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Love in the time of coronavirus

On a night in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, Grayson Stover and Nick Blastos were sitting on the couch of their Basalt home when the magnitude of the crisis began to sink in.

Work wasn’t easy at the time for the two real estate agents, who were trying to navigate the wave of rental cancellations and relatively stalled business. The married couple realized they’d be spending most of their foreseeable future at home and their social lives wouldn’t continue on as they knew it. So to keep life interesting and fun during a time of such uncertainty and isolation, Stover came up with an idea — create a “jar of awesome” with slips of paper they both contributed detailing daily challenges, chores and fun things the duo could do together and/or for each other.

“What we didn’t want to do is get complacent and just turn on the TV or get bored and let boredom run our day. Instead, we wanted to be proactive,” Blastos said. “It created a fun environment because you don’t know what you’re about to do and you’re not ever doing the same thing twice.”

“It was also about challenging each other to do things we may not normally do and to just try to make every day awesome,” Stover added.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States and around the world, most everyone has been socially impacted and forced to adapt to the new world of 6 feet social distancing, mask wearing and more virtual interactions with others.

But on top of impacting day-to-day life, workplaces and families, the COVID-19 crisis has and still is impacting the way we connect with potential and existing romantic partners. It is challenging couples such as Stover and Blastos to come up with creative ways to maintain a fun, healthy lifestyle and relationship with each other while stuck at home; and pushing singles to both think outside of the box on how to find potential partners and reflect on what a new relationship may look like.

INTIMACY IN A PANDEMIC

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not released any dating or intimacy-specific guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the CDC does emphasize that the more closely a person interacts with others and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher the risk is of coronavirus spread.

COVID-19, the contagious respiratory disease caused by the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus detected in late 2019, can spread via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, the CDC says, and engaging with new people, or those you don’t live with, raises the risk of disease spread.

But while the CDC has given some general guidance on interactions with others, some public health departments in U.S. cities like New York and San Francisco, public health experts at leading institutions like Harvard and the Mayo Clinic, and health officials in other countries around the world are taking it a step further, giving more pointed advice on dating and sex.

According to an “expert answer” published on the Mayo Clinic website by Dr. William F. Marshall III, an infectious disease specialist at Mayo, any close contact with another person — especially someone you do not/or have not been living with or spending time with regularly in close proximity — where there is community spread of the COVID-19 is risky.

That’s why Marshall encouraged people to look at creating and maintaining intimacy at a distance by going on virtual dates, instant messaging and writing letters, emphasizing that since many people who have COVID-19 show no symptoms, it is important to keep your distance from those you don’t live with to avoid disease spread.

However, if people do choose to become intimate with someone they do not/have not been spending time with regularly, Marshall suggested to avoid kissing and to minimize the number of sexual partners a person has.

He went on to write that the safest type of sexual activity during the COVID-19 pandemic is masturbation, and new consenting partners or existing partners who either do not live together or are essential workers may consider engaging in sexual activity via text, photos and videos (ideally using an encrypted platform to protect privacy).

The American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) and New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene have put out similar “safe sex during COVID-19” tips and guidelines, stating that first and foremost, “you are your safest sex partner” and that masturbation will not spread COVID-19, “especially if you wash your hands and any sex toys before and after.”

The next safest partner is someone you’ve been spending time with regularly in close proximity, like a roommate or close friend, though both organizations emphasized that all partners should be consenting. ASHA, New York City Health and Marshall all write that there is currently no evidence that suggests COVID-19 is transmitted through semen, vaginal fluids or feces, but that the virus has been detected in semen and feces.

Therefore, partners are encouraged to wash up before and after sex, use condoms and dental dams, be creative “with sexual positions and physical barriers, like walls, that allow sexual contact while preventing close face-to-face contact,” and to even masturbate together at a distance, New York City Health guidelines say.

For Diana Andrews, health promotion program administrator for Pitkin County Public Health, talking about how to safely engage intimately with others during the COVID-19 crisis is an important piece of the larger public health conversation surrounding the current pandemic.

Before moving to Pitkin County to head youth tobacco and marijuana use prevention efforts, Andrews ran the Garfield County Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) for six years, implementing “comprehensive health” education in the county’s middle and high schools.

Since the local COVID-19 outbreak, Andrews primarily has been focused on how to support the safe reopening of area businesses and schools, but hopes public health officials at the local, state and national levels put more information out on how people can safely engage in dating and sex during the pandemic.

