It's Friday night, and in the Cork suburbs, hairdresser Jill is getting ready to go on a date.
Unlike a regular date, however, there’s no fear of being stood-up, debate over who pays the bill or awkward first kiss at the end of the night.
Welcome to the new world of iso-dating 2020: where a global pandemic is driving singletons back online in record numbers, no longer hoping to just hook up, but to lockdown a partner for life.
“I’m on Tinder and Plenty of Fish (POF),” says Jill (49), who tried online dating for the first time last year after coming out of a long-term relationship. “Online dating can be one-dimensional, but I’ve seen a big change in the past few weeks with what’s happening.
“Guys seem to be a lot more vulnerable and more normal, and not as cheeky and feisty [as before], so that’s what lockdown and isolation is doing for them.
“Obviously, nobody can suggest a date at the moment,” she adds. “Most of the guys that I’m talking to now, we’re just chatting about life stuff [and] the current situation, passing the time because we all have a lot of that at the moment.”
New figures show how dating apps have never been busier since Taoiseach Leo Varadkar first instructed the nation to #stayathome to help stop the spread of Covid-19 last month.
Ireland was even revealed as the third most active location for online dating in the world by Dating.com, which has seen an 84% upswing since the beginning of March, with only the US and India e-flirting more.
Half a year after going on her last date, set up through a mutual friend, secondary school teacher Sarah downloaded POF earlier this month after lockdown was extended for a further three weeks.
“My phone hasn’t stopped pinging since,” laughs the 37 year-old from Meath. “Lots of my friends use dating apps like Bumble, but I’ve always preferred meeting someone the old fashioned way.
"Then when lockdown was extended, I figured I might as well give it a go — it’s not like you can go out to the pub anyway."
“So far, it’s been good fun,” she continues.
You do get a lot of messages from guys who are obviously just bored because they’re stuck at home, but it’s pretty easy to spot the time-wasters from the people you think are genuine, and just block them.
“I haven’t gone on any virtual dates yet, but I definitely wouldn’t rule it out, especially if this [lockdown] continues for much longer - although I’d probably have to do my roots and change out of my pyjamas first!”
‘Bumblers’, or users of dating app Bumble agree, with 83% saying they would consider going on a video date while doing their bit to help flatten the curve in a recent survey, and 64% choosing a chat over a drink as their ideal first iso-date.
The female-led dating app, where women must make the first move, launched voice call and video chat features last July, enabling daters to chat without having to share their telephone number or email address, with Zoom, HouseParty and FaceTime among the other ways to ‘quarantine and chill’.
At 77%, however, messaging is still the most popular method of online dating, compared to the 16% who have jumped on a voice call, or the 12% who have braved a video call, according to the insights from over 5,000 British and Irish users.
“In the past, I would have said get out on that date asap, and check each other out for real,” says Dublin-based matchmaker Sharon Kenny. “Now it’s about getting to WhatsApp asap and checking out each other’s vibe.
“Don’t be afraid to suggest a virtual date night, such as simu-watching a movie on Netflix or cooking dinner at the same time while having a chat and a giggle over video call.”
In a new age of pandemic dating, where sliding into someone’s DMs is not alone tolerated but actively encouraged, Sharon has been offering singletons expert advice on her YouTube channel, as well as www.callwithsharonkenny.com, but still advises a zero-tolerance approach to bad behaviour from catfishing to breadcrumbing while physical distancing.
“It has never been easier to swipe right or left in times like this,” she says. “Coronavirus has changed our dating habits completely, but I feel it will help many of us grow stronger relationships from the beginning.
“Knowing your values and your wish list for your other half is the key to finding love remotely during this pandemic. Do not put up with ghosting - regular texts that suddenly stop — or any other kind of lack of respect, because if you do it will only get worse.
“Unfortunately, there are those who will take advantage of people who are feeling lonely during these challenging times,” she warns.
“This might sound obvious, but never send money to anyone you don’t know. I had one client, a 63-year-old widow, who was scammed out of €3,000 after falling for someone online.
Listen to your gut and don’t be afraid to say ‘No’. The right one will still be around after lockdown is lifted.
As the anxiety over bumping anything other than elbows lingers on, the swipe ‘n dump culture of recent years could yet be replaced by something more lasting, agrees Feargal Harrington of Intro Matchmaking, a professional introductions agency based in Dublin.
Now working from home, the dating expert has also been bombarded with requests from men and women across the country hoping to find love, but happy to wait until lockdown is lifted.
“It’s made people sit back and take stock of where they’re at personally, and decide that work isn’t what it’s all about,” reckons Feargal of the ongoing global health crisis.
“People are thinking, ‘I’ve been procrastinating for years. Now I’m self-isolating, and I think it would be much easier to self-isolate with somebody.’ “People’s priorities have changed completely; we used to have to manage expectations, we still do, but not nearly as much in the last three or four weeks.
“The old priorities before about what he drives or what she looks like have gone by the wayside. People are much more inclined to say, ‘I want someone who is family-oriented, who is there for me, someone just to share my life experiences with’.”
Clients enlisting online now can expect to go on their first date offline around late-June provided government restrictions have been lifted.
In the meantime, the matchmaker — who has 3,500 clients aged from 20 to 88 — sees no harm in a little Facebook flirting.
“People are far more willing to engage and less distracted than before Covid 19,” says.
“It’s now a good time to make a socially distant move on that someone you’ve had your eye on but didn’t have the courage to reach out to before.
“Initiating random digital conversations has become the new norm, so take the opportunity to strike up a chat and see where it goes.”
Elsewhere in New York, drone deliveries, hazmat suit meetups and socially-distanced rooftop dinners are just some of the creative ways photographer Jeremy Cohen has been wooing neighbour Tori Cignarella in an ultra-modern love story that’s capturing hearts on Instagram.
Until such virus-proof romantic overtures reach Cork, Jill jokes she’s happy to continue swiping left in her search for love in the time of Corona.
“You end up talking to so many guys,” she says. “My friends are like, ‘How are you keeping track?’ I nickname them all so that’s how my friends know who I’m talking about!
“Some guys want your phone number after two lines — ‘Oh, can we go onto WhatsApp?’
“A few have even suggested going for a walk. I’m like, ‘I won’t even go for a walk with a friend, why would I go with you?’
“I think a lot of people are just incredibly lonely,” she concludes. “They don’t have a significant other in their life, and maybe at a time like this, they have realised that that’s what they really want and need.”