Just before eight o’clock one Friday night in late April, 28-year-old Rosie Scanga logged in to a Zoom meeting from her Austin home. More boxes slowly started to appear on the screen, gradually filling into a grid of faces. One woman sipped from a glass of red wine, while a man hoisted his cat up with an arm and smiled. Everyone’s eyes darted around as they took in one another from afar.
“For those of you guys who are new to this, I’d go ahead and pull up the Google spreadsheet,” she says, instructing the group of twenty men and women with an easy aplomb. On the document, daters found the people Scanga had paired them with; they’d each be attending a total of nine dates in this Zoom speed dating night. The men were instructed to stay in their individual Zoom or Google Hangout rooms for the entire evening; meanwhile, the women would move from room to room every ten minutes. (So far, Scanga’s speed-dating nights have involved men seeking women and vice versa, but events for people with different sexual orientations may be in the works soon.)
Scanga had also jotted down a few icebreaker questions on the sheet, which daters could reference if they were so inclined: If you could safely hang out at one place during quarantine, where would it be? What’s your doomsday pantry staple? Would you rather run out of toilet paper or toothpaste?
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In mid-March, as many people started self-isolating because of the pandemic, Scanga—who describes herself as “a very bored girl on a Google sheet”—woke up one night with an idea: what if she organized virtual speed dating? She’d always liked connecting friends that she thought would get along with one another. So she created a Facebook group named “Love in the time of the Rona” and started recruiting her friends and colleagues. Anyone could sign up; Scanga just asked them to fill out a Google form so that she could get a head count and invite them to the Zoom meeting. Before the inaugural event, she posted ideas in the group and encouraged people to invite others they knew to participate. “You only need a waist up outfit,” she wrote. “Very low commitment.”
Fifty people in Austin, mostly in their late twenties and early thirties, signed up for Scanga’s initial Zoom speed-dating night. (She’s hosted three events so far, two for Austin residents and one open to daters anywhere in the U.S.) For Marie Flynn, a 28-year-old therapist, the evening flew by. She played twenty questions with her first date and talked about quarantine with others. She thought maybe she’d match with some of the men, exchange a few text messages, and never hear from them again. That hasn’t been the case. “I wasn’t expecting to go on the amount of Zoom dates I’ve gone on” since then, she says.
All told, Scanga set up 189 dates that first night; of those, thirty were matches. Afterward, one dater told her it felt like “a house party where you created the space for people to introduce themselves to each other.” Other participants even came back the following week, including a man who had been hesitant about the whole thing but soon found himself having fun.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has meant that we’re now relying on socializing online, working online, ordering food and supplies online—in short, we’ve become Internet people. Dating and courtship have long happened via the Internet. But if you’re practicing social distancing, especially in communities where many businesses are closed, options for meeting up with a Bumble match in person are limited. Now, first dates are happening on FaceTime instead of at a bar. And maybe the second date. And the third.
How do we connect during a pandemic? Researchers have started investigating how our current social circumstances shape our relationships—and what it means to forge lasting connections at a time when people can’t be physically near one another. In one study, titled “Love in the Time of COVID,” researchers sought participants ages eighteen and older from around the world who spoke at least one of several languages. Participants were asked to complete an online questionnaire sharing information about their personalities and social relationships, then additional surveys every two weeks during the pandemic and follow-up surveys after the pandemic ends. By early April, 2,060 people had completed the initial survey, and that number nearly doubled as it was translated into other languages. By sharing their experiences, researchers hope participants will help them “determine how people can best cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and help future generations who may face similar challenges.”
While quarantined, people are rarely able to experience the chance encounters—such as running into acquaintances at the movies, or meeting a friend of a friend—that can lead to connections. In fact, physical proximity is one of the biggest predictors of who we start relationships with, according to Heidi Kane, a professor who researches relationships and health at the University of Texas at Dallas. We tend to date people who are close to us, literally—someone who regularly goes to, say, the same rock-climbing gym. But there’s not a lot of data available yet on how this particular moment in time may shape us and how it affects our relationships. Do we lose something, for example, when we don’t make direct eye contact, staring at the on-screen image of the person we’re talking instead of looking into the camera?
