Supermarket trysts and video chats: how Australians are dating during Covid-19

By Ellen Leabeater
A smiling couple flirting in the supermarket, 1.5 metres apart
Flirting in the supermarket, 1.5 metres apart, is now part of the coronavirus dating landscape. Photograph: Montgomery Martin/Alamy Stock Photo

It’s Saturday night. I’ve consumed half a bottle of red wine while dancing in my living room to a livestreamed DJ set, and I’m about to meet a new man.

It’s almost like my normal, pre-Covid Saturday night – except the dancing and drinking happened solo and the meet cute will be online.

I’d matched with Nick a few days earlier on dating app The League. He said he was a book collector, an avid traveller and a vegan – all pluses as far as I was concerned. Since this pandemic thing was not easing up, we’d connect over video chat.

You know it’s a good date when he’s punctual. Sure enough, at 8pm, Nick calls me. It’s a bit of a scramble for me to leave my darkened living room to my (well-lit) bedroom, but then I’m settled and we begin to chat. It’s the first video date for both of us.

“It’s become like a ‘where were you when 9/11 hit’ kind of question here in the US,” says Amanda Bradford, who is the founder and chief executive of The League, when I ask her where she was when she first realised her app might be impacted by coronavirus. San Francisco based, Bradford said she was flying back from New York in early March when she noticed people practising physical distancing.

“People weren’t shaking hands or hugging, and then I started realising that’s something you do when dating, so the cultural norms ... flip-flopped. And then obviously as restrictions increased and uncertainty increased it became, ‘you don’t want to be around anyone you don’t know.’”

Bradford says they’ve had mixed results during the pandemic. New memberships are slightly down, but existing members are starting to spend more money within the app. Video calls though, are definitely up. In Australia, there has been a 41% increase, “and 30% of those calls are hitting the max time limit”, which is one hour. “I think people are using it as a hangout session,” Bradford says.

The date, I would say, is a success. The most surprising element is being able to see Nick’s room. I spy a well-made bed in the background and a clean floor. And he is able to show me his bookshelf as proof of his avid reader status.

We tentatively arrange a second date a week later, this time in person, wary that the rules around us could shift at short notice. The following evening when Scott Morrison announces a two-person limit in public spaces, we rejoice. The date can go on!

“Healthy dating right now is ironically the opposite of what we [used to] encourage to be healthy dating,” says Hinge’s chief executive, Justin McLeod, whose app is focused on people seeking relationships rather than hook-ups. McLeod used to suggest “meeting up in person as quickly as possible”. Now they have had to pivot their offering to focus on video dating, a feature they launched on 7 April.

McLeod has found Hinge’s younger users are more open to using the feature. “I think if you sort of grew up using Snapchat and things like that … it’s [already] part of your normal behaviour … and if you are already doing that with your friends it’s not a huge stretch to imagine doing it with a potential date.”

The 20- and 30-somethings I spoke to for this story were up for the idea of a video chat, if they weren’t already doing so. Allysa, 45, was not so keen. “It’s not the same. It’s the chemistry, you can bounce off each other when you’re face to face. Even a touch. A touch is a huge thing in dating.”

Allysa says in her dating age range, you’re battling more responsibilities – both your own and your potential partner’s. Allysa says she hasn’t had time to date for the last few weeks because her business has been suffering and taking up most of her time. She was trying to arrange a date before the lockdowns came into place – a man with four kids and his own business. What was logistically difficult pre-coronavirus is now pretty much impossible.

“There’s only so much you can say over text messages. I’ve hinted about calling, saying, ‘pick up the phone, dude’ but no luck.”

Nick and I meet up in a public space, taking a bottle of wine to a spot overlooking Sydney Harbour for sunset. A 1.5 metre distance rule is enforced. Approximately four hours after we say our goodbyes, New South Wales rushes in legislation that makes this kind of date illegal. We are lucky to have met when we did.

Nick and I were not the only ones forced out of our usual dating routine. Jordan Smith is in his late 20s, gay, and has found a workaround to the strict laws.

“Everyone still needs to go to the grocery store,” he tells me, “and a Coles in corona times is the new place to date, I’ve decided.

Jordan Smith, prior to the Covid-19 lockdowns
Jordan Smith says supermarkets are the new dating hotspots. Photograph: Jordan Smith/Instagram

“You learn about their food choices, you see if they buy branded goods or if they’re a tight-arse, even down to the toilet paper – are they choosing three-ply or two-ply? It’s a whole new level of intimacy.”

Although shopping for essentials is currently legal where Smith lives, adding a date – even at 1.5 metres apart – is possibly pushing the boundaries of social distancing laws. Ditto for any exercise dates, another workaround and grey area.

Smith says the risk matrix has weighed on his mind. “I feel comfortable enough with the people I am going out with, and there is the understanding that it is a risk. And of course when I suggest [a supermarket date] there’s no expectation. I say I don’t expect you to attend if it would put you or anyone you know at risk.”

For those who are used to the more, ahem, physical side of dating, the prospect of no physical affection for the foreseeable future is unappealing.

“I don’t want to sell myself as a loose boy but, the back end of a date would be me going and sleeping with the person but that’s obviously not an option [now],” says Andrew Rose, a 26-year-old gay man.

Being able to look and not touch is a gamble these dating apps are hoping to overcome. They’re optimistic their users are going to stay with them, courting partners over the next three, six or nine months.

Andrew Rose, photographed in London, before the Covid-19 shutdowns.
Andrew Rose, photographed in London, before the Covid-19 shutdowns. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

“I see this as a really good time, to use a sales term, to source and prospect and kind of vet and decide who you want to meet in person once you’re allowed to ... Nobody wants a pen pal but I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Bradford says.

Rose says that’s unlikely in his case. “I think it’s very optimistic [to] say you can build a relationship from video chat without physical connection. I just can’t see myself forming a really strong bond with someone that I haven’t seen face to face.”

Like most elements of life at the end of this pandemic, app dating is not going to be the same. Those working for dating apps predict that video calls will become a much more normalised part of dating.

As for their users, “it’s going to be an orgy for sure”, declares Rose. “People are going to be the loosest most sexual selves. There are going to be the most lascivious over-the-top parties raging all over Australia.”

Until then, Nick and I will be donning our Lycra and joggers, and continuing to get to know each other while walking our way around Sydney – 1.5 metres apart, of course.