The global pandemic has rewritten the rules of dating. Meeting that special someone at a party or a pottery class is much less likely with such gatherings few and far between nowadays. The idea of going to a restaurant or movie might feel too risky for you and/or your date. That first kiss could trigger thoughts of infection rather than infatuation. And face masks plus six-foot buffer zones are not exactly conducive to romance.

Singles still can have a romantic life in this year of social distancing, but they will have to adjust to the new dating patterns. Some good news—a few of these new patterns actually have advantages over the usual ways of doing things. 

How to Meet Someone New

Unless a friend or relative sets you up with someone, dating sites and apps are the most realistic way to meet someone these days. The most popular, such as Bumble, Match.com, OkCupid, Tinder and Plenty of Fish, have many times more users, and that means better odds that they’ll have a good nearby match for you. 

These dating sites have adapted to the times in some notable ways. Examples: The Bumble app lets users specify whether they’re looking for socially distanced dating…socially distanced dating with masks…and/or virtual dating, where the relationship remains online for the foreseeable future. Match.com rolled out new video-chatting tools, and it launched virtual happy hours, where 20 to 30 people can mingle online with other people of a similar age living in the same area. 

You also might want to briefly discuss pandemic-related preferences. If a potential partner’s opinions are in stark contrast to your own, the match may not work even if you compromise on mask wearing and dating destinations. The schism may point to deeper political or risk-tolerance differences. 

Dating at a Distance

In normal times, people who meet on dating sites exchange a few e-mails, then perhaps texts, followed maybe by a phone call or two. If there’s chemistry, they then meet in person, perhaps for coffee, a drink, lunch or dinner. That part has become a problem, and many more daters now are adding video calls as another step before meeting in person. 

Chances are, you’ve already become familiar with the challenges of video calls this year—conversations can feel awkward and unnatural…and video images are not always flattering. One advantage or disadvantage: A video call can provide proof of whether the pictures posted on a dating site are recent. 

The hurdles can be particularly problematic for trying to create chemistry. Fortunately, they can be largely overcome with a little practice and preparation. 

To look good in video calls, position yourself so you’re lighted from the front—overhead lighting casts odd shadows, and backlighting makes it difficult to see you. If you’re using the camera in your phone or tablet, stand the device on a stable surface instead of holding it in your hand to avoid distracting shakiness. Position the camera at your eye level or slightly above, which is more flattering than aiming it up your nostrils. Spend a significant percentage of the call looking into the camera rather than at the image on the screen—looking at the camera makes it appear that you’re making eye contact. (See “7 Ways to Look Better on Video Calls” in Bottom Line Personal’s June 1 issue for more.) If you haven’t been able to see your barber or hair stylist in months, comment on your shagginess or DIY haircut—raising the topic transforms your haircut from a problem that a potential partner might consider a strike against you into a challenge that we’re all facing. 

Warning: Resist the urge to wear old sweatpants for a video date. While it’s true your lower half is unlikely to be visible, it’s not uncommon for people to stand up during a video call, to retrieve something that’s being discussed or ­answer the phone—revealing that they didn’t bother to dress for the occasion.

If you haven’t done many video calls, practice with friends or family to increase your comfort level before you date. Also take a few steps before the date to ensure that you have things to talk about. Awkward silences can occur during any date, but on a traditional dinner date or movie date, there’s a safety net—you can always discuss the food or the film. On a video-call date, it’s easy to end up with two people staring uncomfortably at each other uncertain what to say next. To avoid this…

Jot down some conversation topics and questions in advance. Position these notes close to your screen where you don’t have to move your eyes much to refer to them…but where the notes are not in view of the camera. 

Helpful: It’s almost inevitable that the pandemic will come up—but you don’t want the conversation to become heavy and negative. So rather than ask, “How are you holding up during all of this?” ask positive-toned pandemic-related questions such as “What new hobbies have you taken up during the pandemic?” or “What have you learned about yourself?”

Curate your background. Position an item or two that can serve as potential conversation starters within the field of vision of your camera. This might include an item related to a favorite hobby, such as a woodworking project you recently completed…or it could be a bookshelf holding a few of your favorite books or most recently read books. 

Keep initial get-to-know-you video dates brief. End them after 20 to 30 minutes even if the call is going well. It’s far better to have a great short call and leave ’em wanting more than to continue the chatting until there’s an uncomfortable pause. Video-call dates actually have an advantage here—you don’t have to wait around for the check to arrive if you run out of things to say…just wrap things up with “Well, this has been a lot of fun…” 

Subsequent video calls don’t have to be just conversations—if you’re still not ready to meet in person, consider adding activities to create true video dates. Watch movies or shows together using Netflix Party, a free Chrome extension that allows for synchronized playback…share a meal by ordering the same dishes from the same restaurant or by preparing the same meal “together,” each in your own kitchen…or take the same online class together. 

Getting Together

Some new couples might opt to remain physically separate for the duration of the pandemic, but anecdotal evidence suggests most will eventually decide to come together. When and how this meet-up will occur should be discussed within the first few phone or video calls so both partners are on the same page. Beware potential partners who come up with excuses to break these agreed-upon meeting rules. 

If you mutually decide to meet, discuss the distancing details before the date—what sort of meeting would make both partners feel safe? A location that’s public but outdoors and uncrowded can be ideal. Example: If you’re uncomfortable meeting at an outdoor or indoor restaurant, meet in a public park for a picnic, sit at a safe distance and agree in advance to forgo any hugging or kissing.

If you’ll be wearing masks for the initial meeting, send each other photos wearing the mask and clothes you’ll have on. Otherwise it might be difficult to identify the masked person you’re looking for. Don’t allow fear of COVID-19 to lead you to overlook other potentially serious first-date risks. These days it’s easy to associate public places with danger, and secluded spots and private homes with safety—but exactly the opposite can be true when meeting someone you barely know. Example: A woman I know went hiking in the woods on a first date earlier this year. In any other year, she would have realized that was an unacceptable risk. Fortunately, it went well.

Once couples decide to physically meet these days, many of them are progressing to sex and even living together far faster than usual—sometimes after only a few in-person dates. This makes some sense—these people already have spent considerable time getting to know each other long-distance before meeting in person. Besides, there are risks associated with spending time with lots of people these days, so spending lots of time with one person is far safer. Partners could opt to get tested for ­COVID-19 and/or self-quarantine before beginning a physical relationship to further reduce their risks. The good news is that once you’ve reached this stage of a new ­pandemic-era relationship, you have greater odds of relationship success than you would have when launching a new relationship in normal times. You’ve probably spent more time getting to know this person before meeting than you otherwise would have, and the concern for each other’s well-being you’ve shown in social distancing and/or COVID testing suggests you’re with someone who will look out for your well-being. The pandemic has changed the dating world—but it hasn’t necessarily changed it for the worse.