“It does concern me quite a bit because coronavirus is not classified as a sexually transmitted infection because there has been no proof that it has been passed through sexual activity. However, it is very much like an STI in that you can’t tell by looking at somebody that they’re sick,” Andrews said, noting that this uncertainty is why it’s so important to offer people some sort of safe sex and dating guidance during this time.

Based on her background in sex education and the recent reading she’s done on intimacy and COVID-19 spread, Andrews echoed much of the ASHA and New York City Health guidelines, noting that people should continue to follow all of the standard safe, consenting sex protocols if they choose to take that risk.

Andrews also said she encourages online dating and feels now is a good time for people to focus and improve upon aspects of their intimate relationships beyond sex, like communication. She thinks it is extremely important for researchers to continue studying if and how COVID-19 can be spread during intimacy, establishing facts public health officials can use to expel any myths and engage in conversation around the topic in an educated, knowledgeable way.

SINGLES NAVIGATING THE CRISIS

For many singles in the Aspen and Roaring Fork Valley area, the local dating scene on a good day isn’t the easiest to navigate.

That’s according to Josh Norwood of Aspen and Taylor Rogers of Carbondale, two locals who both went into the COVID-19 crisis single and have used the pandemic to reflect on what they’re looking for in future relationships.

For Norwood, before COVID-19 he felt the main way to meet new people in Aspen was seeing them out at local bars and clubs, which he wasn’t really into. He said he hasn’t been “desperate to date” and isn’t interested in forcing anything, instead “just waiting for that time to happen” when he finds a long-term partner.

Once COVID-19 hit, Norwood did start talking to a woman, mainly via text, but said it didn’t really materialize beyond that. He feels COVID has and will continue to make meeting new people more difficult, and is interested to see what the dating dynamic will be like this winter.

“I think people are going to be more aware of what’s going on with their own body and I don’t think they’re going to put themselves out there as much … but you can’t just sit at home either,” Norwood said, explaining that he feels like it’s important to be cautious but also not to let anxiety and stress related to the pandemic overtake a person’s life.

“I don’t know how it’s all going to play out but I think it’s going to make dating more difficult and I think people are going to be a lot quicker to get to the point.”

Norwood said he’s willing to risk dating in person during the COVID crisis but is also willing to take the proper precautions and to be more creative in how he meets new people in light of the pandemic — including considering online and app-based dating, like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge.

Norwood also has taken the past several months to reflect on his past relationships that didn’t work out, and said he knows exactly what he wants in a partner; it’s just a matter of finding the right person.

“When you’re sitting at home and there’s nothing you can really do, you reflect upon it all the time. I reflect on what I really want and I know what I want, it’s completely crystal clear,” Norwood said of finding his ideal partner. “But I’m starting to get to the point where I’m like, ‘am I ever going to find this?’ You start questioning things … but really I just think you have to be open to whatever and the situation will present itself.”

Like Norwood, Rogers, who has lived in Carbondale for the past four years, also went into the pandemic without a partner and has spent a lot of time reflecting on what she wants in a future relationship.

She said she’s been single for much of the past two years and hasn’t been actively looking for a relationship, describing the dating scene in the Carbondale area as tricky to navigate and even devastating at times.

Once the COVID outbreak began, Rogers said she established a sort of “quarantine pod” of friends pretty early on and started to think more about being single, soon becoming more comfortable with being on her own.

“It was a really lonely period for sure because when you’re single and you have friends it’s great, but your friends aren’t going to hang out on the couch with you during COVID because everyone feels weird about it or you just don’t really have that connection that you would with a partner,” Rogers said, namely referring to the beginning of the COVID outbreak.

“That was hard but also really great because I think I found out more about myself and was more OK being alone and realizing I don’t necessarily need anyone to feel greater connected.”

Rogers went on to say she realized she wants to find someone who is like-minded with similar goals and ambitions, and who is actually into being in a relationship versus just being a part of “the fun of valley dating.” She recently started seeing someone and feels they’ve been able to be open and honest with each other about their feelings from the start, which she said is refreshing.

“I think being open in the beginning about what you want is really important and so is establishing a really good foundation of getting to know someone on a deeper level than just the, ‘Hey, you want to go for a drink and see what happens?’ It’s more intentional,” Rogers said.

She continued, noting that she feels people’s dating priorities are shifting due to the pandemic and hopes that this shift positively impacts the valley dating culture moving forward.

“I think everyone wants to find someone that they jive with and they get along with really well, and I think hopefully people are more in tune and willing to let those connections happen, I guess,” Rogers said of the COVID crisis’ impact on dating in the valley. “It’s hard; you’re guarded, you don’t want to get hurt, but then when you’re suddenly forced to be alone and you don’t have the option of randomly meeting people in bars you’re like, ‘OK, now I want to have something a little bit more intimate and deeper than just a casual hook up or a fling.’”

