Courtesy, Kathy Martinez
The pandemic has not slowed Kathy Martinez, a sophomore at Los Angeles Mission College, from dating but says she will be more vigilant about health safety.

Car-to-car meet-ups. Virtual dating on popular video game sites. Making connections to potential love interests via FaceTime, Tinder and Instagram. While none of these solutions are ideal or as romantic as holding hands on the beach, college students determined to carry on the ritual of dating are searching for ways to safely spark romantic relationships.

The pandemic is altering daily campus life for college students across the country, from forced online learning to canceled football games and graduation ceremonies. Dating and socializing has taken a huge hit, too. Many students find that courting during a pandemic has become much more difficult and cumbersome due to well-founded fears of contracting a deadly virus during a date or potentially exposing loved ones back at home after going on a date.

What is becoming clear from interviews with college students attempting to be careful and as responsible as possible when dating or meeting new people during the Covid-19 era is that while romance is hardly dead, these days it’s much more about safety, social distancing and following the guidelines from the nation’s health protection agency, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It appears, the biggest problem and challenge for students wanting to remain safe is having to keep their guard up over time as love blossoms or the number of dates increases.

Kathy Martinez, 23, a sophomore studying accounting and business management at Los Angeles Mission College, says that she is no stranger to social media apps like Instagram.

But as a result of a recent breakup, Martinez began to turn more often to Instagram and Tinder and other apps to meet new people. Her searches have yielded only two dates during the past seven months, but she believes those dates have improved her dating prospects — and her dating habits — for the better.

“I wasn’t as comfortable before giving out my number, and now I am more open,” Martinez said. “I am a very private person, so the fact that I am giving a person my number for them to talk to me is a big deal. It has given me more confidence.”

Martinez said she used Instagram to set up her first pandemic date because the app made her feel comfortable since it connects users to friends of mutual friends or other acquaintances. She recalls being proud of herself because she was so cautious.

Martinez says that she set the initial ground rules and her date was more than willing to oblige, including a request for both of them to self-quarantine for a period of time before meeting up. On the day of the date, Martinez turned down an offer to be picked up in order to keep a safe distance and to keep her home address private. “I made sure that my friends knew all of my locations on the date,” she said.

The pair decided to meet at Balboa Park, a popular hangout in the San Fernando Valley known for its romantic vistas. There are also typically plenty of visitors around, making it a bit more safe on a first date.

“He suggested the idea,” Martinez said. “He just wanted to make me feel comfortable, especially since it was the beginning of the pandemic.”

Martinez pulled into the parking lot before her date arrived. He had stopped en-route to buy both of them a cup of milk-tea with boba. Even with the delightful surprise, Martinez admits there was a bit of an awkward silence in the beginning. “I didn’t know his name,” she said she had suddenly realized. “The reason why is because, on his Instagram, he only has his username.”

What followed next was entirely new for her compared to her dating experiences pre-pandemic, Martinez said. Instead of allowing themselves to get physically close to each other or even hold hands, the two would-be love birds agreed that touching and kissing was off limits.

“He passed my boba through the window,” Martinez said. And in the beginning of the date Martinez and her new friend both left the windows of their cars down. “We stayed in the car for a while and started talking,” she said. “Afterward, we decided to go outside and sit on a bench, keeping our distance and with our masks on. We talked about our mutual friends. And since he is Russian, we talked about our upbringing and cultural differences.”

Martinez set up her second date with a different friend with the help of Tinder, the app where doing so is as easy as swiping right on a potential suitor’s image. The two began their initial chats on the app, but then eventually traded phone numbers. He asked her out, “So, I said yes,” Martinez said.

However, unlike her first date and for reasons she finds hard to explain, Martinez agreed to let her second date pick her up at home.

She even climbed into his car, so they could drive to a nearby In-N-Out Burger to grab a bite. Later that night, they visited a viewpoint overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

For Martinez, this more spontaneous approach resulted in plenty of regret:

“I did not take as many precautions as the first date. I don’t know why,” she said. “I should have, but I didn’t. Looking back, I should have been more careful given all the things with the pandemic going on.”

When Shane Dela Cruz, a senior at California State University Los Angeles, is asked by a reporter to describe dating during the pandemic he uses words like “weird” and “distant.”

But the weirdness and discomfort had not stopped him from at least trying to date — at least with other video gamers like himself.

Courtesy, Shane Dela Cruz

Shane Dela Cruz, a senior at Cal State LA goes on virtual dates with other gamers from the comfort of his room.

“The new dating scene makes it harder to get a good sense of someone’s personality,” Dela Cruz said.

Prior to the Covid-19 era, Dela Cruz said that he never would have imagined himself “going virtual” to find a partner. “Now, I’m going on dates with other gamers, which is fun.”

Dela Cruz has gone on four gaming dates from the comfort of his home so far during the Covid-19 quarantine. “We play popular games like Minecraft, Among Us, Overwatch, League of Legends and Phasmophobia,” Dela Cruz said. Basically, any multiplayer game will do the trick, he says since such platforms allow players to talk or text each other in real-time while they build new worlds and chase aliens.

Dela Cruz says he enjoys the challenge and excitement of bonding with a date while playing games. Still, he says, there is a noticeable lack of intimacy compared to seeing someone face-to-face.

