I swiped right on 4,000 people to discover how Philly dated in the year of COVID

Dates at Walmart, peeing in bushes and fetishes on Zoom. 

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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How do you find love in a pandemic?

Where do you take a date when all businesses are shuttered? How far apart do you walk with this cute stranger who might be carrying a potentially deadly virus? More urgently, where do you pee after all the get-to-know-each-other beers you just drank in the park?

These are some of the questions single Philadelphians navigated in the year of the coronavirus, according to conversations with dozens of people who tried dating their way through the loneliness of lockdown. I would know: I was one of them.

It was a rough year for the uncoupled, and results were mixed. But in a region known for innovation, plenty of souls found creative inroads to romance. Shopping cart races in Walmart, long-distance courtships, quarantines before getting frisky — some even explored fetishes via Zoom.

“There’s been a real concern about being skin-starved for single folks,” said Lucy Roth, a therapist at the Walnut Psychotherapy Center in Center City. “People that are partnered — either with one or multiple partners — they get access to physical intimacy, whereas single folks have been told in implicit and explicit ways that that’s over.”

A note on my methods: As discovered by colleagues who have tried this experiment a few times before, reporting on Tinder is tricky. I tried to be transparent. But dating apps mostly don’t let you message anyone unless you both opt in. So I posted a few photos of me being myself — singing karaoke, holding various dogs, wearing a fishnet shirt (it was Halloween).

And my bio included an honest disclaimer:

Usually here for dates, now here on the clock. Reporter in Philly looking to hear about your best/worst COVID dates of 2020. This year was weird. Swipe right and tell me a story.

Over the course of two weeks, I think I swiped right on 4,000 strangers. I matched with over 400 of them. Many, it turns out, do not read your bio before striking up some casual flirtation, so were disappointed when I pulled the reporter card.

Dozens of people did agree to speak about their pandemic trysts, most on condition of anonymity or using only their first name. These are some of their stories.

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Walmart date night, peeing in the bushes

While small businesses collapsed, the circumstances of 2020 proved a boon for big box stores. Businesses like Target and Walmart raked in record profits as consumers shifted to bulk-buying, one-stop shopping — and, according to several singles in the Philadelphia region, finding a new destination for dates.

At some stages of the lockdown, these places felt like the only indoors venue that was open at night.

Rukiah, a 29-year-old from New Jersey, whose bio includes her “Tinder Pick Up Line Hall of Fame,” said don’t knock the Walmart date night till you’ve tried it.

“It actually wasn’t that bad,” she told me. “Compared to, like, park dates, it actually gave us something to do. Race carts, ride bikes, play with toys. Got to do a little shopping. It was pretty chill.”

With scarce options for IRL meetups, people got creative. Mads, a 29-year-old South Philly resident, recalled following a first date on Zoom with a second at a laundromat date and a third at one of the Black Lives Matter summer protests.

Most of the younger daters I chatted with said they took caution to avoid spreading the virus, with outdoor dates that surely contributed to the record levels of social activity in Philly parks this year.

But anyone who’s become acquainted with another person over coffees or a box of wine in Rittenhouse Square knows that, sooner or later, the city’s dearth of public bathrooms becomes a bladder-pressing issue. For hygienic reasons, most cafes and restaurants open for take-out had cut off access to their amenities.

Philadelphians don’t exactly have a reputation for being shy about these kinds of things.

“I did a fair amount of peeing in bushes while strangers kept a lookout,” said Jennie, a South Philly resident. “It was fun.”

Virtual romance and long-distance lovers

The novelty of the Zoom happy hour wore off approximately three weeks after the first lockdown began. Another pixelated conversation on the Brady Bunch screen, after a day full of these meetings for work? I’d rather be single.

But video chatting was a key part of the dating process during COVID-19, even for potentials just a mile away. I’m not going to risk meeting someone, even at a safe distance in a park, the thinking goes, if they can’t hold a conversation on the phone.

“I’ve seen a lot of people exercising pause,” said Roth, the therapist. “I have not seen a disregard for other people’s safety.”

The teleconferencing boom and the inherent remoteness of 2020 led some seekers to look far afield.

