by Gabrielle Moss
Once upon a time, “getting to know you” conversations were just that — light, friendly text exchanges or phone chats before a first date. But in an ongoing pandemic, it’s not enough just to know whether a new Bumble match loves hot wings, or is more of a “Parks and Recreation” or “The Office” fan. Learning about their COVID status and exposure risk before any in-person meet-up is essential for your safety.
But how do you discuss something so serious with someone you haven’t even met yet? What are the most important questions to ask? And how can you ask them in a way that won’t make everything feel, you know, awkward?
Assess what they see as risky behavior — and whether your safety standards differ.
Unfortunately, there’s no single magic question you can ask to fully determine someone’s COVID exposure risk. Rather, it has to be a conversation. According to Dr. Brian Labus, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas’s School of Public Health, your main goal should be assessing whether you and the person you’re talking to are on the same page about risk-taking.
“I would want to know that the person I was meeting was protecting themselves against COVID-19 the same way I was,” says Labus. “If I barely leave the house and the other person really hasn’t changed their day-to-day life at all [since the emergence of coronavirus], it would be difficult to find a middle ground that would make either one of us happy.”
Cover off the basic health questions.
Holly Bullion, a nurse practitioner who oversees clinical quality at Texas Health Action‘s Kind Clinics, also suggests asking your match the same kind of questions “that we’d be asking of anyone who’s outside of our household or ‘bubble’,” like if they’ve had a cough or fever; if they’ve been in a situation recently where they could’ve potentially been exposed to COVID; and, in the event they’ve already tested positive for COVID, if it’s been at least 10 days since their symptoms began and three days since they ended.
Keep in mind that negative test results come with a caveat.
While it’s important to ask whether someone has been tested, it’s as important to remember that negative test results don’t necessarily mean that an in-person meet-up carries zero risk. Unless you’ve been rapid-tested, or quarantined since taking your test, you could have been infected in the time since taking it.
“[A COVID test] is only accurate from the time you tested,” says Bullion. “If someone tells you, ‘Oh, I got a COVID test last week and it was negative,’ great. But what have you been doing for the past week?” So while it’s great to share test results, make sure to ask about other risk factors, and keep sticking to your safety standards.
Talk about your own COVID status first — and let your match know what precautions you’re taking.
A simple way to get the COVID conversation started, says Dr. Jess O’Reilly, host of the Sex With Dr Jess Podcast, is to begin by talking about your own status and the safety precautions you’re taking in your own life. That way, O’Reilly says, “if you treat everyone as though you’re protecting them from you, it may help them to relax and feel less defensive.”
Open the lines of communication by discussing what your daily life looks like these days. Are you going to restaurants and bars? Have you been wearing a mask when you’re indoors in public spaces like supermarkets? Outdoors in public spaces like farmers markets? Are you taking extra precautions because some of your housemates are medically vulnerable?
It’s ok to admit this conversation is awkward! These aren’t normal times.
Therapist Nicole M. Richardson recommends approaching the conversation through open-ended questions, rather than simply running down a checklist of behaviors you think are risky. “Pretend that you’re reaching out to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while and see how they’re handling it all,” she says.
You can also admit that, yeah, this is an awkward conversation to have — there’s no need to act like this isn’t a little weird, or like you’re totally used to it and blasé. Instead, O’Reilly suggests starting with the positive (e.g. “I’m so excited to meet up!”), and then moving into a discussion about specifics.
Choose a low-risk, outdoor spot if you decide to meet.
If it seems like you and your match are on the same page about exposure and risk tolerance, move ahead with planning your date. But still, exercise caution when meeting up. Though any in-person meeting carries some exposure risk, says Labus, some date ideas are less risky than others. “Because you can’t wear a mask [while you] eat or drink, bars and restaurants are high-risk environments,” says Labus. “So if you’re going to meet at a restaurant, choose one where you can sit outside. Or even better, meet at a park, go for a hike, or do some other outdoor activity together that keeps you out of close contact with other groups of people.”
Don’t be afraid to make risky behavior a dealbreaker!
And what if you find out that you’re not on the same page as your match — say, if you’re limiting social interactions to masked, outdoor chats, while they’re going maskless to bars and parties every weekend? If you find that they’re taking risks you’re not comfortable with, resist the urge to say anything combative.
“Whenever possible, do not start a question with ‘why,’” says Richardson. “It almost always forces the other person to defend themselves.” Instead, accept that you might not be able to argue them into changing.
Video dates are always an option.
If you’re still interested in talking to them, you can try other forms of communication for now. Richardson suggests giving “alternatives that you are comfortable with,” like Bumble’s Video Chat and Voice Call features, “instead of focusing on how you are handling things differently.”
And “if you totally disagree with how someone is approaching safety at this time,” Richardson notes, “consider that they may just not be your person and keep it moving.”
Your safety and well-being come first.
What if you’re too nervous to have this conversation at all? In that case, “it’s probably not the right time to meet up with them,” says Bullion. “It’s tricky because, for some of us who are more conflict-avoidant, it takes a long time for us to get to that space. But maybe it’s worth it right now to take that bit of extra time.”
But while having this kind of conversation might take some getting used to, it’s nothing to be self-conscious about. You’re not being “paranoid” or uptight; you’re advocating for your own safety and well-being. “I think that there’s nothing wrong with having our standards and wanting people to meet those,” says Bullion. “Not just for the pandemic, but for life in general.”