New York City’s palpable silence made me more observant. Accustomed to urban overstimulation, I found myself longing to see hordes of suit-clad jaywalkers or hear the subway’s uniquely unpleasant cacophony. It was time for me to make do with just watching the small red bird on my fire escape. The summer brought relief, though. I could finally feel the presence of other New Yorkers, given that I followed the necessary precautions.
I acquired a sensitivity to detail during quarantine that I unconsciously integrated into my point of view. Now, on some afternoons, I walk to Washington Square Park and sit on the bench adjacent to the arch. I watch the couples in patterned masks seated on the hot grass, and then I focus my new “precision” eyes on them. After picking up on subtle body language and mundane conversations, I play a guessing game with myself. Who here is on their first date? Who are the strangers? Who feels estranged?
Some suggest that the downfall of humanity was made inevitable by the dot-com boom. By some, I mean my old-fashioned relatives who think iPhones are portents of doom. Their anxiety isn’t completely unfounded. Many social scientists are studying the effect of high internet use on cognitive performance. They find that in the last twenty years, attention spans have gotten shorter, and social skills have gotten weaker. The evidence is there.
I’m willing to admit that humanity may be socially malnourished. But I think that the inherently human yearning for intimacy is still strong, if not stronger than before, especially with respect to romantic relationships. Dating app giants Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge reported a huge uptick in users during quarantine. Hinge Labs conducted a survey and found that 70% of their user base is willing to virtually date until physical dates can resume. These are inspiring metrics.
According to Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld, most couples meet online now. However, although most relationships begin online, they don’t necessarily develop online. Dating apps are simply digital surrogates for matchmakers; it’s up to the users to move their matches offline into real life. But the “online v. IRL" conundrum is more confusing in a world where our ability to participate IRL is limited. For people that began dating during lockdown, the internet was a reliable — real — means to get to know others.
With society slowly re-opening, how do we physically manifest these cloud-borne relationships to something tangible?
- Ask them out
If you never ask your partner out on a physical date, your relationship will never move beyond the screen. Suggest something safe and low-stakes that creates a comfortable ambience for conversation. Venues outdoors are more pandemic-friendly and give you a chance to get fresh air. I’m personally a proponent of a “socially distant drink in the park” date.
Here’s an example of how that conversation could start: “You think you want to do our virtual happy hour again this Thursday, but maybe not virtual? Maybe not even a happy hour? Maybe it’s just you and I drinking Trader Joe’s lemonade in the park, having a chat? I’d love that.”
- Be mindful about physical intimacy
Taking CDC guidelines into account is essential to minimize COVID-19 transmission. I highly recommend that you wear face masks on your date. If you both are eating or drinking on your date, the masks will come off in some respect, but if you’re mindful about space and put your masks on again when you finish, you shouldn’t have to worry too much.
A hug, a kiss, or anything beyond that poses a risk if you’re unsure about you or your partner’s COVID-19 status. That being said, slip-ups do happen. I don’t believe in shaming people; I’d rather empower them to make well-informed decisions in their best interest. We’re human, after all. The National Coalition of STD Directors answers many frequently asked questions about sex and COVID-19 here. Make sure you’re aware of your STI/HIV status, too. COVID-19 may dominate public health discourse right now, but your sexual health is equally important.
- Take your time
Even if you’ve spent months getting to know each other through Zoom movie dates and late night phone calls, you still need time to get to know each other in real life.
A screen doesn’t do complete justice to the way someone’s eyes squint at the sun. And earphones don’t convey a voice’s idiosyncrasies, those slight tone shifts when a secret is shared, or when a joke is told. Savor the process of discovering this person. There will be time for sexual intimacy and commitment when you’re ready.
- Have multiple talks instead of “the talk”
Getting into the habit of checking in on each other and practicing open communication lays the foundation for a healthy romantic relationship to be built. Ask “How do we feel about each other right now?” instead of “What are we?
“We” are constantly evolving. A three word, one-time question couldn’t begin to encompass “us.”
I celebrate my new quarantine-induced watchfulness; it’s enriched my life and made me feel closer to society as a whole. There was a time, though, that I felt increasingly dependent on solitude. The first month of quarantine was uniquely terrifying due to the threat of a lethal virus and the threat of loneliness. In the fifth month of quarantine, a new fear eclipsed these two sustained threats — the possibility that I, as a member of the human species, have evolved past the need for connection at last. Or worse, that I may have lost the capacity for connection completely.
But when I’m sitting out in the park, watching couples show affection to each other with only their eyes, beaming with an unfounded yet unshakeable optimism, I gladly see how wrong I am in my thinking.