“How many friends do you hang out with in real life? Do you have diabetes or other underlying conditions I should know about? When’s the last time you went on a date?”

Any one of those questions would typically make for a rough first date. And yet, currently, you’d be smart to ask them all before you even get to that point.

Pandemic dating is a whole new world, and as social restrictions begin to loosen, you’re probably wondering what love out of lockdown will look like.

Philadelphia and the surrounding areas are now in the yellow, “safer at home” phase. In this phase, we’re allowed to meet up with people outside of our household. Gatherings must not exceed 25 people. Everyone is supposed to remain at least six feet apart.

Beyond that, social rules are vague. Dating is “allowed,” but should you do it? And how?

‘There’s no right answer’

“There’s no right answer. From my perspective, at this point in the pandemic, I’d advise against in-person dating, but ultimately, it’s a personal decision,” says Dr. Patricia Henwood, associate professor of emergency medicine at Thomas Jefferson University’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College, and leader of the Emergency Medicine COVID-19 Task Force at Jefferson Health. “A lot of this comes down to the risk versus benefit for the individual.”

There are still hundreds of new coronavirus cases popping up across the state daily. And this isn’t just an older person problem. Over a third of positive cases in Pennsylvania are among those ages 25 to 49. During the yellow phase, the city of Philadelphia advises that we still leave home only "to engage in essential activities.”

But being socially isolated is hard, especially as a single person. Many of us, partnered or not, are feeling lonely. And studies show loneliness can have mental and physical health ramifications.

Henwood acknowledges that dating during a pandemic is “complicated,” but asks, “Is there an alternative? Can you interact through Zoom? If you move forward with an in-person meeting, you should meet outside, at a distance, [while] wearing a mask."

Taking it slow, ground rules

Before considering a real-life hang, there’s some work to be done. Instantly meeting up with a Tinder match you think is cute is not a good idea.

“Keep it ‘50s style,” says Krys Johnson, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Temple University. “If taking it slow isn’t your jam, wait to get back to dating because all parts of the process right now should be slowed down.”

With pandemic dating, we return to the art of getting to know someone before going further. This may look a little different than the 1950s. Expect plenty of virtual conversations, some that may make you feel both brazen and strange.

There are some initial topics you simply can’t bypass: Is this person going to work every day or hanging at home with their cat, how many people (and who) are they physically seeing, and are they immunocompromised or considered high-risk? These conversation starters aren’t sexy. But you know what is? Weighing both your risk and theirs.

There are more general issues to uncover, too. Does this person seem trustworthy? Are they on the same page about how seriously they’re treating the pandemic? Is the conversation even enjoyable enough to risk meeting up? Answers to those questions will come with time. Again, take it slow. It’ll hopefully pay off in the long run.

If you each become confident about moving forward, it’s time to lay out some ground rules — together. Decide on issues like wearing masks, socially distancing, and skipping the greeting hug, all before meeting up.

“It’ll help you avoid that awkwardness of figuring it out on the spot,” says Henwood. “And if you can’t have those conversations up-front, it’s probably not a relationship you want to pursue anyway.”

Minimizing risk

As with all public gatherings, you are strongly encouraged to wear masks and stay six feet apart.

“You should definitely wear a mask every time you leave the house, but don’t think that’s going to protect you. There’s not enough research on cloth-based masks, so staying six feet apart is equally important,” says Michael LeVasseur, visiting assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University. “Maybe everything is fine, but also maybe everything is not fine, and you don’t really know this person or what they’ve been doing.”

Even if your date has the best of intentions, many people who get the coronavirus are asymptomatic. So until you’re ready to let this person into your inner circle, and you’ve built up some trust together, it’s best to err on the side of caution. If your date isn’t down with wearing a mask, consider that a red flag.

Plan to meet outdoors. Experts say hanging outside is safer than inside, so ideas like a picnic in the park (as long as you aren’t sharing cups/cutlery) or a walk on a spacious trail are ideal. (Take note: Many Philly sidewalks aren’t six feet wide.)

And until you’re really sure about this person, keep your hands by your sides. No hand-holding, no hugs, or, in the words of Arrested Development, simply NO TOUCHING.

Here are some online dating tips in the time of coronavirus. (Dreamstime/TNS)
Dreamstime / MCT
Here are some online dating tips in the time of coronavirus. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Kissing and sex

The coronavirus is a respiratory virus, which means it’s spread through respiratory droplets, i.e., sneezes, coughs, and saliva.

“Any kind of close contact is high risk, and being intimate would be even higher risk — you’re exchanging bodily fluids with that person definitively,” says Henwood.

To state the obvious, swapping spit with someone is risky. Again, this person could be infected and not know it. They could’ve been hanging out with someone who was infected, but didn’t know it. And there are countless other scenarios to factor in here.

The same goes for sex. Researchers are still trying to figure out if the virus itself is transmitted sexually. But whether or not the act of intercourse transmits the virus, being in close proximity with someone who’s infected ups your chance of getting it. If you want to try having sex without kissing AND while staying six feet apart, that challenge is yours.

Of course, every situation is personal. Maybe you’ve been on multiple dates, you’re digging this person, and you see them becoming a part of your life.

“As with any activity right now where you’re venturing outside of your home, it’s really up to you to decide how much risk you want to take,” says Johnson.

Moving beyond socially distanced interactions should be a joint decision. It’s important for both parties to communicate openly and honestly. Again, this part might not feel super comfortable, but that’s OK. Neither are chats about condom usage, but they’re important, so we do it.

“Three dates in, no one really wants to ask, ‘Do you want to be socially monogamous together?’ But things have to change,” says LeVasseur. “Dating right now is going to bring a new kind of commitment.”

You should talk about what your relationship will look like if you meet up in person. This is about your health, and theirs, and also anyone else you might interact with. If you meet someone who’s seeing multiple people, you then bring that entire network into your life, which you then pass onto any family member or friend you see.

If at any point you feel pressured to do things before you’re ready, whether that’s breaking social distancing or meeting up in the first place, there are other fish in the sea. There’s a pandemic happening. You’ve got enough to worry about.

“You want to be very careful about who you’re hanging out with and in what settings,” says Johnson. “You have free rein to be picky right now.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed two quotes to Mike Levy, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania. The quote should have been attributed to Michael LeVasseur, visiting assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University.