Masks, No Kissing and ‘a Little Kinky’: Dating and Sex in a Pandemic

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Pandemic life is tough on everyone. But for a single person, the prospect of dating and sex — while social distancing to avoid a potentially life-threatening respiratory illness — feels impossible.

How do you date without touching or kissing? How do you have sex without breathing on your partner and putting each other at risk?

“I’ve gone at least two months without sex or other physical connection, and even in my 50s, that’s a long time,” said one man from Austin, who asked not to be named to protect his privacy. “My only venture outside has been to walk the dogs and run a very rare errand, for Pete’s sake. Dating seems even a more remote possibility.”

When the man, who is gay, raised the issue with his online therapy group, he was surprised by the compassionate response. “Over all, folks were supportive, knowing that we need connection, dating and sex,” he said. The fact that the topic hadn’t come up sooner “spoke in some ways to how inhumane the pandemic is.”

A number of public health agencies have offered tips for dating and sex during the pandemic, but the New York City health department has recently updated its Safer Sex and Covid-19 fact sheet with more-detailed and descriptive advice. The new guidelines still say “you are your safest sex partner,” and that the “next safest partner” is someone in your household.

However, the guidance also acknowledges that not everyone has access to an exclusive sex partner at home. People who are dating or “hooking up” should still try to minimize close contacts. Safer sex during Covid-19 also means wearing a mask and avoiding kissing. “Heavy breathing and panting can spread the virus further,” it says. A recent commentary from Harvard University researchers also recommended that people wear a mask during sex with someone from outside their household.

The New York City guidelines discourage group sex, but give advice for those who do “decide to find a crowd.” “Pick larger, more open, ventilated spaces,” it states, among other things.

Individuals can try to find creative alternatives to traditional sex, such as sex toys, masturbating together and sexy Zoom parties, or they could try to “make it a little kinky,” the guidelines state, suggesting, among other things, people can avoid close contact by having sex through holes in walls or other barriers. “Be creative with sexual positions and physical barriers, like walls, that allow sexual contact while preventing close face-to-face contact.” the guidelines state.

If the language seems surprisingly direct, it’s supposed to be, said Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, deputy commissioner for disease control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

“Our health department has a really strong record of being very sex positive,” said Dr. Daskalakis. “Abstinence for the duration of the pandemic is not going to work. We tend not to shy away from giving people realistic recommendations. There’s no reason for Covid-19 to be different.”

Dr. Daskalakis said the updated guidelines are in addition to existing guidelines for safer sex to lower risk for sexually transmitted disease, and they are a response to hundreds of questions New Yorkers are asking. The new rules also advise people who decide to hook up to get tested monthly for coronavirus, or within five to seven days of a hookup. They caution that a confirmed case of Covid-19 or a positive antibody test isn’t definitive proof that you are immune from re-infection. Dr. Daskalakis said the tone of the updated guidelines was inspired by a 1983 pamphlet, written during the start of the AIDS crisis, called “How to Have Sex During an Epidemic,” which pioneered the public health strategy of harm reduction and safer sex.

“You can’t tell people to stop being human,” said David Lauterstein, founder of the Nasty Pig men’s clothing brand in New York and an L.G.B.T. community leader who helped with the concept of the guidelines. “People are going to have sex. When they’re not educated, they’re going to make bad choices.”

While the new guidelines give people detailed advice about safer sex, many single people say it’s tough to imagine even getting to the point of having sex because of the limits imposed by social distancing and the challenges of trusting other people to take needed precautions.

Wendy Worthington, 45, who lives in St. George, Utah, had hoped to stay connected through online dating during the pandemic. She was excited after meeting someone on a dating app, but after some promising “witty banter” from him, she expressed wariness about meeting in person during the early stages of the crisis. The man immediately blocked her.

“When that happened, it was the tip off that not everyone was going to view what’s going on the way I do or take it as seriously as I was taking it,” she said. “Most people were too nonchalant about it. I realized it was going to be an exercise in futility to try dating.”

Ms. Worthington says she does not expect to go back to dating any time soon. “Now we’re not even worried about S.T.D.s so much as, I just hope you weren’t around someone who coughed on you,” she said. “Dating is already so hard as it is, and then you don’t think people are taking the necessary precautions. I’m putting all of my energy into D.I.Y. projects instead.”

Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor in the department of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, said the guidance for single people who want to date is much the same as for people who have partners: Practice social distancing, socialize and dine outdoors, and keep your overall number of contacts low to reduce risk.

But single people have the added challenge of minimizing risk while trying to date. While there’s no formula to tell you how many dates with different people are safe, try to reduce your other contacts — like shopping or work events — if you want to expand your circle to include dates. Anyone who is dating should be mindful of their personal risk of coronavirus and the risk of others in their circle, like parents and grandparents.

“The more dates you go on, the higher your risk,” Dr. Marcus said.

If you meet someone who is worthy of mask-free time, talk about how they live their daily life. How many contacts do they have? Do they live with multiple roommates? Or do they have a grandparent they see regularly, which would require you to take extra precautions if you become intimate?

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 5, 2020

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


“Now you have to have those conversations before you even make out with someone,” said Dr. Marcus. “You basically have to have the safe sex conversation before kissing.”

In the Netherlands, public health officials advised that locked-down singles find a “seksbuddy” — a trusted person with whom to have an exclusive sexual relationship even if it wasn’t a potential long-term partnership.

A 47-year-old woman from Fayetteville, Ark., who asked that her name not be used, said she does have occasional sex with a trusted friend, although she has continued to try to date during the pandemic. “I have physical contact and sex with someone. We care about each other, but it’s not love,” she said. “It’s harder to date because everything is closed. The drive to date is not as intense because it’s less convenient.”

Some relationship experts say that in addition to the obvious challenges, the pandemic poses a unique opportunity to foster deeper connections with others because we are forced to slow down the dating process.

“It takes people out of that swipe circuity, the hookup circuity, and it makes people rethink what they’re looking for,” said Ken Page, a psychotherapist and co-founder of DeeperDating.com. “This is the time to build new muscles and skills of intimacy that so many of us desperately needed but didn’t have time for.”

Despite the challenges, including uncomfortable conversations and the need to wear a mask, starting a new relationship during a pandemic is possible. Sam Goldman, 28, a finance director for a Boston media company, was resigned to giving up dating for at least the rest of the year. But he happened to connect on the dating app Hinge with a woman who had relocated to the city to live with her parents during the pandemic. The couple texted, spoke on FaceTime and then decided to meet for a picnic. They wore masks walking to the park, stayed on opposite sides of the blanket and talked for five hours, and agreed that a hug goodbye would be safest.

“I don’t think I would have asked to go for a picnic for a first date,” Mr. Goldman said, but it “ended up being such a fun time. She mentioned she loved playing tennis, so I asked her to play tennis for the second date. I definitely would not have done that before.”

Mr. Goldman lives alone, while his date lives with her parents, so he has tried to be more careful, taking precautions like social distancing, staying six feet apart and limiting contacts to protect both the woman and her family. He said he hopes his experience gives other people hope that it’s possible to explore new relationships despite the pandemic.

“I’ve had friends who are struggling with dating during coronavirus time,” he said. “And now I’m in the midst of what seems to be a new relationship that’s blooming and working out.”