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Contract Tracing: The Herald’s COVID-19 loveline

Students and Herald staff members reflect on pandemic romance, flings and trysts

With College Hill’s foliage saturated in crimson hues and Uniqlo HEATTECH fabric materializing on the student body, temperatures dip below the 50s and midterm exams vigilantly march on by. 

And so our biological clocks rattle earnestly against our wind-bitten skin, urging us to covet the happiness of a lovestruck couple nestled in a Ratty booth or third-floor Rock carrel. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when all 20-something-year-olds are legally and socially mandated to mask half of their faces, the possibility of a meet-cute after long nights of Fox Point party-hopping seems to have been desecrated. 

Tinder swipes, or first dates, now carry the weight of a pandemic social contract. Has the pandemic, however, just become a sort of Hobbesian Leviathan that binds us in a more concrete social contract of romance? Thomas Hobbes, in 1651, wrote that a severe sovereign entity was necessary to prevent civil war and “the war of all against all.” The virus, now, dons a crown and emerges from the landscape holding a sword and a crosier to rain down laws of social limitation. 

Here, what Hobbes claimed was the state of nature we feared — summum malum, the fear of violent death, or in this case the fear of COVID-19 — determines students and youth to monogamy or isolation. 

I spoke with students willing to comment and reflect on their romantic experiences following the campus exodus in March. And it seems that although the Leviathan has executed sudden contracts of social distancing, exclusivity and text-Zoom relationships, the urge to cuff has prevailed during crisis. 

For students already in committed relationships, there is, of course, the possibility of full-on quarantining with your partner. After campus closed, Emilia Sowersby ’21 spent four months at her partner’s family’s house. “We are in the same quarantine ‘pod,’ so it’s actually given us a lot more time together, which is really lucky for us,” she said.

But the effects of the pandemic seem to be the most contentious for those who are single or who have just begun quar-dating. Hannah Gelman ’22, a junior currently living off-campus in Providence, started a relationship during this fall, and by the second date, COVID-19 had fast-tracked conversations of exclusivity. “An aspect of my experience with this person that was unique to COVID-19 was that we had to establish monogamy right at the get-go,” she said. “Which forced us to have the ‘what are we’ talk basically on our second date.”

COVID-19’s social limitations have put different terms and conditions to the bargain and process of dating. “Something unique to this moment is how proactive and deliberate you have to be if you're interested in anything from a casual hookup to a future spouse,” Gelman continued. “There is no more meeting someone at a … party, or library, no more waiting until you bump into someone in the Blue Room and make your move. No more random cute baristas you can slip your number to, no more hotties at the gym, no more planning to go out on a Saturday and kiss someone — literally anyone, it doesn't matter who — but you know you will end the night kissing someone. None of that can happen anymore. It all has to be planned now.”

Perhaps the sieve of coronavirus dating, however, makes dating altogether more deliberate, meaningful and uncomplicated. Gelman explained that to her, dating during coronavirus, with requirements of social distancing and podding, drew out aspects of her relationship in a positive way. “By the time we literally even touched each other for the first time, we had already established a certain level of comfort, trust, familiarity and affection,” she said. “I actually really appreciated the opportunity, if not the obligation, to set those boundaries early on, because then for the rest of the relationship I didn't really have to worry about my position in his romantic and sexual life.”

Others echoed this tenuous silver lining that Gelman alluded to. A student, who has asked to remain anonymous for fear of personal repercussions, explained the gamut of criteria that has changed. “I think the virus has taught people how to be more communicative about feelings and expectations, since there’s generally a lot more at stake than just emotions,” they said. “Though it’s kind of sad it took an airborne plague for that to happen.”

It isn’t surprising, either, that coronavirus relationships have taken to the digital frontier. “The best part about corona is that everyone’s bored, which means that you’re more likely to get a text back,” the student said. 

The prohibition of in-person dates has granted some fantastic digital freedom. Dating app usage has increased by 18.4 percent since 2019, with nearly 26.6 million Americans swiping through the likes of Hinge, Bumble, Tinder and Grindr.

Lucas Gelfond ’23.5 noticed this sort of surreal dating carte blanche. “I think there’s a weird lack of reality to it. Out of boredom, friends and I would swipe through dating apps with full knowledge we would never be meeting up with anyone because of the safety risk,” he said. “In certain ways I think it makes the idea of romance way more speculative.”

