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New meaning of ‘mingle’: Pandemic modifies dating landscape

Life gets more complicated as singles try to find love while dodging virus

A case of wine wasn’t exactly Ian Woolard’s go-to gift for a first date.

Nor were jeans shorts and an old T-shirt Leigh Anne Rehkopf’s usual outfit for such an occasion.

Certainly, the two of them never imagined her carport as an ideal setting.

But that’s where the pair found themselves one steamy afternoon last August, when worry over COVID symptoms helped blow up their plans to meet at a Smyrna wine bar.

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Over the past year, the pandemic has shaken up the dating lives of metro Atlantans, just as it has nearly every other aspect of existence.

Possible love interests are vetted on FaceTime and Zoom. Dates are scheduled in parks, on walking trails and outdoor patios across the metro area. Decisions about if and when there might be physical contact are evaluated much differently than in the past — grandma, grandpa and other vulnerable relatives are now part of the equation.

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“Before COVID, you wouldn’t even have a conversation about your lifestyle until you wanted to get intimate,” said Miriam Nava, a 23-year-old student and fraud analyst from Sandy Springs. “Now, even before meeting a person, you’re trying to figure out, are they being safe?”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Such concerns have prompted some singles to wait out the pandemic entirely before rejoining the dating pool. But about 94% of the Georgians on OkCupid are dating virtually during COVID, according to a recent survey conducted by the online dating site.

For some who have found love in the last year, the pandemic has prompted them to get serious faster with their significant others. Without the distractions of travel, parties and everyday life, the coronavirus has put some couples on the fast track to nuptials.

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For others, the increased time together — and increased risk — led to break-ups.

Rolanda Powell, a community advocate from Center Hill, stopped seeing a love interest last spring in no small part because of the woman’s in-person work at a manufacturing company where a cascade of colleagues had fallen ill with COVID-19.

A recent survey from the website Match suggests that the pandemic has changed what many single Atlantans are looking for in a partner. Sixty-four percent said they consider a wider range of people as potential romantic partners, and roughly two-thirds are now more likely to ask about the person’s health history.

The pandemic has “allowed me to look within myself and really take the time to figure out what I want,” said Powell, 39. “Because it’s like, am I going to risk (getting sick) for you?”

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One area that’s certainly taken a hit: sex lives. Nationally, 71% of singles surveyed by Match reported that they haven’t had sex during the pandemic. Of those who have, 41% got intimate with someone they are in lockdown with, such as a roommate. Overall, about one-quarter of singles broke up during lockdown, while 11% rekindled their relationship with an ex.

Online dating sites reported a surge in activity, as did relationship professionals such as marriage counselors and matchmakers.

After taking a hit during the early lockdowns last spring, business is now more profitable at One on One Matchmaking in Buckhead than it was pre-pandemic, said President Jennifer Miotke.

“If you’re single and you’re alone in your house for six months, you’re thinking about your love life,” she said. “You’re going to try and do something about it.”

But just what types of match-making activities to offer during such extraordinary times has been cause for debate within the industry. While some matchmakers have pooh-poohed setting up video dates for clients, One on One embraced it, organizing “Tiger King” and “Price is Right”-themed digital happy hours. Later, the business started having outdoor social events while scaling back its popular group dinner dates.

Lizzy Wingate, a Marietta-based educator, began using dating apps, a medium she’d largely avoided pre-pandemic. She found herself proposing hikes, patio hangouts and dog walks as dates, meetings that came only after a more extensive period of messaging and phone conversations.

COVID “definitely prolonged the getting-to-know-you phase,” said Wingate, 29. “I talked to a lot of people, but the pandemic made me a lot more cautious about who I was going to meet in person.”

The phone calls felt almost old-fashioned, Wingate said, but made eventual in-person dates less awkward. By the time she first met the man who would become her boyfriend for a walk along the Chattahoochee River last summer, she felt like the ice already had been broken. The two bonded quickly from there, especially after they quarantined together after being exposed to the coronavirus.

Some relationship therapists have coined the term “turbo relationships” to describe the accelerated romantic trajectory of couples who have met and rapidly fallen in love during the pandemic. That’s how Rehkopf, 41, described the situation she found herself in last August.

After months of unfruitful dates on Zoom and on park benches, Rehkopf was ready to delete the dating apps off her phone. But, before she did, she agreed to meet one last man at a Smyrna wine bar.

But the day before she was supposed to meet with Woolard, a 46-year-old alcohol distributor, Rehkopf was hit with a double dose of bad news. She learned that her marketing job was being eliminated and that a neurological condition required her to schedule a CT scan. She also began experiencing symptoms that she worried were signs of COVID-19.

“Here I am having to tell this guy I’ve never met, ‘I don’t know if you believe me or not, but I’m in quarantine now, and I can’t see you tomorrow,’” recalled Rehkopf, whose scan turned out fine.

Feeling bad, Woolard offered to drop off a case of wine. When he arrived at Rehkopf’s house the following afternoon, Rehkopf greeted him from behind a glass door. Surprising even herself, she invited him to stay for a socially distanced drink under her carport.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The two ended up talking for six hours, making their way through three bottles of red wine and one of Rehkopf’s enormous music playlists that included everything from Taylor Swift to 1990s trip hop artists.

“There was this immediate connection,” Woolard said. “We just knew that there was something serious here.”

When he got up to leave, he insisted on kissing Rehkopf, COVID be damned.

“I met my soul mate,” Rehkopf said. She was so sure of it, she added, “I immediately made an appointment with my therapist so I wouldn’t sabotage anything.”

Rehkopf ended up testing negative for the coronavirus. Woolard recently listed his Midtown condo and is moving in with Rehkopf in Smyrna until they can find their forever home. He has plans to propose once they do.

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They said it:

“I listen to the CDC, but a lot of the guys that I meet on these dating apps really don’t care. They’re still living their lifestyles as if COVID never happened.” – Miriam Nava, 23, Sandy Springs

“I don’t have any problems with asking (dates) ‘what did you do today?’ If I feel like you’ve been going out too much, been doing too much, I’ll just kind of back away.” – Rolanda Powell, 39, Center Hill

“(COVID) does make it awkward. If you’re on a first date and you’re connecting, maybe you’d lean in and kiss each other or something. But, because there’s this global pandemic, you don’t know if maybe that would even be acceptable.” – Ian Woolard, 46, Atlanta

“The business is more profitable during COVID than it was before it.” – Jennifer Miotke, president, One on One Matchmaking

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