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«Immediately, if someone is not eager to participate in a conversation like that, that would already give me pause,» says Noel.
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, they 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:
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Karan says COVID-19 case numbers and community spread within your own 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, says Karan.
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Other factors to consider before choosing a date spot: Are all the tables at least six 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, says Albarracín. 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 Cosmo 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’s 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 truly measure effectiveness.
«Unfortunately, the answer is we don’t know how much the risk goes down when you wear a mask while having sex,» says Sanchez. «Ultimately, you can’t have sex six 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 okay 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, says St. Thomas. 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 actually 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 its 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.