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If you're wondering when it will be safe to date again — or how to do it — you're not alone.
Via social media and email, NPR readers have sent in questions about dating and relationships in the age of COVID-19. Some of the queries:
"Will I ever be able to impress women with my cooking skills again, or do we need to keep all dates outdoors?"
"Do we need to get tested before masks come off?"
"Are masks during sex really a thing?"
As one of our readers put it, it certainly would be easier if there were a dating app that assesses potential partners by their efforts to keep safe in the pandemic. Until that happens, we consulted with several health and relationships experts to figure out how to navigate intimacy while keeping COVID-19 at bay.
Their main takeaway? Just like before the pandemic, open and honest communication is key.
Having the "COVID talk"
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. Now, says sex and relationships writer Sophie St. Thomas, there's a new level of compatibility added in: you and your partner's approach 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?
The experts we interviewed agreed 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.
And 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. Sanchez calls this your "bubble."
That bubble is constantly changing — maybe one of your roommates just got back from a visit with family or you've been asked to start going to your workplace a few times a week. Sex educator and writer Gabrielle Alexa Noel says her girlfriend recently got a new roommate, which forced all three to have the "COVID talk" before choosing to share personal space. So you not only have to have great communication with a dating partner but with the people in your bubble, Sanchez says.
"Immediately, if someone is not eager to participate in a conversation like that, that would already give me pause," Noel says.
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 and precautions 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.
How should I transition from virtual and outdoor dates to indoor intimacy?
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. But you'd like to take things to the next level and meet up indoors.
Sanchez recommends answering three main questions before making this leap:
Karan says COVID-19 case numbers and community spread within your county or neighborhood are a good benchmark to inform your decision to meet in-person indoors. If transmission rates are high, there's probably a higher risk that someone at a restaurant or cafe could have COVID-19 and potentially transmit the virus to you or your date — so you may want to keep things online or outdoors for the time being.
If transmission rates in your community are low, you might feel safer venturing to an indoor location for dinner, Karan says.
Other factors to consider before choosing a date spot: Are all the tables at least 6 feet apart? Does the establishment require servers to wear masks? (More considerations on dining indoors here.)
If you're planning to take your dates into each other's homes and getting intimate, you should both be sure you don't have COVID-19, Albarracín says. She recommends getting tested and waiting to see if the result is negative — or quarantining for two weeks without symptoms — before close, mask-free proximity.
What about sex?
Speaking of protection, here's a question that probably never made it into Cosmopolitan magazine's dating advice columns: If you aren't willing or able to get tested or complete a two-week quarantine beforehand, are masks necessary during sexual encounters?
Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tham, 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 someone infected, then inhaled by someone else.
While Sanchez agrees that masks do make sexual activity somewhat safer in that they reduce the exchange of viral particles, she says it's hard to measure effectiveness.
"Unfortunately, the answer is we don't know how much the risk goes down when you wear a mask while having sex," Sanchez says. "Ultimately, you can't have sex 6 feet apart. So it's going to be a high-risk activity whether or not you wear the masks and avoid kissing."
Wouldn't it just be easier to hook up with my ex?
For some people, the pandemic has presented an additional layer of emotional confusion. Several readers wrote in with the conundrum: Is it worth the effort to try and meet someone new and figure out their pandemic philosophy — or is it better to rekindle things with a former partner whose judgment on pandemic safety you already trust?
St. Thomas says it's perfectly normal to want to reach out to an ex during this time and check in — in a dramatically changing world, it's OK to want to check in on people who have been an important part of your life. But that doesn't always mean it's a good idea to reignite a relationship that previously ended.
"It's so easy to [reach out], especially if you are socially isolated," she says. "[But] if someone is still a pain point for you, if it's something that is still fresh, I would caution against it."
Restarting things with an ex could potentially lead to mixed expectations about the relationship this time around or could negatively affect the progress you've both made since the breakup, St. Thomas says. Instead, she says, rely on your support group. Friends, family and a therapist are all good people to talk to about rekindling an old flame.
Relationships can be helpful
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 rewards and benefits 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.