The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He’s cute. But is he swab-worthy? How rapid testing became a dating ritual.

(Emma Kumer/The Washington Post)
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Asking someone to stick something up their nose isn’t usually polite first-, second- or even third-date behavior.

But when Jamie Gloyne’s date called an hour before they planned to meet up for an art exhibit in downtown San Francisco, saying she had a headache, he swooped in with a nose swab. Gloyne had several covid-19 rapid tests on hand, so he took one to her apartment. As soon as his date’s drops hit the test strip, two pink lines appeared. She was positive.

Gloyne bid his date adieu and went to the art exhibit alone. It was his 41st birthday, and although he was celebrating solo, he was relieved to be vaccinated, boosted and to have had an antigen test to spare.

Many in the dating scene aren’t as cautious or as prepared. And who can blame them? For about two years, the coronavirus pandemic has been making the awkward and excruciating dating dance even more complicated. At every stage, there are new precautions to take and questions to ask: Is my date social distancing? Do they arrive with their own mask, or do I need to give them one? Are they vaccinated? Boosted? When was their last coronavirus test? How do I trust that they’re telling the truth? This is all in addition to the pre-pandemic conundrums: Do I like them? Do they like me back?

In spring 2020, many singles learned how to master virtual dates. (Good lighting is important, keep it short and don’t get too drunk.) In those days before vaccines, daters might have agreed to isolate or scrambled for a PCR test before hooking up or dining indoors together. Once more people started to get vaccinated in 2021, meeting strangers in person got safer and easier. Then the delta and omicron variants hit, nudging some to rethink their covid protocols. Should I ask my date to take a test before a first date, or only if we plan to be together inside? And who’s responsible for supplying: the person who’s more cautious, whoever has more on hand — or is it each germ machine for themselves?

Rapid tests can be hard to find. At about $12 a pop, they’re not cheap. They’re not always accurate. Some singles say they ask their date to get tested only if they’ve traveled recently or have the sniffles; others ask for a test while the relationship is still new. Some daters say they’re saving the free rapid tests distributed by the Biden administration for a romantic rendezvous.

Still, it’s hard to know what to do: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not specify whether a test is recommended before you swap saliva with a stranger or invite them to come upstairs. Clare O’Connor, head of content for the dating app Bumble, says that asking someone the last time they were tested for the coronavirus is similar to asking whether they’ve had a recent STI test. “It’s a precaution you take when you’re considering getting intimate with somebody.”

“Seinfeld” fans are quick to draw a comparison between the scarcity of coronavirus tests and Elaine Benes’s 1995 dilemma when her favorite method of contraception — the Today sponge — was about to be discontinued. She bought out the entire Upper West Side the way someone might have ordered 100 BinaxNow kits from Amazon in December. Even with a closet full of contraception, Elaine (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) wondered whether someone was sponge-worthy the way today’s singles might question whether a particular date justifies the trouble of locating a precious nose swab. Peter Mehlman, the screenwriter for that “Seinfeld” episode, says that if Elaine were single today, she would not accept a mere screenshot of a negative test. “She would get a certain amount of pleasure out of giving the test herself,” Mehlman said in a phone interview. “These are hard times; you can’t really trust anyone.”

Cindy, a 39-year-old tech worker in San Francisco, did trust her date. Perhaps too much. Cindy, who spoke on the condition of using her first name only for professional privacy, figured she’d taken all the necessary precautions by asking about her date’s vaccination status. They were both vaccinated and boosted, and after three or four dates, during which they’d become intimate, Cindy’s date called to say she wasn’t feeling well; a test confirmed she was positive. A few days later, so was Cindy.

Isolation forced the two women to revert to video dates and prompted some honest conversations that helped accelerate their relationship. “Thankfully, our values and approach to the illness are aligned,” Cindy says.

The pandemic is showing us which friendships are worth keeping

Having fully healed from a mild case of the coronavirus, Cindy doesn’t regret neglecting to test before getting physical. “There’s no way I can make that happen,” she says. “I would seem so high-maintenance that the other person would run away. I would never get any kisses, period.” But she has modified her behavior. She’s testing herself about once a week now, just to make sure she’s negative before meeting up with the woman who gave her covid earlier this month.

Some daters who live in vaccine-resistant areas are still asking that big question from 2021: Have you had your jab? A 28-year-old designer in Kentucky, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for professional privacy, asks every man she matches with online whether he’s vaccinated. “If they’re not, that’s too bad. I’m not meeting you,” she says. “They’re usually angry at me and confused as to why I care.” She tells them it’s for her safety.

After making her requirements known to a recent match — a mechanic with a super-cute smile — he sent her a photo the next day. He was getting his first shot specifically so they could go on a first date. “Can we meet up now?” he asked. She wants to wait until he’s fully vaxxed; in the meantime, they’re texting every day. “He’s annoyed to have to wait so long,” she says. “But I don’t really care; it’s been a long pandemic. Anything worth having is worth waiting for.”

Julie Krafchick, a 38-year-old woman in San Francisco who co-hosts the “Dateable” podcast, thinks there are two types of people: those who are still bunkering down, “and the people who are like: ‘Everyone’s going to get it, I may as well get it over with,’ ” Krafchick says. She considers herself to be cautious, but she’ll take a calculated risk.

When Yue Xu, Krafchick’s 40-year-old co-host, and her partner go on double dates with other couples, it’s understood that everyone will take a rapid test beforehand. But Krafchick says daters lack that kind of clarity with people they barely know. “I think a lot of people want to ask for it but worry it’s going to come off weird. If someone asked [me], I would be relieved,” Krafchick says, because she sees the request as a sign that her date is being responsible. If rapid testing becomes more ingrained in daily life, “that’s going to follow with dating, too,” she says.

Stacia Davis, a 43-year-old computer analyst and graphic designer in Atlantic City, N.J., is one of those daters who’s not so sure how to proceed. Recently, a man she knows asked her out to dinner. When she proposed that they both get tested first, he didn’t think it was necessary. Davis didn’t push the issue. “I’ll just go and pray to the good Lord that neither one of us are infected or the people around us,” Davis remembers thinking. Davis, who lives with her 65-year-old mother who’s a cancer survivor, kept her mask on for most of their indoor dinner date and took her untouched meal home with her. “It was very awkward, very weird,” Davis said in a phone interview. “I didn’t want to take my mask down, didn’t want to eat.”

If Davis were to go on a date again, she says, she’d test beforehand and would ask her date to do so as well, especially now that the government is providing each household with four free rapid tests. If her date were to decline, “maybe we can rethink if we really need to go on a date,” Davis says. “This is what we’re in.”

Some people have coronavirus tests on the brain so much, they’re dreaming about them. When Denver-Rose Harmon, a 27-year-old wildlife biologist in Bakersfield, Calif., was sick with the flu last month, she had a strange dream where she was in a post-apocalyptic land, ill and still doing things she shouldn’t: riding a bike with a friend in a busy area, having dinner in a packed restaurant with her family, getting steamy with two of her YouTube idols. In her dream, Harmon received a positive coronavirus test result in an intimate moment, a scenario she thinks “speaks to the stress that covid has brought to our love lives.”

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