SAN FRANCISCO/MADRID/BEIRUT: The night after Spain's government ordered a nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus, 30-year-old Marcos got up the nerve to ask the woman he'd been messaging on Tinder for three days to visit him at home.
To his surprise, she accepted. Arriving in a taxi, wearing gloves and refusing to take the elevator, she hooked up with Marcos in his apartment before insisting he call her a cab before dawn to go home.
"First time ever a girl accepts to come to my apartment for the first date," said the salesman, who Reuters agreed to identify by his first name. "I guess it will be my last pickup before this all ends."
As governments invoke emergency powers to combat the coronavirus pandemic, and social distancing measures preclude meeting people in bars, cafes or restaurants, love – or at least lust – is still finding a way via dating apps.
While some users like Marcos are meeting in person, many are romancing online because of the public health risks, often using in-app video chats.
"It used to be more 'hey looking for a hookup' and now it's like, 'hey maybe after coronavirus'," said one Grindr user in Beirut in his 20s, who asked not to be identified because the app has been banned in Lebanon.
There has been no meaningful change in the number of people downloading dating apps in the United States or globally, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower.
Bumble, a leading app, said usage had stayed steady and in line with seasonal trends, while Match Group's OkCupid said it had seen an increase in usage among younger daters in big cities like New York
"What we're seeing on OkCupid is a real desire to connect. As more and more folks are working from home, cancelling all social plans, not traveling, some are already feeling lonely and a bit isolated," said OkCupid marketing chief Melissa Hobley.
"In many cities, coronavirus has become one of the top icebreakers in messages to matches."
There are early signs that dating apps are, however, struggling to attract new users in countries that have moved into national lockdowns, which could become increasingly common around the world.
Installs of Match Group's Tinder were down 37% in Spain and 41% in Italy last week versus the previous week, according to Sensor Tower.
Health concerns about daters making the leap from virtual contact to physical hookups have prompted Grindr and Tinder to issue health warnings advising users to practice safe hygiene and wash their hands.
A Facebook spokeswoman said Facebook Dating was planning notifications too, although it had not started showing them yet.
OK Cupid stressed that people should not meet up in person during the coronavirus outbreak, and both it and Bumble were nudging people towards video chats.
It appears some users are listening.
Nick, a 33-year-old creative director in New York, said he believes the experience of coronavirus is heightened for gay men with "muscle memory" of the AIDS pandemic.
"The temptation to spend time on these location-based hookup apps is great, but your responsibility to not meet up with strangers has never been greater," he said. Disease experts say young people with robust immune systems are least likely to die of the disease. But they have asked those in their 20s to 40s, who can still pass on the virus to others, to alter their behaviours for the good of the public.
'Willing to risk it'
Nonetheless Kelsey, 29, from Connecticut, said most people she found on Tinder and Hinge still seemed open to liaisons. One man she chatted with recently wanted to meet, but his family forbade him from leaving the house. Another readily agreed.
"My only reason for being on [the apps] is for hook-ups, and that hasn't changed for me. If they're willing to risk it, so am I," she said.
Kartika, an Indonesian student at a Hong Kong university, said she was "active as usual" through the coronavirus outbreak, with one or two hook-ups a week.
Stashed under her dorm bed were 500 masks that her anxious parents had sent her, all unused. "I'm just not that worried. Most young people don't get it," the 19-year-old said.
Seb, in his 30s, did not visit his family in China's central city of Wuhan, ground zero of the coronavirus epidemic, fearing stigma at work in Shanghai. But he did trust his new paramour, whom he met on Aloha, a gay dating app, even though the man was in his second day of post-travel quarantine.
"As a young healthy fellow, I didn't think I'd die even if I had caught the virus," said Seb, declining to give his full name.
No end-of-date kiss
Keith Jones, 47, was apprehensive when he went out on a first date with a woman he met on the Hinge app to a Mexican restaurant in Syracuse in upstate New York.
"Normally, you'd hug someone to say hello, but we both hesitated," said Jones said, adding that they were careful not to drink from the same glass or share a plate, but did split a flourless chocolate torte for dessert.
There was no end-of-date kiss, Jones said, although he does have plans to see the woman again soon.
Jones said he expects the online dating world to change dramatically. "We are all well-versed on STDs," Jones said. "Now, a sniffle or cough is a lot more frightening than it was a few months ago."
For Kellyn Bechtold, 33, a man she matched with on Bumble and met for the first time last week during a trip to Malaga, Spain is now her roommate. The two hit it off on a date, sharing potato chips and kisses. A week later, she was holed up in his apartment, breaking isolation only for a last grocery run as the military patrolled the streets to enforce lockdown orders.
"I met this person like a week ago," Bechtold said in a phone interview. "We're doing what people do after they've been dating for six months or a year." – Reuters