Early last year, Makala Gentry was apprehensive about online dating. The 26-year-old resident of Windsor had tried it before, and “it hadn’t really worked out for me,” she says. But then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, and Gentry figured that the statewide lockdown might be a good time to give online dating another shot. Since everyone was at home, she thought, people might be less distracted when dating (a frustration she’d had in the past). So she downloaded the dating app Bumble and shortly after, came across an intriguing profile.

Ben Ferris ticked a lot of Gentry’s boxes: The 29-year-old Lakewood resident wanted kids, didn’t smoke, and was born-and-raised in Colorado, like Gentry. So she swiped right, and, as it turns out, so did Ferris. The two matched on March 29 and discovered an immediate connection. Their first phone call lasted over six hours. “It was just so easy,” says Ferris. “And not a boring conversation at all.”

Courtesy of Makala Gentry and Ben Ferris

For the next four weeks, as Coloradans sheltered in place, Gentry and Ferris held off on meeting in person. Instead, they progressed their bond virtually, delving deep in conversations about future goals, religion, family, and politics. “The added time that Makala and I spent to really get to know each other in a remote capacity only strengthened our bond,” says Ferris.

When they finally did meet face to face at the end of April, sharing a long-anticipated picnic at Addenbrooke Park in Lakewood, sparks morphed into flames. Soon, they added each other and each other’s families to their quarantine pods and “spent every waking minute, as much as our schedules would allow, together,” says Ferris. In May, on a hike up South Table Mountain in Golden, Gentry informed Ferris she thought she loved him. Today, the two agree that they only want to be with each other for the rest of their lives.

Gentry would like to think she and Ferris would have gotten to this level of commitment regardless of whether there was a pandemic raging around them. But she also believes that the unique circumstances of the past year enhanced—and accelerated—their relationship. “I don’t know that we would have been as deep as soon,” she says.

Their story underscores a powerful truth about dating during this dumpster fire era: Despite the fact that it’s harder than ever to connect with potential partners in person, there are ways in which the pandemic has actually improved modern dating culture.

Anastacia Sams, a marriage and family therapist at Growing Self in Denver, believes the pandemic has increased intentionality in dating, especially for people who’ve spent the last 10 months doing self-reflection and self-growth. That  can, in turn, lead to greater intimacy and longer-lasting relationships, she says. Sams also thinks that the pandemic has fostered more meaningful conversations. After all, when there’s so much going on in the world, it’s easy to skip typical first date chitchat and dig deep.

Denver metro residents Sam Whitley, 30, and Chelsea Benavides, 29, can relate. The couple met in early March through a mutual friend. After hitting it off over several in-person dates, they spent much of their early courtship wooing each other from six feet apart during Colorado’s stay-at-home order—a scenario that forced them to have deeper, harder conversations.

“I think it made it more serious instead of just like casual dating,” says Benavides. Stay-at-home life also eliminated a lot of external distractions, explains Whitley, which allowed him to focus on asking good questions and really get to know Benavides. Moreover, the restrictions induced by the pandemic encouraged the couple to get creative.

One night, for example, Whitley set up a projector and a white sheet in front of his garage, Benavides drove over and parked her car, and the two watched Big Fish together from a safe distance. Another evening, Benavides sent Whitley a care package of homemade Thai food and a DIY cocktail; the two then ate dinner together over FaceTime and virtually toured a museum.

In early April, the couple decided to take things to the next level, which in coronavirus times, meant going to the grocery store together. It was on the car ride to Trader Joe’s that they discussed making their relationship official. That evening, they affirmed the commitment with their first kiss. Things progressed naturally from there. In early June, they exchanged “I love yous,” in July they first discussed marriage, and in December, Whitley proposed. The couple is planning a June 12 wedding in Palmer Lake, Colorado.

Courtesy of Justin Walmsley and Jose Ortiz Garcia

Justin Walmsley, 39, and José Ortiz Garcia, 30, also found love during the pandemic. But they had to overcome much more than six feet of distance.

The two met in August 2020 on the app GROWLr—Ortiz Garcia started a conversation with Walmsley after noticing his “kind eyes”—and both say the spark was instant. “It’s pretty hard to find somebody that has the same values or goals that we wanted,” says Walmsley, explaining that they both enjoy traveling and also want to get married and have kids. “We just got really real, really quick,” he says. The only problem: Walmsey, an addiction counselor, lives in Loveland, and Ortiz Garcia, a business owner, lives over 1,700 miles away, in a small city in Veracruz, Mexico. So in September, they met in person in Mexico City; in October, they spent another week together there; and in December, Walmsley proposed to Ortiz Garcia while the two were celebrating Christmas with Ortiz Garcia’s family in Veracruz.

COVID-19, of course, hasn’t made their relationship easy. Travel restrictions prohibit Ortiz Garcia from visiting Colorado, and pandemic-related delays with the U.S. spousal visa program mean that Ortiz Garcia may not be approved to move to the U.S. for up to two years, says Walmsley.

“Our relationship is difficult already because of the language barrier and the logistics but then there’s all these little things” related to COVID-19 that you normally wouldn’t have to deal with, says Walmsley, like the fact that they have to kiss through their masks when they greet each other at the airport. “But I honestly think at the end, we’re going to be stronger because of it.”

The two are planning to get married in a small ceremony next month in Mexico City. In October, they’ll have a big wedding in Veracruz. “During COVID, everything is closed,” Ortiz Garcia says through Walmsley’s translation. “But you can’t close love.”

For those seeking romance during this time, Sams, the therapist, encourages flexibility and a willingness to try new things—even if that just means going on a Zoom date (though you could also take a cue from Benavides and Whitley and plan more creative dates). It also helps to be intentional, Sams adds, both in what you’re looking for in a partner and about putting yourself out there. Lastly, take “advantage of the fact that people are more led to have meaningful conversations in this time,” she encourages.

Benavides agrees. “What’s the point of living on the surface when the world is falling apart?” she asks. “You might as well be vulnerable and be intentional.”

And if, like these couples, you are fortunate enough to meet your person during the pandemic, well, that could make all the difference.

“I thank my lucky stars every single day that I found Makala when I did,” says Ferris, “because she’s been a shining light in an otherwise pretty dark time.”