Denver resident Sam Whitley, 29, met Chelsea, also 29, through a mutual friend in early March. The two hit it off “pretty well,” says Whitley, describing a 3.5-hour-long first date that involved dinner at a hole-in-the-wall taqueria, conversation at Sloan’s Lake, and a connection over shared religious beliefs.
“It was great,” says Whitley. “It was a really, really fun date.”
But after several more in-person dates—including a picnic of U.S. Thai takeout and sunset watching at Sloan’s Lake, a tacos and movie night at Whitley’s place, and a walk the next day—COVID-19 threw a wrench into their budding romance.
On Monday, March 23, the day Mayor Michael Hancock announced a stay-at-home order for Denver residents in response to the growing pandemic, Whitley says he and Chelsea came to a difficult conclusion: They needed to socially distance from each other.
But instead of letting that decision kibosh their courtship, the couple discovered alternative ways to connect.
Last Wednesday, Whitley dropped a package outside Chelsea’s house containing Thai food, mint chocolate chip ice cream, a bottle of Merlot, and a handwritten haiku; later that night, the two ate the ice cream together over FaceTime. On Saturday, they rendezvoused for a movie date: Whitley set up a projector and a white sheet in front of his garage, Chelsea drove over and parked her car, and the two watched “Big Fish” together from a safe distance—Whitley sat in the driveway and Chelsea lounged in her vehicle.
“The date went extremely well!” Whitley said via text two days later.
Whitley and Chelsea are among thousands of locals currently navigating a strange new reality: Dating in Denver during the coronavirus. With all bars, restaurants, and clubs officially shuttered and outdoor recreation options limited, the possibility of exploring a potential relationship in real life is essentially nil. Some singles, like Whitley and Chelsea, are getting creative with intimate meet-ups that still respect the rules of social distancing. But others are turning to a more tried-and-true method for mingling: online dating.
On Facebook Dating (a digital dating platform created by the social media company), COVID-19 seems to be the new universal ice breaker. “A lot of guys start off with ‘So how are you surviving this whole quarantine?’ or something like that, or it comes up at some point,” says downtown Denver resident Janelle, 31 (name was changed to protect privacy).
Since the pandemic started spreading in Colorado, Janelle says more people than usual have liked her profile and contacted her. She surmises it’s “simply probably because people have more time.” But she’s also noticed “the same level of flakiness that you would expect [with dating online and also with dating in Denver in general].”
“Some of the guys who contacted me, we have a really short conversation and then they just never respond to the last text. Or they don’t ask me about myself,” she says.
Janelle had the unfortunate luck of getting dumped two days after her birthday, just before Valentine’s Day and about a month before the COVID-19 pandemic started to significantly affect Colorado. In the short time since, as she’s re-entered the online dating scene, she’s also experienced a strange trend that seems tied to the coronavirus: Five men from her past—including the ex who recently broke up with her, a college ex-boyfriend, and three other former flames—recently got in touch over a three to four-day span.
Some of the men, she surmised, simply reached out because they now have more free time with their thoughts, and felt the urge to contact her. Others, she thinks, have ulterior motives. Like the most recent ex who admitted he made a mistake in ending their relationship, and the college ex, who lives in Denver and asked if she wanted to go to Moab with him this past weekend.
“I was like, what? No!” says Janelle. The college ex also confusingly asked Janelle if she was trying to use him as a “coronavirus booty call.”
Her reaction: No! And also: Is “coronavirus booty call” actually a thing?
We reached out to several popular dating apps and websites—include Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, the League, and OkCupid—and though none of them were able to provide recent user data specific to the Mile High City, a Bumble representative said via email that usage of the app’s video call, voice chat, and messaging features was up nationwide. A spokesperson with OkCupid also shared that according to a recent poll, 83 percent of respondents in Denver said “it’s important to have an emotional connection before a physical one.”
“I think one thing that this pandemic will hopefully teach most of us is what’s really important and help us really reevaluate our values,” Alysha Jeney, MA, LMFT, relationship therapist, and owner of Modern Love Counseling in Denver. “I think that sex and physical chemistry are incredibly important. But I also don’t think that that’s the foundation of a relationship.”
Jeney’s advice for singles looking to date right now: Since going on in-person dates isn’t really an option, use the opportunity to take a different approach with online dating. That could mean talking to fewer people, swiping right on folks who normally aren’t your type, or skipping superficial banter and presenting yourself more “vulnerably and authentically” from the get-go.
For some daters in Denver, including Shannon Daugherty, the new culture created by the coronavirus is automatically making it easier to be authentic.
Daugherty, 25, started seeing Taylor, 28, about a month ago. The two went on about four dates until Daugherty had to be quarantined for a week after coming into contact with two people who had COVID-19. During that period, she and Taylor continued pursuing their relationship with the help of FaceTime, establishing a routine of two dates a week that they maintain today. That includes one morning date, where they’ll do an activity like crossword puzzling over FaceTime, and one evening date, where they’ll simultaneously cook the same meal and enjoy it together virtually. They’ve also started mailing handwritten letters to each other.
“We’ve definitely had to get more vulnerable,” says Daugherty of how dating during the coronavirus has impacted their relationship. “You can’t always have lighthearted conversations in the middle of a pandemic. Learning to say ‘Here’s what’s going on with my job right now—will I have a possibility of getting laid off? Maybe.’ And that’s a hard conversation to have with someone after two weeks of dating.”
At the same time, developing a strong emotional relationship without being able to connect physically can induce its own anxieties.
“I think it’s almost scary in the sense that your emotional connection is so high. Like will your physical connection catch up to it?” says Daughtery. “Or like, you know, we’ve gotten to this point where we know so much about each other, but will it change whenever life is back to normal?”
Whitley can relate. “I’d say it’s been good on the emotional level,” he says of the impact COVID-19 has had on his and Chelsea’s relationship. But at the same time, “it’s been hard on the physical level. It feels like we’re long-distance, but we’re in the same town, and I think that’s where it can get nerve-wracking, like, how can we really make this work?”
“I’m just going to keep taking it day by day, and date by date really,” he adds. “I think through this we’re going to keep having this conversation to figure it out.”