Of course, people are capable of forming strong relationships online. And for some single people in quarantine, these Internet interactions can be a good litmus test before they commit to something further. Flynn, who joined Scanga’s virtual dating events on Zoom, said she hopes such short video calls with prospective partners continue after the dust settles. “I think it’s a good prerequisite to actual dating,” Flynn says.
Early results from the “Love in the Time of COVID” study show that among participants who live alone, nearly 29 percent say they are feeling “quite a bit or extremely lonely.” But hunkering down with a partner during the pandemic does not guarantee a less lonesome lockdown: many participants who reported being in unsatisfying relationships are feeling depressed, according to the study, while 50 percent of people in happy relationships feel more connected to their partner since the pandemic started.
Overall, about 25 percent of the study’s participants report feeling more connected to others than they were before quarantine. In an April 16 blog post about the study, researcher Richard Slatcher, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia, writes that this could stem from “feeling like the whole world is in this together.” Karen Prager, a University of Texas at Dallas psychology professor who studies intimacy, says our current circumstances could potentially foster even more intimacy if people are spending more time getting to know each other than they would if they were going to the movies or a show. “You have to rely on talking,” she says.
Before the pandemic, Evan Balbona, who works with Scanga as a client success manager at a music industry software company, used dating apps to meet prospective romantic partners, deleting them when he tired of swiping and re-downloading them when he was bored. He’d also talk to women he met while out, often at concerts, but neither route had been very successful in the past few years. When Scanga suggested that he join her speed-dating experiment, he was in. It would be nice to meet someone, he thought. Mostly, he was eager to see new faces.
Before the event, Balbona worried about how to make himself seem fun and interesting, and about the lighting—“such a big deal on Zoom,” he says. “People’s cameras are different.” He settled on an outdoor deck with yellow halogen lights and—“just to be kind of cheeky”—he lit candles for mood lighting.
After a few speed dates and several glasses of wine, he felt more confident. His first date, though, resonated with him the most. Balbona had coincidentally met the woman at a party back in February. He had come close to asking her out but backed down, because he figured she had a boyfriend. It turns out that she’d been interested in him then too—and annoyed that he hadn’t made a move. They reconnected on Zoom, and they talked again over video that weekend for five hours. The following weekend, they decided to meet in person—at a safe social distance.
Balbona suggested they meet for a meal at Top Notch, the seventies-era Austin hamburger restaurant featured in Richard Linklater’s film Dazed and Confused. When they arrived, Top Notch was closed. So they went to In-N-Out Burger instead and ate cheeseburgers while sitting in their respective cars, talking to each other with the windows down. After a while, it started to rain and they had to continue chatting on their phones instead.
When the skies cleared, the two got out of their cars and stood six feet away from each other; they ended up talking for four hours that way. “We were just laughing the whole time,” remembers Balbona, who says his face hurt that day from smiling so much.
Dating during the pandemic has not been without its challenges. It’s necessary to overcommunicate because it’s more difficult to read body language online, Balbona notes. “But because choosing to spend time with someone, even at a distance, poses a risk for both people, we were both trying to make sure that there were no assumptions being made whatsoever so we could feel good about hanging while distanced,” he says. He thinks that distance encouraged a particular intimacy he hadn’t found from meeting people at places like bars, as well. “I completely just underestimated the power of talking.”
But the more they connected, the harder it was to not express his affection physically, too, he says. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, suggests that relationships that bloom during the pandemic will proceed more slowly than they would otherwise. That was true in Balbona’s case.
Either in spite of the coronavirus or because of it, Balbona found the connection he had been looking for. About a month after their first ten-minute Zoom date, the two had another talk. This time, they decided they wouldn’t see other people.