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Matchmaker Laura Bilotta walks along a neighbourhood path, where she's gone on a few pandemic dates in the past, in Oakville, Ont., on Jan. 21, 2020.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

After the pandemic did away with dinner and drinks out, matchmaker Laura Bilotta took her dating life into the great outdoors, to a favourite, forest-lined trail in her Oakville, Ont., neighbourhood.

Even with a polar vortex on the horizon, Ms. Bilotta sees upsides to the walk-date – one of few options left for singles hoping to meet others safely this winter.

A brisk walk in the bracing air gets endorphins pumping and good feelings flowing, the dating coach said. Walking is inexpensive – the cost of parking and a coffee, at most. It can be an opportunity for men to exhibit chivalry: Ms. Bilotta tells guys to walk on the street side, like gentlemen. Unless someone brings a flask, the dates are sober, giving people a clearer picture of each other without the rosy sheen of alcohol. And with everyone bundled up in their parkas, “You get a better idea of how you both are in everyday life,” said Ms. Bilotta, who is single after her long-term relationship ended.

Walking, she pointed out, offers a built-in exit strategy: “If you’re not feeling the date, it’s easy to end things right after because there’s nowhere else to go.”

The pandemic has drastically altered the ways people date. With bars, restaurants and nearly every indoor venue shuttered under COVID-19 restrictions, many singles have taken to walking – physically distanced, sometimes masked “pandemic strolls.” Mentions of walk-dates have risen steadily on Tinder since last March in Canada, said Dana Balch, a spokeswoman for the dating app. Through their profile bios, Canadians are suggesting strolls six feet apart, or walking their dogs together.

The ambling is part of a wider trend of “slow dating,” according to Meredith Gillies, spokeswoman for Bumble, another popular dating app. “Activities like walking and hiking nature trails allow people to slow down and focus on having meaningful conversations without any other distractions,” she said.

Dates now require winter layers – and ingenuity.

“With a pandemic, you have to figure out new ways,” said Dani Araujo, a 33-year-old events marketing specialist in Port Credit, Ont. “Walking is a really balanced way to meet.”

When she jells with someone on Hinge, her preferred dating app, Ms. Araujo likes to show them her local waterfront trails. She keeps her mask on when she gets out of her car and maintains a firm no hug or handshake rule. Once she and her date reach a wide trail, she’ll remove the mask.

Ms. Araujo likes dates who can handle Mother Nature. She recalled one walk with a man that ended in a wind-lashing rainstorm.

“He was laughing about it, it was a good vibe,” she said. “I had just done my hair – I was trying to make a good impression. The weather completely annihilated all of that.”

Some guys don’t want to walk, whining about the cold, even the clouds. A few have suggested she come over to their place instead.

“I’m like, ‘No thank you, walking is good,’ ” said Ms. Araujo, who has temporarily halted dating altogether through Ontario’s lockdown orders.

A recent ad campaign from Bumble, the dating app, encourages singles to meet for walks outside.Handout

Setting boundaries is especially important now, Ms. Bilotta said. She’s seen singles get inventive in a bid to stay safe. Two had a drive-in date, pulling up in their cars and rolling down the windows. She herself recently met a man, masked up, at a grocery store: “I got to see what he put in his cart.”

Ms. Bilotta has found people typically go on two walking dates. After that, things either fizzle out or people move indoors. The matchmaker urges couples to get tested and think carefully about this next step, especially if they have any contact with immuno-compromised people. While she stresses caution, Ms. Bilotta also doesn’t think singles should live in exile through the entirety of the pandemic.

“People who are married, they have to understand that single people out there, they’ve been alone now for 10 months. ... It’s not fair to tell people that they need to remain single.”

For their first date this summer, Rachel Baker and Antonie Alblas, both 27, chose a masked, distanced Segway tour through Toronto’s historic Distillery District.

“Since we changed the flow, it wasn’t a typical one-on-one conversation, facing each other at a restaurant,” said Mr. Alblas, an account manager. “It was more of an activity that I would do with my friends. It was nice to build a friendship alongside a relationship.”

In the weeks that followed, they took in a van Gogh exhibit “where you had to stand in your bubble,” said Ms. Baker, a procurement manager. They rode their bikes to the beach, had park picnics and explored a quiet city.

Walks are filling a void that technology and video calls simply have not been able to, according to Siri Agrell, author of the new book How to Get Laid Without Your Phone.

“The social isolation we’ve all experienced to fight the pandemic has made us crave human interaction,” she said.

But the author cautioned singles not to make the same mistakes now, walking in the real world, that they often make online.

“A lot of people use technology, consciously or not, as a way to ensure control. To try and plan everything, to set everything up just-so, the way they like it.”

She continued: “What bothers me is what I’m hearing about people having a set route that they travel on every date – a preset agenda. ... We don’t wander aimlessly, letting events unfold.”

It’s less about the mode of dating – walking or swiping – and more about what happens once people get there, Ms. Agrell said. “The question is: Are we actually connecting with each other, listening to one another?”

After Audrey Lawson met a man on Bumble last August, the two have been engaging in what she alternately describes as “slow dating” and “old-timey dating.”

“It’s being more careful and spending more time,” said Ms. Lawson, a University of Toronto sociology and psychology student who is researching dating through the pandemic.

After talking on the phone for two weeks, Ms. Lawson and the man met up in a park, masked and sitting far apart. “At a distance, we assembled inexpensive 3-D cat puzzles,” she said.

The first date spanned three hours. Since then, the two have cycled and walked the city’s parks and beaches. They’ve meandered through graffiti-sprayed alleyways and taken in public art installations.

It took the couple a full month to unmask – a sort of undressing for the pandemic age.

“It was night and we were at the beach and I was six feet away from him when I did it. When I pulled my mask down, he was like, ‘Ohhh, you’re so beautiful,” Ms. Lawson said with a laugh.

Ms. Lawson believes the pandemic put the brakes on a casual – and often transactional – hookup culture that had long dominated dating.

“It’s good that this is now being encouraged: Slow down and get to know people.”

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