Although being single amid a pandemic that requires you to isolate from others isn’t easy, taking this time to reflect on what you want in your life and what you want in a partner is definitely a silver lining, according to Aspen Relationship Institute counselors Lori Kret and Jeff Cole.

Cole and Kret are married and have been offering relationship counseling and support through their institute and private practice for the past three years, working to help couples co-create healthy, lasting connections.

“For me, the core of society and community is really a relationship, because how a couple operates together impacts their kids, and that family unit impacts how those people show up at their workplace and in the community,” said Kret, who is also a licensed social worker. “And so the health of community and society really starts I think within the couple’s structure.”

On a recent morning at a local coffee shop, Kret and Cole echoed many of Norwood’s and Rogers’ sentiments about the local dating scene before the pandemic.

The couple acknowledged the more limited, transient dating pool that exists in the Aspen area, and the general culture of living in more of an instant-gratification community, which can fuel the perception that everything should be good and/or easily accessible and create a sort of commitment-phobic attitude among some people.

That’s why Kret and Cole, who write a relationship column for The Aspen Times and have started a podcast, encourage local singles to get clear on what their values are, why those values are important, what qualities they would want to have in a partner and what their “non-negotiable” values or aspects of a relationship are — all things that can help singles create more meaningful partnerships when that time comes.

“A big focus of the work that we do is helping people to develop more self-awareness and to really get clear about their why,” Kret said. “… There is an opportunity right now to sort of date yourself or really get to know yourself and figure out what is important to you and how you feel valued. You can really take this time to build your best self so that when dating does open up more again you have the ability to show up as the person that you want to be.”

CONNECTING IN QUARANTINE

But the COVID-19 crisis isn’t just an opportunity for singles to grow and reflect. It’s also a time for couples to strengthen their relationships using many of the same values — and self-awareness-based strategies — Cole and Kret said.

Both counselors said the pandemic is bringing up to the surface different fears and stressors for everyone, and that the more isolated, at-home aspects of the COVID-19 crisis can create a situation where couples are spending a lot of time together but not much of that time is quality time — often leading to feelings of irritability, disconnect, tension and even resentment.

“There have definitely been these huge ripples that would have otherwise not been there in people’s relationships,” Cole said, referring to his and Kret’s client experiences.

“And it’s really hitting every stage of relationship from single to married for 40 years. Everyone is being affected in a different way,” Kret added.

However, although the pandemic is a shared experience that every person in the U.S. and beyond is a part of, the situation is also shining a light on people’s relationships on all levels, making it harder to ignore problem areas and rough patches, Kret and Cole said.

“I think (the pandemic) has put a magnifying glass on all of the issues people were having and it just showed the reality of things,” Cole said. “I think there were people who were able to sort of write things off as ‘well, that’s just life.’ This kind of stripped all of that away and made people really have to take a look not just at their relationships but at themselves.”

For Stover and Blastos, they feel their relationship always has been strong but the COVID-19 crisis has helped make it even stronger.

Through their “jar of awesome,” the couple said they’ve been able to get outstanding household projects done, challenge themselves by setting fitness goals, do things they don’t normally do together and for one another, and come up with creative, socially distanced and cost-effective activities to carry out daily as a way to keep a fun, meaningful connection in their lives.

From 1960s and ’70s costume nights and getting out into the mountains, to a “flatbed dining” dinner in the back of their truck from Jimmy’s restaurant, Blastos and Stover have pulled a few slips of awesome out every day since early March, even getting their neighbors and close friends involved in the daily activities and challenges, too.

“We’ve had several people call us and ask us to tell them every day what we pulled out of the jar so they could recreate that at home,” Stover said. “We just decided we were not going to get caught up in complaining and looking at the negative side … and that’s what I think our friends started to see, that you can make a good life out of this, you can have a good time and get to know each other more.”

But most importantly, the jar of awesome helped Stover and Blastos express their feelings and values to one another in a deeper way. Each ticket was an opportunity to explain why an activity or challenge was so important to the person who wrote it, and the daily doses of awesome helped the couple stay positive and motivated throughout the pandemic, Stover said.

Moving forward, Stover and Blastos hope to continue to inspire and push each other and their friends through the “jar of awesome” and are grateful for the opportunity to grow closer with each other.

“I’ve just seen what it’s added to our life, what it’s made us appreciate in each other and where we live,” Stover said.

“It helped make the mundane into an adventure every day,” Blastos added. “It’s just kind of become part of us.”

mvincent@aspentimes.com


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