Jordan Whitney-Wei downloaded Tinder after the coronavirus landed in the U.S. in March. But the 28-year-old Ohio resident wasn’t looking for love in the Midwest. COVID-19 seemed like a “great geographic equalizer,” he said, so he decided to expand the app’s search radius to foreign places, from Lithuania to Boston.

He ended up matching with a man in the Philly area, based off their compatible Myers-Briggs personality types. What evolved became the most meaningful relationship he formed this year.

“It was amazing how deep things got emotionally — talking about vulnerabilities tied to our past, and also discussing caveat-laden hopes for our futures,” Whitney-Wei said. “Despite the considerable distance and some minor technical difficulties with our audio, we managed to have one of my best dates ever, quarantine or otherwise.”

He’s not sure how things will pan out with 395 miles between them, but for a few months this year, the virtual bond helped fill the pandemic-sized hole in his life.

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Bleach baths? Virtual BDSM? Faking COVID?

People who live together get to do it, but for the unbubbled, casual coupling these days runs afoul of federal, state and local health guidelines. I hope am I not to first to break the news to you that people still had sex anyway.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t try to implement some safety measures — even if their prospective date did not.

Sara, a 39-year-old Northern Liberties resident, took the COVID restrictions to heart, and ended up not dating much because of it. Conversation about “bubbles” and exposure risks showed that most Tinder matches seeking her affections didn’t take the virus as seriously as she did.

As an experiment, she told one guy she had a fever and cough, hoping it would divert his proposal for an in-person meeting.

“He STILL invited me over to hook up,” Sara said. “Dudes out here risking it all for some P. Dudes are thirsty and willing to die to nut.”

After months of abstinence, one woman said she considered asking her first sexual encounter to “strip naked and sit in a scolding tub of hot soapy water” in what she said was “a misguided attempt to reassure myself it’s COVID safe.” A few drops of bleach in the bubble bath, she wondered, just to be sure?

“Masturbation will not spread COVID-19; this is your safest option,” according to the official sex guidelines of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “Consider taking a break from in-person dates. Get creative!”

Video and phone sex explorations ensured safety. One person told me, in graphic detail my editor wouldn’t want me to  include, about having their first group BDSM session via Zoom, alongside some locals they’d met pre-COVID.

“It was exhilarating, but we weren’t really able to do appropriate aftercare,” they said, referring to the practice of paying special attention to partners after a sex act that can leave people feeling vulnerable.

Some who did go for in-person contact described taking extra precautions, like agreeing to get tested at their neighborhood Vybe clinic and self-quarantine before their visit.

Just the prospect of public affection was troublesome, causing extreme hesitation at best, and a pang of criminality at worst. Said one 30-year-old of her park makeout session: “When he kissed me, I could feel people’s eyes on us. It felt like we were breaking the law.”

Pandemic or not, obnoxious moments persist

My request for Tinder to tell me its “worst” stories invited a universal truth: Dating can be a fraught and nasty endeavor.

Chatting with strangers, people told me about countless upsetting or traumatizing nights that could have happened at any time, but that they occurred during a public health crisis only seemed to make the experience more visceral.

Sage, who identifies as nonbinary and queer, recalled dealing with a horrific date with a man who got drunk and began to threaten his neighbors with a gun.

At least four people told me they got ghosted without explanation — before a first date, in the middle of a long text romance, even after breaking all the rules and hooking up with someone for the first time. Many more confessed they had gone on no dates the entire year.

Amid this vacillating storm of emotion, moments of absurdity, laughter and occasional gentleness peaked through the clouds.

Rukiah met up with a man who drove her to a Wawa and pretended to be a cop so they could get free coffee. As they drove around, he began giving “motivational speeches” to people experiencing homeless. Hours later, her date grew a little antsy, and finally confessed he was late for the 10 p.m. curfew in the halfway house where he’d been living since prison.

To help him avoid further trouble, Rukiah escorted him to the door and made up an excuse for the house manager.

“My best friend recently told me I should document my Tinder experiences because they’ve been…something,” said Rukiah, who’s been through a lot on the app across five years.

Pandemic or not, dating isn’t easy. To everyone in Philly on the lookout for love, may 2021 be your year for a glow-up.

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