DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a single gay man in my early 40s. I was doing fine dating despite the relatively small pool of age-appropriate gay- or bi- men in my Rust Belt city. The assorted apps were quite helpful in finding prospective partners, given both population size and a lot of my hobbies being fairly solitary. Then the pandemic began, and the idea of spending indoor time with strangers whose risk tolerance was likely greater than mine became really unappealing, so I essentially stopped, especially when I found out that the guy who had been an FWB turned out to be an anti-vaxxer.
I have reluctantly concluded that we’re likely going to be dealing with repeated waves of Covid for years, and probably the rest of our lives, given the public’s general attitudes towards vaccination and wearing masks. So this is the new reality of dating, and wishing it were different isn’t going to change anything. But: I’m a biology professor. I know in quite a lot of detail how high the risk is of long term complications from this virus (substantially higher than with Polio, for goodness’ sake), how easy it is to catch, etc. I’m still masking in the grocery store, picking up take out instead of dining in a restaurant, working out at home, etc, to limit my risk.
How do I find a balance between not really wanting to be celibate for the rest of my life, wanting to keep my risks fairly low, and also not come across as a complete nutjob to potential dates or hookups (for this reason, at least)?
Love In The Time Of COVID
DEAR LOVE IN THE TIME OF COVID: The timing of this letter is… I don’t think fortuitous is the right word, but certainly well-timed, seeing as (at the time of writing) we seem to be looking at a potential surge of new COVID cases. There’s currently a lot of discussion about risk management and mitigation, especially when mask requirements and risk mitigation have become politically charged in the extreme.
It's also (again, at the time of writing) just as we’re on the verge of the FDA approving a new COVID vaccine booster that is showing signs of strong neutralization against Omicron and the new variant that seems to be emerging in early tests. So by the time you read this, you may be able to get the booster along with your flu and RSV vaccines.
Right now, a lot of people are trying to gauge their own risk tolerances and to what extent they’re going to try to avoid getting COVID (or getting it again), and there’re many who kept to a heightened state of vigilance, even as cases receded. So you may take some comfort that you’re in good company, at the very least.
I wish I had some easy answers for you. The politicization of just wearing masks made prevention and mitigation a minefield, and it can be difficult when you feel like the only person bothering to mask up or keeping to previous restrictions while the rest of the world acts like COVID disappeared entirely. Pandemic fatigue is very real, and even people who were religious with their preventative measures may have reached a point where they just feel exhausted by it all.
Of course, this is matched by the most vulnerable of our population, who feel – with good reason – that they were abandoned and told that their safety was worth less than “returning to normal”.
And it certainly isn’t helped when grifters, bulls--t artists deliberately poison the information well and some well-meaning-but-misinformed make it that much harder to get real, meaningful and accurate information about population spread and risk. It’s hard to gauge risk when some of the loudest voices seem to be dramatically overstating or understating the dangers and what may or may not happen to folks who get multiple infections or the long-term effects.
The good news is that, unlike at the start of the pandemic, we have far more resources than we did before. The vaccines don’t give 100% protection against infection, but it does make infection far less likely and far less dangerous than before. We also have more treatments for people who do get COVID that make the vast majority of infections inconvenient and unpleasant, rather than life-threatening. We’re much better positioned now to weather the storm than we were before. It’s still potentially deadly – influenza still kills tens of thousands every year, after all – but circumstances now are better than at the start of the pandemic by orders of magnitude.
But hey, you know this already. The question you need answered is “so, what now?”
Well… that part is trickier. There’s less societal support for the sorts of preventative measures than we took at the start and we’re all dealing with a metric s--tload of PTSD and trauma from 2020. Some people want to act like we’re back to pre-pandemic times, some people are swearing up and down that they’ll mask up and stay home until the bitter end and most are somewhere in the middle. And it’s easy to say that something’s a risk that you’re willing to take, but that often leaves out the other people around you who didn’t consent to that level of risk.
But that level of risk tolerance is where you start. All dating is, in part, about balance of risk vs. reward and risk tolerance. Right now, you know the degree of prevention that you’re comfortable with. If you don’t feel comfortable a more elevated level of risk than you currently accept – by whatever measurement you feel is relevant – then your risk tolerance is going to be your filter. You’re going to want to look for people who are more or less on your level with regards to their prevention efforts.
Practically speaking, that means making it clear in your app profiles (since you’re not going out and meeting people) that you’re only interested in dating people who are as risk-conscious as you and who are willing to meet that level of mitigation. If that means strict masking, outdoor dates only and COVID pod rules, then make sure that’s front and center. You’re still going to be accepting a certain amount of risk – think of how many people discovered that people in their pod were playing fast and loose with who they were seeing – but you’re never going to reach perfect safety. There’s always going to be an element of risk; it’s just a matter of how much risk you’re comfortable with.
However, this also means that the tighter your requirements, the smaller your available pool will be. You may well find that you’re one of a handful in your area who are willing to take that level of risk management. If that’s the case… well, you have to decide whether the tradeoff is worth it. Either you have to be willing to accept a much more restricted dating life, or decide if the reward (more dates, more potential partners) is worth the risk (higher chances of COVID infection).
And unfortunately, this is a case where demographics aren’t going to help as much. The larger, more cosmopolitan cities may have a higher population of gay men, but that’s not likely to track to an equally higher number of potential partners who’ll have a similar level of risk tolerance.
Now, maybe you’ll get lucky and find the Frank to your Bill right off the bat. Or you might have to give it more time until the current surge fades, new vaccines increase COVID sterility and immunity and the dominant variants become more akin to the modern flu (as opposed to The Grey Lady of 1918).
At the end of the day, my opinion on the matter is irrelevant. You’ll have a much better grasp on the risk to yourself and your loved ones than I would. Under the current circumstances, you’re the only one who can decide what level of avoidance and management is right for you and what trade-offs you’re willing to accept.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com