A couple of Saturdays ago, Hector, a Miamian in his 20s, bored after a week of self-quarantine, decided to download Tinder. Before too long, he began chatting with a young woman visiting from Russia. "She was here on vacation, but because of the whole coronavirus situation, she couldn't go back home," he says.
Miami hadn't yet issued a stay-at-home order, and the pair wasn't too concerned about social distancing. They made a plan to meet in person that Monday. But an hour before the date, she messaged him saying she had woken up from a nap with a fever.
"I was like, You know what? It's not a good idea to meet up at all — at least until this whole thing is over. That really put it into perspective for me," Hector says.
The two continued to message back and forth a bit — she was feeling much better a few days later — but Hector, not wanting to take the risk of catching or spreading germs, hasn't tried to set up any in-person dates since then.
"That made me rethink everything," he says.
Let's just go ahead and acknowledge that being single during a pandemic kind of sucks. While others self-isolate with their spouses or partners, the unattached might suddenly find themselves feeling more alone than ever. It's unsettling to see Miami, usually such a social city, feel so quiet.
"I think especially as singles, because a lot of us live on our own, it's very easy to feel isolated right now, and it's challenging to actually stay connected with other people," Coffee Meets Bagel CEO and founder Dawoon Kang says.
If you're turning to dating apps to ease your loneliness or just plain boredom, you're not alone. According to a spokesperson for Bumble, between March 12 and the end of the month, the app saw a 21 percent increase in messages sent and in the use of the app's voice-call and video-chat features. A survey of Coffee Meets Bagel users across the nation shows that 78 percent of them are pausing in-person dating for now but that chat activity on the app has increased. Tinder has even made its Passport feature free temporarily, allowing users to chat with people around the world. A few weeks ago, comedian Kaitlyn McQuin quipped in a popular tweet: "Welcome back to courtship, Brad. Welcome back to talking to a gal for WEEKS prior to meeting."
When meeting in person isn't an option, priorities can shift for those on dating apps. For Michelle, a public-health researcher living in downtown Miami, the apps were once mainly a source of hookups or a place to meet new friends. After a serious relationship ended in December, she had only just begun feeling ready to try dating again in late January. But these days when she logs on, she's looking mostly for people she can have an interesting conversation with while stuck at home.
"Before, I would be more interested in physical things: Do I find you attractive through this little cell-phone screen?" she says. "Now I'm like, OK, I'll actually read your profile."
She's also received messages from people who, rather than looking for a romantic connection, have seen that she works in public health and are seeking advice about the current medical recommendations.
Ryan, a 31-year-old on Tinder, uses the app about the same amount as before but sees a difference in his conversations.
"Conversations tend to be longer and more frequent," he says. "People are a lot more talkative. The quality of the conversation also has been tending to be higher as well, with less superficial small talk."
"We tend to talk about what we're doing to get through the pandemic," says Ariana, a 26-year-old living in Key Biscayne. "A lot of my matches have used zombie-apocalypse jokes and dark humor as a way to start up a conversation. It's been interesting seeing how creative people are trying to be with pick-up lines."
Creativity is also coming into play with dates. Coffee Meets Bagel has sent suggested date ideas to users, such as two-person book clubs, videogame dates, or cooking the same recipe over FaceTime. The dating service also started virtual group gatherings called Coffee Talks.
"We create a space for about ten members to join per group to just share what it's like to be single and dating at this time, and they can talk about any topics that are important to them," Kang says.
After the group chat closes, people can exchange numbers if they'd like, and the app can match any members who made a romantic connection.
Michelle has been resistant to get together with new people in person.
"Some people have asked if I wanted to social-distance meet up in a park, which, I thought, Now is not the time," she says. "If you meet someone willing to start off that way, that tells you a lot about their recklessness and their own sense of personal safety, you know?"
Instead, she has found herself using FaceTime almost every night with a woman she met before the COVID-19 outbreak.
"I go on walks every so often, or I run. Sometimes I'll FaceTime her at the park so she can see outside, and then she'll FaceTime me from her balcony," Michelle says.
Sometimes they'll have a glass of wine while they talk. When her date turned 30 last week, Michelle ran over to her house to drop off flowers.
"We didn't touch or interact," she says. "She jokingly brought out a tape measure, which I thought was hilarious."
Ariana has experimented with FaceTime dating but finds that the technical difficulties can be frustrating. The first time, she and a date tried a virtual movie night.
"We used everything from Zoom, Skype, Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, WhatsApp — you name it," she says. "There always seemed to be an issue. Either the movie wasn't working, our cameras weren't working, the audio didn't work. We made the best of it and laughed at the difficulties."
When she learned about Netflix Party, they tried again, using FaceTime while watching a movie, but technology taking such a prominent place in the date took some getting used to.
Subtracting the expectation of an in-person meetup can also lead app users to approach dating in a new way.
"If you're looking for a serious relationship, then not being able to meet someone in person can be a hindrance," Ryan says. "On the other hand, knowing there's no pressure makes things a little more organic online and allows you to get to know someone better before deciding to meet them."
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"For me, it's a different challenge," adds Stephen, another Tinder user. "I am naturally confident and like meeting new people. This builds anticipation and patience."
Despite the challenges that come with trying to date during the coronavirus crisis, Kang sees a silver lining.
"I think this can be an opportunity for us to break apart from the same old dating-app usage pattern we've all kind of fallen into," the Coffee Meets Bagel exec says. "That pattern is what's gotten all of us really jaded about dating apps. Maybe take this time to slow down a little bit. There's no rush to do anything, so take the time to go deeper with one person at a time, and maybe try something creative that you've never done."
Some names have been changed to protect privacy.