As we enter our seventh month of sheltering in place, and with a slow lift on restrictions countrywide, there’s one question on everyone’s mind: How can you safely date during a pandemic?
When you first start dating someone new, you usually consider their hobbies, common interests and politics to figure out if you’re a good match. In the current situation, there is a new level of compatibility to consider: You and your partner’s approaches to COVID-19 safety.
That means asking questions such as: if your job requires you to be around other people, what precautions do you take during and after interactions? Do you live with other people, and if so, how do you track each other’s risk of exposure to the virus? Do you go to restaurants and other public spaces?
Sex and relationships writer Sophie St. Thomas advises that you should be asking potential partners these queries pretty early on, ideally before meeting in-person.
“The answers help you gain a better sense of how much exposure this person has to other people and to environments that pose a risk of contracting the coronavirus. Basically, you’re trying to assess your risk of getting sick if you start a relationship,” she said in a quote from NPR.
Even though it may feel uncomfortable to ask someone you just met about their daily whereabouts and activities, it’s essential for everyone’s health and well-being, says Dr. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious disease specialist at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “You have to keep in mind that exposing yourself to a new partner doesn’t just affect you, she adds — the impact also extends to the people you live and work with, as well as your community at large when you’re out and about,“ she says in an interview for NPR.
“Immediately, if someone is not eager to participate in a conversation like that, that would already give me pause,” says sex educator and writer Gabrielle Alexa Noel in a quote from Harper’s Bazaar. No matter how awkward or uncomfortable you might feel asking some of the questions, she says, if someone else is also taking their health seriously, that person should be eager to discuss safety with you as part of the bubble-merging process.
Dr. Abraar Karan of Harvard Medical School agrees; he says you should approach this conversation the same way you would talk about sexually transmitted diseases before being intimate with someone for the first time: It’s a matter-of-fact conversation about your health and that of your potential partners.
“Nothing can guarantee you are fully safe, but this is the best way to think about risk reduction,” he says in an interview from NPR.
Despite the risks, in-person connections are not off the table until the pandemic ends, says Dr. Dolores Albarracín, who teaches medicine and psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Let’s say you’ve met someone you like and have gone on several FaceTime or even picnic dates together. But you’d like to take things to the next level and meet up indoors.
Sanchez recommends answering three main questions before making the leap:
- What are the transmission rates in your community?
- Do you, your partner, or any of your close contacts have any preexisting conditions or health risks you should keep in mind? (If you’re immunocompromised, for example, you should only engage in lower-risk activities.)
- What is the risk of the activity you plan to do? (Eating at a restaurant outdoors, for example, is less risky than eating indoors, Sanchez notes.)
Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tham, recently became the latest among several health officials to suggest that when it comes to getting physical with a partner, people should wear masks and avoid kissing. New York City health officials also encouraged people to engage in positions facing away from one another to avoid the exchange of breathing particles. That’s because a primary mode of transmission is mouth-to-mouth, so to speak — particles breathed out by an infected person, then inhaled by someone else.
Although dating in the era of COVID-19 does present a series of risks, Karan says we have to assess it similarly to how we assess the risks we take when going to the grocery store or to a testing site. Meaningful emotional connections are still an essential part of everyday life — and we should keep the positives of dating in mind, just as we do with buying food or seeking medical care.
“I think we should not downplay the importance of human connection because relationships are what help us stay mentally sane through something like this,” he says.