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The awkward intimacy of video dates, when they’re in your bedroom but you can’t touch

(Eddie Alvarez/The Washington Post)

Priscilla McGregor-Kerr is about to have a first date while dressed in pajamas. On a Thursday night, the 25-year-old Londoner dabs a bit of concealer under her eyes, fills in her eyebrows and runs a mascara brush through her lashes. She’ll put on just a bit of makeup, not a full face, she decides, because her date knows she’s “not going or coming from anywhere.”

She strives for a quarantine look that says: I’m trying, but not too hard. She adjusts her bedside lamp so that there’s a nice glow and pours herself a glass of gin-infused rosé.

When her date arrives, he’s drinking the same brand of wine. They spend three hours talking about their personality types (she’s an extrovert, he’s an introvert), playing a drinking game and sharing their love of the U.S. version of “The Office.” It goes so well they decide to meet again the following week, in the same place, where they can’t touch or inadvertently spread the coronavirus: FaceTime.

Before the pandemic, online dating sites and apps were pushing for video meetups, but the medium hadn’t taken off. Now, out of necessity, video apps are becoming the hot spots for first dates, forcing daters to reinvent norms and endure an entirely new form of awkwardness and miscommunication. Is their WiFi really that spotty, or are they just not that into you?

The virtual first date keeps people distant, but it also can enable more intimacy. You can talk until your battery dies or someone falls asleep. You can see if your date keeps their room messy or makes their bed. It’s also a good match for this moment of economic uncertainty: It’s cheap and easy. You don’t need to impress your date by snagging a reservation to the trendiest restaurant in town. You don’t even need to be in the same town. You need only half an outfit.

Dating from a distance also removes the question, “Am I going home with this person?,” notes sexuality and relationship educator Logan Levkoff. “I’m hoping that this really is an opportunity for people to think [beyond] the superficial qualities we think are so important.”

The ultimate guide to socializing apps, from Zoom to Netflix Party

Dating apps are trying to help the FaceTime-reluctant get comfortable with virtual meetups. When Hinge users open the app, a pop-up notes that 70 percent of members are “down for a digital date.” Plenty of Fish lets daters broadcast themselves to a bunch of prospects and then break off into one-on-one video chats. Match has a Dating While Distancing hotline that offers free advice. And since any new relationship would likely be “long-distance” regardless of where people are based, Tinder is making its premium Passport feature free, so users can swipe through singles anywhere in the world.

Dating from home is even being packaged as entertainment. Fans of the Netflix hit reality show “Love Is Blind” have started their own low-budget spinoffs, trying to match more Camerons with Laurens by pairing up singles and broadcasting snippets of their phone dates on social media. “Love Is Quarantine,” created by two Brooklyn roommates, is in its second go-round, which features senior daters. “DC Is Blind,” a Washington version, launched on Wednesday.

A video chat allows two people to pay attention to one another without the usual distractions at a bar or restaurant: a television blaring overhead, or a bartender who’s cuter than your date. But you’ll need some privacy. A 21-year-old man in Florida learned this the embarrassing way when his mom walked in on his R-rated Skype date Tuesday night. His digital dating tip: Put on headphones and make sure you’re in a room with a door that locks.

Even a virtual date requires some planning. Matchmaker Tammy Shaklee suggests cleaning up the corner where you’re going to Zoom or FaceTime and choosing a backdrop that represents your personality. It’s a bit like creating a good dating profile. A writer might sit in front of his bookshelf, or a musician might set up with her record collection right behind her.

Whatever you do, don’t show up in sweats, which makes you look lazy, Shaklee says. And resist the urge to Skype from bed, which feels like a hookup situation. Drink out of a nice glass, not the chipped mug from your university, Shaklee suggests. Add a spritz of perfume or cologne, even though your date can’t smell you. “You’re hosting your future partner in your space,” Shaklee says. “Light a candle, have a fragrance. If you feel it, they will be able to sense it.”

When McGregor-Kerr tweeted about how her date had sent her 15 British pounds (about $18) to buy a bottle of wine for their virtual meetup (socially distant chivalry!), 15,000 people retweeted it. For their next meetup, McGregor-Kerr says they might send each other UberEats.

But for some daters, the idea of hosting a near-stranger in their home is not pleasant — even if it’s virtual.

“I don’t live by myself. I don’t want them to see my roommates or even my room,” says Isis Parada, a 25-year-old woman in the Washington area. “It strips a level of privacy down.”

She might be okay doing a Zoom call with a fake background (you can swap in any image from your camera roll). But for now, Parada is telling her dating-app matches that they can meet up after social distancing is over.

The pandemic and its attending isolation are obvious conversation starters for a video chat, notes Logan Ury, a dating coach in San Francisco, but daters should be careful about falling back on what’s easy. She suggests transitioning from covid-19 talk into more personal topics, such as: "What are you passionate about? What’s your relationship like with your family?” That’ll also help your date feel different from your work Zoom call.

A 26-year-old woman in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for professional privacy reasons, went on two good video dates recently but wondered: Do we have anything in common, or is it just the quarantine? After a six-feet-apart second-date walk with one of those men, she determined they didn’t share much more than being two young people craving connection while cooped up in their apartments. She texted later to say she didn’t think they were a match.

Ury likens this phenomenon to traveling abroad, meeting someone from your home country — and falling for them immediately. That connection might feel strong, until you realize it was based more on circumstances than a genuine bond.

Even when a spark seems real, it’s hard to know how these budding relationships could possibly grow. Lull Mengesha, a 36-year-old man in Oakland, Calif., says he’s been getting more Tinder matches than usual, perhaps because people are stuck inside with little to do but swipe. He had a FaceTime date, which went well, but the next day she texted to say, “I think we may be in different headspaces.”

The woman was looking for a relationship, but California is a shelter-in-place state, and Mengesha doesn’t know how that would work logistically.

“Maybe before corona, I’d be looking for a relationship, but we have to understand that a lot of things are changing,” he says. “I don’t know what’s happening, and this is the time you want to attach the responsibility of another person?”

So Mengesha is looking for digital companionship only. Still, that text stung a bit. Getting rejected, he says, “hits double when it happens in the apocalypse.”

For some couples, a video screen is not enough. In February, Tracy Smith, a 40-year-old woman in Oklahoma, met a Bumble match she really liked. Once social distancing set in, they watched “Portlandia” and “Modern Love” at the same time from their separate apartments while texting each other. Eventually, Smith invited him over to her place, where she got out her tape measure and jokingly asked that he hold one end as she gave him a tour.

A few nights later, he arrived at her door again. No tape measure.

“I felt like I had to take a risk and let him into my personal space during isolation in order to see if this could work,” Smith says.

He walked over and kissed her.


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Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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