Here’s how the Tampa Bay dating scene is rebounding from the pandemic

Vaccines changed the game. But is it really shaping up to be the ‘summer of love’?
Ready or not, dating is back.
Ready or not, dating is back. [ Photo illustration by LISA MERKLIN ]
Published July 8, 2021|Updated July 11, 2021

“Making out is back. Finally,” reads the bold black text on a yellow sparkling background.

“Now’s the time to download Bumble and experience all the things you’ve been missing.”

The sponsored posts pop up on social media, encouraging singles to dip their toe back into the virtual waters and see what’s out there. The messages to singles pop out in between headlines about the “summer of love” and “hot girl summer.”

But has there been a great rebound? We set out to find out.

Try taking it slow

Karen Card has been a relationship expert and coach for 15 years. The Largo-based coach said 2020 was one of her best years yet. People just didn’t have a normal route to find other singles.

“The pandemic is actually a great time to meet people,” she continued. “When you have to take it slow, it might be frustrating, but it’s actually the key to a healthy relationship.”

She encourages her clients to date without hurrying, adding more time to each interaction gradually. Card has clients write down a list of deal breakers before hitting the dating apps or singles events. Any interesting matches should be pursued with messages back and forth, leading up to a short phone call, then a short video chat. After that, a cup of coffee. Then lunch.

While some of her clients are still getting over nerves about meeting up in person, business is still going well for her in 2021. And even with vaccines readily available, she still encourages people to build up to in-person dates with multiple virtual encounters first.

“If you’re too tired to do a Zoom call, you shouldn’t be dating,” she said.

So what does this professional make of the headlines calling this the “summer of love”?

“Anything that gives you hope is going to give you an edge,” she said. “Kind of like the law of attraction — if you believe it’s going to be better, it will be better.”

Figure out what you want

It can be hard to tell if it’s time to start dating again. What kinds of dates do you feel comfortable going on? And is the other person on the same page?

“With dating in general, I’m sure it’s pretty tricky navigating like various vaccination statuses and immunity statuses,” said Elisa Dupuis, a nurse practitioner at Metro Inclusive Health. “We’ve been seeing a lot with our clients and their dating experience, that people are posting a lot about what their vaccination status is.”

Sites like Tinder, Match, Bumble and OKCupid have rolled out new features to help users share if they’ve been vaccinated. Vaccine status and pandemic comfort levels can also be folded into discussions with new partners, like if they’ve received a recent STI screening or if they’re on PrEP to prevent HIV, Dupuis said. Need to brush up on any of those things? Metro Inclusive Health clients can get coronavirus vaccines, as well as STI screenings and medication for HIV prevention.

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“Communication is pretty key for any type of dating experience,” she said

Dr. Ryan Wagoner, vice chairman for clinical services at USF Health Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, said singles should know what situations they’re comfortable with before they get out there.

“Try to figure out what it is you’re comfortable with in advance, in terms of socializing again,” he said. “So for example, if your comfort level is you only want to be around individuals who are vaccinated at restaurants closely following CDC guidelines, then make that clear to yourself so that then when you accept or decline invitations, you know what you’re willing to do and what you’re not.”

Eager to dive back in

Some folks are sick of online dating, and ready to get back out there. That’s where Jacklyn Crisanti, founder of Meet Me Locally, comes in.

“I think some people are nervous about dating again, in terms of the pandemic,” said Crisanti. “And then also on the flip side … a lot of people are like, can I just go to a bar and try to pick up somebody right now?”

While summer is usually a time for flings, the pandemic may have changed that.

“I think a lot of girls especially, or guys that don’t have a roommate, got really lonely the past year and a half. And then the idea of being in a relationship and having someone did spike,” she said. “I have noticed a lot more guys being like, ‘It would have been nice to have a girlfriend during COVID.’”

Meet Me Locally’s goal is to help people in Tampa Bay find meaningful connections. Before the pandemic, that meant focusing on singles mixers and speed dating in Tampa and St. Petersburg. But the isolation of the last year inspired Crisanti to expand what it means to connect — whether that be in business, friendship or romance.

This summer, she just wants people to feel better about coming to in-person mixers. By the fall, she hopes to have “people back moving and grooving.”

Crisanti hosted her first Tampa singles mixer since the pandemic started on a drizzly June night. A few dozen guests trickled in and out of the patio area at the Mermaid Tavern.

“It used to be a science, but it’s not anymore,” she said, passing out wristbands decorated with smiley faces. “We have a lot of new faces, which is exciting.”

Kevin Hardee, 24, arrived in ripped jeans, white sneakers and a white T-shirt featuring a woman and a dragon. He said he doesn’t believe in the coronavirus, or the vaccines, but the still-new Tampa resident has kept to himself a lot this past year. He moved from Buffalo, New York, half a year ago and is ready to meet people — even if that means showing up to a bar full of strangers.

“I would like a relationship,” he said, sipping a wild blueberry beer. “I mainly want people to hang out with and get out of the house.”

He joined the guests mingling in a covered outdoor area on the side of the Mermaid Tavern. (“I’m trying to keep events outside still as much as possible,” Crisanti said.) Some chattered while drumming fingers on sticky tabletops. Others ordered tofu tacos. The Strokes played over the loudspeakers.

By 8 p.m., a blue sky emerged from the clouds. A trio entered the patio. Cindy Cesani, from Lutz. Moise Carrington, from downtown Tampa. And Annie Reyes, also from Tampa. All around their early 40s, the group met through a mutual love of tennis. They wanted to keep tennis fun, a sacred space without drama. So they found other ways to meet men.

By now, the friends are pros at navigating singles mixers, enduring many together in the hopes of finding better prospects than the profiles they’ve seen online.

“They ghost you, they waste your time. You talk every single day and when you want to meet up, they disappear,” Cesani said.

Cesani knows what she’s looking for. Professional, polite, fit, intellectual. When you’re single, she said, “you can scan a person in a second. You’ve done it so long.”

“I think we’re all looking for rings,” she said. “I don’t want to just date.”

The women did their scanning. We don’t see much, Carrington said.

They closed out their tabs. On to the next one.