“A New Normal” is a series of opinion pieces about the way we live now.
When I told six students waiting to get into Harry’s Chocolate Shop on a Thursday night that I was working on a story about dating during a pandemic, they guffawed.
“It’s nonexistent,” the guy on my right declared. His buddies nodded.
Would any of them be willing to sit down with me to talk about it?
The guy nodded, then joked, “That’s how bad the dating scene is: We’ll sit down with anyone.”
He had started the night in a group of about 12, Manden Minix told me later. One of the friends in that group had recently started dating a girl he met when she moved into their building. Of the 12, they were the only two in a relationship.
One way to meet people
At first, it really didn’t seem like there’d be a lot to talk about.
“It’s tough. It’s not worth trying, almost,” said Minix, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts. “Strictly just Tinder and Bumble.”
Those dating apps seem like a necessity to him, he said, when in-person meetings are constrained by social distancing rules.
“(At) Brothers, you have to sit at a table, you can’t leave, even if you know people you can’t talk to them,” Minix said, laughing. “Not the best time.”
Brothers Bar & Grill joins other bars in enforcing policies that make it hard for students to start conversations with new people. Bartenders at Harry’s and the Twisted Hammer also interject when they think people are mingling too much, students say.
Michael Bostic, an assistant manager at the Twisted Hammer, said it’s a matter of staying open, not quashing potential love affairs.
“We just make sure that we’re doing our guidelines,” he said. “We have to enforce it. … This scene? It takes one time for the health department to come in and say, ‘Hey, we’ve seen four people at the bar. Hey, we’ve seen a crowd of people standing up.’ And then that’s on us.
“At this point in time, everybody has to come together. … One time, a bar does something wrong, they’re gonna look at everybody. Not just the one. One bad apple will ruin it for the bunch. So we try not to be the bad apples.”
Despite these restrictions, the line to get into Harry’s at 8:30 p.m. Thursday was a scene from the before times.
(If that seems earlier than usual, it’s because West Lafayette bars close at midnight now. Read the news!)
Students spilled down Pierce Street in groups as big as eight or 10, drinking beer and seltzers. They stood shoulder to shoulder laughing, exchanging stories, occasionally shouting. Barely anyone in line was wearing a mask. Looking at them, it was easy to pretend the past six months had never happened.
But it quickly became clear that the students couldn’t forget about the pandemic. Almost every single person I talked to complained they couldn’t move around inside, forced to stay parked at their tables.
“It’s hard to be casual. And you have to make plans,” said Jordan, a senior in the Krannert School of Management who didn’t feel comfortable sharing her last name in discussing her dating life. “You can’t be like, ‘Hey, are you going to Bros tonight? Oh, I’ll see you there.’ You know what I mean? You have to go really out of your way to do it.”
Students also had to wait in line longer since the health department requires bars to operate at 50% capacity and allows bar-top service until only 9 p.m. Around 8:45, a guy toward the back of the line asked a Harry’s employee how long they’d have to wait.
The employee shrugged. “I don’t know, less than two hours?”
He came back outside at 9:05 with a roughly six-foot-long pole.
“If you are standing next to someone who is not with your group, please spread out and social distance!” he yelled.
A woman in the largest group catcalled him, but the crowd slowly shuffled apart. He measured the distance between the first few groups and went back inside. Fifteen minutes later, the crowd had merged again.
Students who cannot or choose not to go to bars are in similar predicaments when it comes to meeting new people.
In classes? Many are on Zoom, and when they aren’t, everyone has to wear masks.
“It’s hard to even see people sometimes,” Minix said, brushing his mask. “And I wear glasses, so when I have (this) they fog up and I’m completely hidden.”
During social events on campus? Most have been canceled or converted to a virtual format.
At parties? Fewer are happening, and fewer people are frequenting them. Not to mention you risk receiving a suspension from Purdue.
Minix doesn’t mind waiting to date again.
“It’s not ideal, but we’re in college so it’s not a priority, I’d say,” he said. “I’m not upset by it. It is what it is.”
COVID-19 as the third wheel
Darrell Fischer, a sophomore in the College of Science, met her now-boyfriend online in July while living at her mom’s house in Fishers, Indiana. Her two-year relationship had ended in late February. A month into quarantine, she was bored. She opened Tinder.
“There’s nothing to do,” she said. “You’re sitting there, and you’ve got this pile of homework and you don’t want to do it. You’ve got 20 video lectures in your queue, and you can’t watch them. You just can’t.”
When she met Aleks Hudson, they discussed what they were comfortable with over text. Their first date was a masked, socially distanced picnic. They sat on separate blankets.
The usual first-date awkwardness was compounded by COVID-19 guidelines.
“In a normal first-date situation, you’re sitting pretty close together,” she said. “You can see the whole person’s face instead of half of it. It’s a little bit hard to communicate with anyone when you’ve got a piece of fabric covering half your face.”
They exclusively met outside for the first two weeks.
“In some ways, it’s kind of a good filtering device,” Fischer said. “Like, does this person care about my safety? If they don’t, then I probably don’t want to be dating them anyway.”
After a few times outside in masks, Fischer grew comfortable around Hudson.
“I could tell what kind of person they were,” she said. “I had asked about their habits during quarantine. Like, are you seeing people? How often? Are you wearing masks in public? I can see how they interact with people.”
Another student said COVID-19 considerations lent his first-date conversations a defensive tinge.
Standing in line for Harry’s with a colorful gaiter down around his neck, Hunter Briggs told me he had briefly dated a coworker at Another Broken Egg Cafe in the early summer. He’s met up with two people from Tinder since.
Briggs, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts, said he met his dates outside but didn’t feel much pressure to wear a mask.
“Me personally, I’m not someone who’s anal about wearing a mask or doing social distancing or whatever,” he said. “Obviously I’m in line for a bar and I’m talking without a mask.
“I think it was more on their end — the skepticism — instead of my end. I also felt like I had to prove myself, that I was socially distancing enough for them, or following the rules enough for them.”
Nonetheless, they stayed outside until they felt comfortable together, he said.
The health and safety considerations couples have to make just to spend time together has made relationships feel more serious than they would have otherwise, Fischer said.
Since their first date, she and Hudson have been hiking, sitting outside at restaurants and exploring other outdoor activities. Many indoor activities were — are — closed or restricted. Group dates haven’t seemed safe, either, so they’ve spent a lot of time alone together.
“I definitely felt a little bit of that pressure,” she said. “It’s hard to casually date when you can’t do anything.”
But Fischer said she feels closer to him because they’ve been spending so much time talking.
“Of course there’s been some points where it’s like, ‘I’ve seen you every day this week.’ And you know, that’s a lot,” she said. “‘We’ve been dating for a month and I’ve seen you every day.’ That’s interesting. I’ve never had that happen before in my dating life.”
Hooking up isn’t something Minix or Fischer have seen change because of COVID-19. Minix thinks it’s still happening regardless of health concerns, but none of his friends are judgmental.
“It’s a pretty OK place for it,” he said, laughing. “Bunch of younger people, you know.”
Fischer said she knows one of her friends was recently using dating sites to hook up. But it’s the spending time with strangers that’s prompted her to keep her distance from that friend, not the hooking up.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly smart decision,” Fischer said. “I don’t necessarily feel comfortable around someone who’s meeting strangers online every week.”