Love in the time of COVID

Chris Noessel
6 min readMar 31, 2021

Like many people, the most recent peak of infections further convinced me that the pandemic wasn’t a summer thunderstorm, something we just needed to endure until it was over. This storm was the new normal. So when my editor told me the magazine had been invited to review a new dating service, called Crystal Clear, which promised to guarantee COVID-free dates, I jumped at the chance. So with every apology to Sra. García Márquez for the title, let me share with you some of what I experienced.

Joining the service was fairly standard, but in addition to the regular profile questions like preferences and interests, you had to answer questions about symptoms, recent contacts, and pandemic-related behaviors. Then you were free to use their app and even filter potential dates by risk tolerance. Other than that, this part was pretty standard dating app stuff. Then the installers arrived.

I didn’t have a security system, so they installed cameras around the outside of the house and sensors on the doors and windows. My installer explained that while it does incidentally work as a security service, they’re mostly making sure that I was adhering to the risk guidelines. For the two weeks of pre-date quarantine, groceries were delivered and guaranteed disinfected. The app prompted me to enter my temperature with a networked thermometer several times a day. I work from home anyway, but if you don’t, you’ll have to request that of your employer. I‘ll be honest, this bit felt a little like house arrest. But, eyes on the prize, I took comfort knowing that if I went on a date, the other person would be going through the same thing.

During those two weeks I wound up chatting with a guy I really liked. Let’s call him Alvaro. I was forthright that I was trying the service for a review, but that said, I genuinely liked him. His profile said he enjoyed hiking and Irish comedy-horror movies, and I have to say I didn’t need to hear much more. But I still went to his profile to verify his quarantine behaviors. Trust, but verify, you know? I should mention that there was one troll who had gotten through the filters and told me in chat that I was “living in fear” and “delaying herd immunity” and spouting other standard-issue troll crap. To their credit, Crystal Clear banned the MAC address minutes after I reported it. Anyway, Alvaro and I chatted every day for a week and signed up for a date slot right after the fortnight.

The day before the date they sent a certified-uninfected barber over to my place. We set up in my bathroom in a chair facing the mirror. The haircut was fantastic and she even cleaned up before she left so I could take a shower. I don’t want to overstate it, but I swear to you that after having been at Grizzly Adams levels for months, this may have been my second-favorite part. I hope folks don’t join the service just for this, but honestly, fam, I would not blame you. (Hint: Ask for Kim L. She’s a dream.)

The next day was the date. There are 5 bars in the greater Los Angeles area that have been converted, but as a reviewer, I had passes to the posh and purpose-built bar, Citrine, in Melrose. I only live a handful of blocks from the venue, but service policy required that I wait for a driver in a partitioned car. We pulled up and I stepped into reception. There were a handful of red-hat protestors across the street, but security kept them at a comfortable distance. Once inside I was warmly greeted by the proprietor. I committed a faux pas when I came in and instinctively reached out to shake her hand. She brushed it off, saying, “Jumping the gun, there, fella.” Belka is a firecracker of an entrepreneur and had me laughing with her even as I underwent a nasal swab for confirmation testing. That swab was perhaps my least favorite part of the service, but what are you gonna do? It’s science. At least they had a shot of Irish coffee afterward to soothe the throat. Then I got to head to the booth.

The thing to understand about Citrine is that it’s built-in a horseshoe shape, with the outer part of that shape made up of smaller rooms, or cells. Each of these cells is access-controlled, cleaned regularly, and there is a constant flow of air upward from vents near the floor to vents near the ceiling. Nickel foam and HEPA filters on each end are sanitized nightly. This, the website explains, is what keeps the respiratory particles (which carry the virus that causes COVID-19 and COVID-22) from lingering in the air. So to go from reception you have to press a button next to the door. A little red light tells you to wait, wait, wait, until the hallway is cleared, and then a little green light tells you to proceed. I walked around the curved glass hallway in the rising air until I got to our assigned booth. When you go, pay attention to the small streamers everywhere that let you know that the airflow is still working. The indirect lighting and constant breeze made it feel like I was in some kind of 21st-century dirigible. I got to the green light that signaled the door that was open to me. The door slid open, and I stepped into the booth to see Alvaro waiting, who had gotten there just a few minutes before. We didn’t shake hands or anything because…jumping the gun there, fella.

We were separated by a partially-silvered glass that was both a display and a touch screen. That’s how we ordered drinks and some small appetizers. We played with the live video filters, and even signed up for turns at virtual karaoke, but really we mostly wanted to talk in person. Our drinks and food were delivered by telepresence robots. Our server was working from his home all the way in Sofia. After a second drink, and a virtual duet of “I Will Survive,” (flawlessly performed, if I do say so myself) we saw an alert on the partition that our test results had arrived. The privacy glass around our booth went opaque, and at that moment we each could decide whether to keep our results to ourselves or share it. We were both quite confident since we’d been through the quarantine, and when it came back negative, we had the option to slide back the glass separating us. So we did. Hello, other person! The glass door leading to the inner part of the club unlocked as well, and we got to occupy one of the circles on the dance floor. In the interest of journalistic integrity, this review is supposed to lean neutral, but I will share unashamedly that I broke down crying the first time I was able to slow dance and feel Alvaro’s cheek against mine. It had been a long time since I’d felt the warmth of another person’s skin. We laughed it off when he noticed, but I’m pretty sure Alvaro had wiped away a tear or two as well.

Lastly, while I won’t kiss and tell, let’s say we got a tour of the attached love hotel. It has terrific ambiance and accommodations, and is sterilized as thoroughly as the club. Alvaro and I already have our second date planned. I’m not jumping the gun personally, but readers interested in long-term prospects should know the service has packages for shacking up and even marriage.

So, that was just one date, experienced with the second-highest service level on offer. I can’t say what the other levels are like, but in this instance, Crystal Clear has its stuff together. Even the unpleasant parts are elegantly handled. For this review, I took a look at their pricing sheet, and I must say it will be the upper end of affordable for most people. But if you can set aside the budget, it is very, very much worth it, especially compared to the alternatives of loneliness, anxiety, or you know, wracking cough and organ failure from internal suffocation. Count me a fan, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

See you soon, Alvaro.

This short work was created as part of a speculative design exercise with peers at IBM in the summer/fall of 2020. The intent was to have the collection of stories submitted to a larger publication, but when the leader of the initiative left the company, the project stalled, so I’m publishing it here.

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Chris Noessel

Chris is a 20+ year UX veteran, author, and public speaker. He delights in finding truffles in oubliettes. Tip me in coffee at ko-fi.com/chris_noessel.