And perhaps this cheeky daringness set forth by the pandemic will eventually rewire our romance-wracked brains. Gelfond emphatically explained that he feels more willing to even give long-distance relationships a shot. “I think a lot of people have become considerably more comfortable with starting friendships online and communicating wholly digitally, and that this newfound comfort will eventually make us more likely to do the same with romantic interests,” Gelfond said. “The idea of meeting a love interest on the internet and interacting with them wholly digitally no longer feels ridiculous.”

Some students have done exactly that. Alisa Caira ’22 met her current boyfriend through Tinder while quarantining at home in Boston. “It was really nice to have something sort of ‘new’ going on while everything else was put on hold,” she said. 

Even beyond dating apps, Gelman said that she has had some friends who have been hit on by classmates in the Zoom chat box, or shockingly, via email. Are our smartphones and computers transforming into carrier pigeons of romance?  

Consulting Herald staff: Writers on this new-age dating format

For a week, I was plagued by confusion over whether or not my cohort had regressed to a frankly medieval method of courtship: the covering of faces, not meeting your partner until an arranged date, long, drawn-out communication through the written form (text). 

I decided to interview my colleagues at The Herald to hear about their experiences. 

Heralders have been lucky enough to experience some cyber fairy tales of COVID-19 courtship. A Herald source, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of personal repercussions, shared her ongoing saga that began over FaceTime. 

“We met during first semester and lived in the same dorm. We were class friends,” she explained. “After we went back (home), we would text a lot, because there was a lot of homework. … Our conversations went from texting about class to texting about non-class things.” 

Going into summer, the FaceTime relationship ramped up to watching films together. “I may have watched all 12 hours of a certain franchise that is not that good,” she said. “But the announcement came out, of whether we could go back to campus or not. He went back, and I didn’t.” 

But the distance hasn’t halted this Heralder’s cyber-romance. After a number of mixed signals from each party, mostly involving “nerd flirtations” of homework questions or proposed study sessions, both individuals danced around half-serious love confessions. “I asked him, what if I don’t come back next semester?” she said. “He said that we would cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Vicky Phan ’21, The Herald’s copy desk chief, and her boyfriend, Alex Galarraga, also sat down over Zoom to discuss their quarantine romance. 

“This might be an unpopular opinion between the two of us,” Phan said. “Because (Alex) got to take the year off from Swarthmore and is working a lot of tutoring jobs, he gets a lot of free time, and I feel like we get to spend more time together than we would if (Alex was) in school.”

Galarraga disagreed. “We would have spent this much time together if I was in Zoom school,” he said. “I don’t know what you are talking about!”

Phan and Galarraga met over Tinder. They spoke to how COVID-19 has possibly contributed to their relationship. “Vicky here is not usually the one to get hitched, like I am,” Galarraga said. “But on our first date, I was like, ‘Yo, let’s get hitched.’ Not really.” 

Phan explained how their conversation of exclusivity happened. “After two weeks, I was like, you know what? This is very nice, and this works pretty well. And we’ve been dating for two-and-a-half months now,” she said. Since then, the couple has gone on many more dates, including a kayaking trip.

“Even if we had met outside of a COVID context, we would have had the same progression and dynamic,” Galarraga said.

For some Heralders, the pandemic was a revelation for their relationship. Corey Gelb-Bicknell ’23, a senior staff writer, has been in a long-distance relationship for over a year and a half — until quarantine brought him and his girlfriend back to their shared hometown. “We started dating senior year, and soon after that, we went off to college,” he said. “We kind of experienced the most distance we could have from each other and really having separate lives, and then in a day or two, she became the only person I could see.”

Gelb-Bicknell explained how the pandemic has expanded how he understands intimacy and distance in his relationship. “We’ve been best friends for a long time, but it is easy to think that always spending more time with each other will be easier. But both spending a lot of time apart and together requires a bit of practice,” he said. “Now that we have done the two extremes, we can do anything. Just having that whole range of intimacy has continued to show me how much I love her.” 

It seems perhaps, then, that the pandemic exercises our patience and forces us to deliberate why and how we love or date. COVID-19 has us return to seemingly courtly, medieval values of devotion, exclusivity and piety, and this can encourage us to have faith even in non-extraordinary, ordinary circumstances.

Morrissey, troubadour of emotional isolation and longing, would arguably articulate this phenomenon best — that “it’s the bomb that can bring us together.” 


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