“We are so focused on gaming that it is hard to get a sense of my date,” he said. Dating via gaming more efficiently means having to balance play time with talk time, he says. On the upside, however, Dela Cruz says that meeting sharing a video game experience on a first or second date is a great way to get to know someone without feeling pressure to be too intimate, too soon.

Dela Cruz offers another tip for gamers who want to date each other: Break the ice and get to know each as much as possible prior to starting the game. Build-in talk time or FaceTime time before the games begin or take advantage of the waiting time in gaming queue rooms, which can take up to 10 minutes long. Dela Cruz says that the online experience allows for people to get real very quickly if they are up for it. “We would talk about our morals, dreams and aspirations,” he said of people he has dated so far

Dela Cruz says he knows the night has gone well when his date is willing to exchange contact information after playing games online.

“Being able to know the person and forming a friendship that can evolve to a romantic relationship is something that I like,” he said.

For Dela Cruz, there is no alternative to virtual dating. The fear of contracting Covid-19 or infecting a loved one makes it difficult for him to even consider meeting up with people in person. He hardly leaves the safety of his apartment. Of the few occasions he has gone on a date in person, he was sure to don a mask and carry a bottle of sanitizer with 75% alcohol to kill germs, per CDC guidelines.

Recently Dela Cruz did lower his guard a bit and went on a date with someone he has been connecting with online for the past couple of months. “We went to the park and sat 6 feet apart with our masks on,” he said.

Once he got home, he washed his hands vigorously before removing his mask and then for extra measure, he took a hot shower.

Mahima Bollapragda, a junior studying psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is also very cautious when she goes out with a date. So far, she has only been on two dates since the pandemic struck.

But now she finds herself about to go on a new date with a person she has become quite fond of during the pandemic.

“We are planning to meet in L.A. next weekend,” Bollapragda said. “We both made sure to get tested for the coronavirus before we meet, and we don’t plan on going to crowded places.”

The could-be couple first began to connect online and over the phone in late February. Bollapragada lives in Southern California and her paramour lives in the Bay Area.

“We have been calling and talking over FaceTime since we could not meet in person,” she said. And for a long time they each felt good about keeping their distance and being safe. They found comfort in the notion that a key ingredient in their success so far has been taking the time to build trust and familiarity with each other over an extended period of time.

However, the truth is, Bollapragda says, the two have grown tired of allowing the pandemic and the roughly 400-mile distance keep them apart physically. So they have agreed to meet for the first time.

Now she is finding herself having to find a place to safely meet with her date, other than her own apartment.

“Originally, we had planned for him to come to my apartment,” Bollapragda said. “But after mentioning it to my roommate, she felt uncomfortable.”

Bollapragda shares an apartment with two roommates, and while only one of them raised concerns about bringing her date over it was enough for her to make a back-up plan.

“She told me that she has an autoimmune disease, so she wants us to be cautious with whom we bring over and about where we go out,” Bollapragda said.

“I came to the realization that it is much safer not to bring him over,” she said.

Single students are not the only ones having to make big changes in their love lives these days. Some of those in ongoing relationships have also readjusted their behaviors in big and small ways to remain as safe as can be without losing their love connections.

Daniel Hernandez, 22, a junior studying administrative management student at California State University Dominguez Hills, says that he did not take the threat of the pandemic to heart until several friends contracted the virus and developed severe symptoms.

That’s when he began to re-evaluate the way he was behaving within his own five-year relationship.

“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal back in March,” Hernandez said. I was one of those, ‘Oh, I don’t think it’ll get here.’ And little by little it started to get closer. I actually lost a few friends because of the virus.”

While the pandemic hasn’t altered his commitment to his relationship, Hernandez says that the couple has agreed to cut out much of their favorite pastimes, from traveling to going out to eat to enjoying their all-time favorite thing to do together — visiting amusement parks.

Now Hernandez and his partner find fun in hanging out at home, doing homework and watching movies on the couch.

“I feel like communication has played the biggest role for us,” Hernandez said. “Being able to be straight-forward. If you’re feeling a certain way, honesty is very important because you don’t want to be wasting your time or your partner’s time.”

Sara Panetta, 26, a senior studying public health at California State University Los Angeles, shares a home with her grandparents. So shortly after the pandemic took root in Southern California, she began to limit how often she saw in person her boyfriend of eight years.

Courtesy, Sara Panetta

Sara Panetta, a California State University, LA student, and her boyfriend enjoy an afternoon hike as the pandemic has driven them closer to each other through more and better communication skills.

“Right after the Fourth of July holiday, my boyfriend actually got COVID,” Panetta said. “I couldn’t see him for two weeks.”

She says those two weeks were tough because phone calls and FaceTime were a sad substitute for their normally daily interactions together.

Shortly after her boyfriend recovered and tested negative, the couple began a routine of ordering out and watching their favorite shows to make up for the time they lost. Panetta admits that before the pandemic, they spent a lot of time socializing with other couples. Now it’s all about them being alone with each other.

“We developed a hobby together,” Panetta said. “We both bought bikes. We go on rides or workout together to stay active. We’ve gotten stronger, closer and more communicative.”

“Have fun,” Panetta said when asked to offer advice to other students who wish to date during the pandemic. “But keep in mind that obviously, your health is at risk and not only your health but the ones around you and in your household.”

Catherine Valdez and Jorge Garcia are both seniors studying journalism at California State University, Los Angeles and both are interns with EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.

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