Some Arkansans are finding ways to date new people without risking spreading the coronavirus. KUAR spoke with three people who've tried to maintain a social life while practicing social distancing. The names used in this report are pseudonyms.
Daniel, Victor and Sharon, all in their early to mid-thirties, take official warnings regarding the coronavirus seriously. Despite that, they are among the many who haven't given up on dating during the coronavirus pandemic.
"I take it pretty seriously," Sharon said, "And so if someone were to have the attitude that [social distancing] is not something to take seriously; it doesn't even have to be the same degree that I do, but just that they believe in it. They want to do what they can to stop the spread. If they didn't have that attitude then I would not go on a date with them."
By coincidence, everyone who agreed to be interviewed uses Bumble, an app where conversations between romantic matches don't begin until after the woman sends the first message.
According to a representative of Bumble, the company recently launched a "Virtual Dating" badge that will appear in users' profiles who are open to date via video chat. Daniel, who lives in rural western Arkansas, says he's gone on virtual dates in which he and his date made meals and watched the same movie despite being in different places. He's appreciated the chance to get to know people without having to travel two hours or more for a date.
He said, "Even after social distancing is over, I still recommend some sort of video dating. Especially if your schedules can't work out, like if you can't drive the distance or anything like that. Or if you just feel like staying in. It was actually pretty fun."
Prior to the pandemic, Bumble limited users to finding matches within 100 miles of their location. The company has removed that restriction and now allows users to connect with any potential match who lives in the same country. Daniel says meeting over video instead of in person has unexpected benefits. He says prior to the pandemic, it was common to meet after exchanging a few texts, but he and his dates moved to video chatting in March when restaurants, bars and theaters were closed by the governor's office.
"Some people will have profiles that are a little, I won't say misleading, but put their best foot forward way too far. Some people who you just don't see those mannerisms or how they carry themselves through pictures and through texts. Being forced to have video chats first has made it better for me in that I've been able to know more about a person and who they are before I go out and meet them," Daniel said.
Victor, who teaches at an Arkansas college, believes some users are using virtual dating as a way to combat social isolation.
"One way that I have seen COVID show up in profiles a lot is people just talking about looking for a connection or being bored and looking for something to do because of quarantine."
Both Bumble and Hinge, two services that allow people to connect virtually via text, voice call, or video chat have reported double-digit increases in messages between users since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. In an email, a representative from Hinge said the company has had "a 30% increase in messages among users this past March (compared to January and February) and 70% of Hinge users expressing interest in going on digital dates."
Bumble claims to have seen a 69% increase in video calls and a 16% increase in messages sent during the week ending May 1 as compared to the week ending March 13. The first presumptive case of COVID-19 in Arkansas was announced by Gov Asa Hutchinson on March 13.
All three of those interviewed said the coronavirus has become one of the most frequent topics of discussion with their matches.
Victor said, "One of the more common conversation starters I've seen of late is, 'What new skill have you picked up in quarantine?'"
Sharon, who recently ended a long-term relationship and is new to online dating, said she "had a conversation where we did not bring [the coronavirus] up and it was very unusual. I kept thinking, 'Is now the time? Now should I bring up the virus?' I didn’t. It was actually really pleasant to pretend everything is normal. It's weird. Everything about dating right now is weird."
Sharon has met dates in public parks where it's easier to maintain the recommended space. Social distancing has relieved some of the pressure from those in-person meetings.
"It's taking a level of awkwardness away from having to negotiate kissing, or holding hands or whatever," Sharon said. "And that may just be me needing to be better about being assertive, but that's the reality of what I'm experiencing."
Even as the state has eased restrictions on bars and restaurants, all three said they’d be slow to return to dating in those venues.