When Sara K. Runnels used to get a match on one of her dating apps, she would do some light vetting and then suggest meeting for a cocktail at a bar down the street from her downtown Seattle apartment.
The 35-year-old recently relocated from New York City and doesn’t have a car, so proximity was key. She typically limits her matches to only those within a two-mile radius.
That was before the coronavirus pandemic prompted nearly every state in the country to tell its residents to stay home and practice socially distancing.
Now, Runnels is finding distance isn’t really an issue.
“Everything’s dating long-distance at this point,” she said. “Now more than ever, I’m more open to this person living wherever. … We’re not seeing each other anytime soon, anyway.”
Runnels is one of millions of Americans navigating the new dating world in a society now defined by virtual hangouts, working from home and social distancing. The new normal has changed things for both singles looking for love and those in long-distance relationships.
Remote working has presented a rare loophole for some couples in long-distance relationships, allowing them to isolate together since “home” can be anywhere that has an internet connection.
Katie Mitchell, 30, lives in Singapore. Her boyfriend, Lukas Weigel, 31, lives more than 6,000 miles away in Hamburg, Germany.
The couple was on vacation in early March when the outbreak escalated and it became clear Mitchell wouldn’t be able to return home. Now, for the first time since going long distance in March 2019, they’ve been able to spend roughly five weeks together.
“It’s been the radiant light in this very cloudy and uncertain time,” Mitchell said.
The situation, borne out of crisis, has actually been a useful “trial” that will make big decisions about their future easier.
“[Now we know] we’re not only able to share a life and a home together, but we can even manage to do so when all we have is that shared space,” Mitchell said.
People who aren’t in relationships are turning to dating apps for social connection and moving straight from text chats to phone and video calls — things that might usually only come after in-person dates.
Bumble saw a 93 percent increase in video chat and voice call usage from March 13-27.
Match Group, which owns Tinder and Hinge, has also reported increased activity among existing users, particularly those under 30, and plans to roll out new video chat features soon.
The outbreak has even led to the creation of a new dating app, Quarantine Together, which launched in late March. The app texts users a daily reminder to wash their hands and physically distance. When they confirm they have, they’re sent a new match and given a video chat link.
It’s also forced some established companies to pivot.
Talia Goldstein, a matchmaker and founder of Three Day Rule, introduced virtual matchmaking three weeks ago. She said clients weren’t that into it at first, but by week two, were loving it.
“At first we put everything on hold, but it turns out actually people want to date more than ever,” Goldstein said. “I think it’s because they’re vulnerable, their guards are down and they’re really craving connection.”
Runnels has seen that firsthand.
“We’re all just kind of endlessly talking to each other,” she said. “You’re kind of talking to all these men online and you’re like, ‘I have a million online boyfriends’ — knowing you’re not going to meet up anytime soon.”
This is a reality Thea O’Dell, 25, a resident of San Francisco, knows all too well. She’s been sheltering in place since March 17, when the city issued one of the country’s first such ordinances.
O’Dell doesn’t see much point in using dating apps at the moment since people can’t go anywhere. But even so, she admitted she eventually unpaused Hinge “out of sheer boredom.”
She’s not alone.
As days goes by, she’s seen more people on the app. The problem is connections seem to “fizzle away” since it’s unclear when the current situation will change.
Anna Escher, 29, also lives in San Francisco and has been more active since the ordinance.
She’d never been on a Hinge date but just had her first over video. Even though she’s since been ghosted, she said it was interesting because there was still that awkward moment at the end where one person initiates a next step.
“When that moment happened during the Zoom call, it was kind of awkward because we were like, ‘Oh yeah, we would like to maybe go on a walk around San Francisco or grab dinner, but we can’t do any of that,’” she said. “There wasn’t really a follow-up that made sense.”
Naturally, virtual dating still has its issues but in some ways there’s less pressure. Many people reported wearing slippers or sweatshirts and feeling more comfortable connecting since there wasn’t a physical interaction.
Elizabeth K., 24, said virtual dating has helped her talk to guys more. The separation makes it less nerve-wracking and there’s comfort in knowing it’s easier to end a bad virtual date than an in-person one.
The New York City resident, who preferred to use only her first name for privacy reasons, said she’s also seen a spike in new matches. There’s also a new way to weed out bad fits.
“It’s a serious thing needing to social distance,” she said. “I don’t know how serious the guys are on Hinge but they’re like, ‘Oh, but I still want to meet you, I don’t care about [social distancing].’ If I’ve ever had a guy that said that, I unmatch them.”
The outbreak has also given people new priorities, according to Goldstein.
“I think what people want in a person is going to change. They used to come to us with a list of 75 things,” she said. “Now, it’s a lot of the intangibles like loyalty and support and a partner I can live with and someone who adores them. I do think people are more open minded now.”
Runnels agrees. She’s already seen how expanding her location preferences has opened her up to new possibilities like a first-date phone call with someone in New York City.
“I’m hopeful that, at a bare minimum, if this doesn’t end in a grandiose love story, that it makes me more open to anything,” she said. “We all have, give or take, the time right now to invest a little more in somebody you wouldn’t normally. I think that’s maybe the best part of it.”