Kimberly Chao’s first date was canceled after he told her he might have caught the coronavirus. It took three negative tests and multiple video calls before he convinced her to finally meet in person—three months after they started chatting on a dating app.
With restaurants and bars closed at the time, her date suggested they stroll around in New York City’s Soho area to check out protest street art on boarded-up store windows. They wore masks the whole time in their 90-minute meet-up.
“We hugged at the end—even the hug made me kind of nervous,” Ms. Chao, a 37-year-old independent financial adviser in New York, recalls that date in early June.
While the pandemic has dramatically changed the playbook for in-person dating, especially in hard-hit areas like New York, it hasn’t stopped stay-at-home singletons from craving human connection. Online dating companies are seeing a rebound in the US, with daily downloads of major apps for such connections bouncing back from earlier lows this year to pre-COVID levels, according to estimates by Apptopia.
Daters are adjusting to shifting norms: random hookups are fast being replaced with weeks-long virtual courting. Good hygiene and being socially responsible are now prerequisites, along with a clear agreement on social distancing and masks for in-person meetings.
“We are more bullish on dating than we were when we initiated coverage on Match in early June,” said Morgan Stanley analyst Lauren Cassel, citing higher engagement and pent-up demand for human interaction during this period for Match Group Inc.
In a report this week, her team estimated more people downloaded Match’s Tinder app last quarter during the pandemic than analysts tracking the company had expected. The Dallas-based owner of apps including OkCupid and Hinge finalized its spinoff from IAC/InterActiveCorp. earlier this month and added new board members including actor Ryan Reynolds.
During the pandemic, dating apps also rushed to accommodate users with in-app video features and speed dating games that weren’t needed in the past. While video dates could migrate to Zoom or Skype, many are reluctant to give out contact information and prefer to keep communications within the app, said Geoff Cook, chief executive officer of The Meet Group Inc., which introduced video and livestreaming on its core platforms including MeetMe and Skout three years ago.
The company’s shares have risen 24% since the start of the year and have rebounded from the plunge in March when cities including New York and Los Angeles shut down non-essential businesses and pushed people to stay home.
COVID-19 is also changing the dating patterns for July and August, traditionally slow months for online dating as people go out to socialize and meet potential dates through mingling. Not this summer, said Kenji Yamazaki, co-founder of EastMeetEast, an Asian American dating app, whose users continued to engage on livestreaming at a high level since that trend picked up in March.
Still, there’s a limit to video dates, said Khadijah Diaz, 28, who has been using Bumble, Tinder, Hinge, and a few Facebook dating groups for Black people in Houston.
“It’s not the same as meeting people face-to-face and finding the energy,” Ms. Diaz said. “For me to continuously be interested in somebody, I need to see them face-to-face.”
Others are also finding ways to accelerate the return to real-world dating. On Grindr, a popular gay dating app, some users add “antibody positive” in profile pages to alleviate concerns of prospective dates.
In Meet Group’s community survey of more than 2,500 people in the US, 81% say they would meet someone they met on a dating app tomorrow, and 71% would like their first date to wear a mask. More than half the respondents say going to work or school is riskier than going on a first date for an outdoor meal or coffee.
Concerns about the pandemic continue to linger, prompting the New Hope, Pennsylvania-based company to form a “Safer Dating Advisory Board” to provide dating guidelines from health experts. It’s also considering adding a filter for users to opt in for virtual dating-only, in order to avoid a mismatch of expectations.
“It was clear and it remains to be clear that people are fearful of the virus,” Mr. Cook said. “Fear might have peaked in April-May, but they continue to insist on mask-wearing.”
And longer periods of virtual dating may just become the norm to screen prospective partners. Even as cities begin to ease measures and allow restaurants and bars to gradually reopen, Match spokeswoman Vidhya Murugesan said the company continues to see users connecting through features such as in-app video chats before deciding to meet in person.
“Even after the pandemic, I actually like doing a lot of videos and calls before meeting a person. It would save me a lot of time,” said Ms. Chao, who didn’t mind her video dates appearing in work-out clothes with beard unshaved and hair untrimmed, as many of them did. “Before, I would go on a date, but after a few minutes, I realize I shouldn’t have gone.” — Bloomberg