom. “I have never talked on the phone with someone so much in my life. We did a bunch of FaceTime calls as our dates. I think having that extra time before meeting has helped me establish something emotionally with someone, if that makes sense.

“As a parent, time is always an issue, so finding someone who understands that is important will want to talk after my son goes to bed.”

Things were sounding promising for Mary, until she discovered a deal-breaking secret.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Prior to the pandemic, Riva Billows and Isaac Tate liked to stay in, eat food and watch TV.

“I found out he was a cocaine addict,” she says. “So, there’s my pandemic dating life!”

frances.koncan@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @franceskoncan

Frances Koncan

Frances Koncan
Arts reporter

Frances Koncan (she/her) is a writer, theatre director, and failed musician of mixed Anishinaabe and Slovene descent. Originally from Couchiching First Nation, she is now based in Treaty 1 Territory right here in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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