Every Thursday in the summer, a dozen residents at Rob Lavery’s downtown Toronto condo met out on the rooftop terrace for a physically distanced cocktail. As the weather cooled and lockdowns ramped up again this winter, the social ritual came to an end. So Mr. Lavery, who lives alone, began visiting another solo neighbour and his puppy, Barney, two floors up.
“It’s a special effort to get together and have a drink once a week just to see a real human being,” said Mr. Lavery, a 62-year-old consultant with Ontario’s Ministry of Culture.
During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, health authorities asked Canadians not to mingle beyond their household bubbles. Through the second wave, officials are telling people not to meet indoors with those who don’t live under their roof. But public health messaging has also evolved to acknowledge a sizable number of Canadians who do not live in a nuclear family, but alone. Facing winter in lockdown, these solo dwellers are carefully managing who they see, be it a friend, relative, neighbour or date.
Regional health guidelines now include exemptions for singles to meet with others beyond their four walls, to ward off social isolation. Health authorities in Alberta and British Columbia say those who live alone can maintain two close contacts. Manitoba suggests seeing one other person, preferably at home, while Toronto officials recommend “exclusive contact” with one other person or household. New Brunswick’s guidelines urge solo neighbours to check on each other.
Mr. Lavery appreciates public health guidance catered to solo dwellers.
“It’s nice to see they are finally acknowledging that there are a lot of people who live alone,” he said. “We often get lost in the nuclear family dynamic of, ‘Everybody’s straight and has two kids.’”
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In 2016, one-person households became the most common type of living arrangement in this country, surpassing homes with couples with children, according to Statistics Canada. Yet public messaging still often centres on families and overlooks singles, experts say.
“In many ways, single people are more connected to more people than married or coupled people are,” said Bella DePaulo, a social scientist who studies single life. “It is important for them not to be cut off from them now.”
Today’s public health guidance should recognize that solo dwellers may want some contact with people who don’t fit “certain legal or genetic categories,” said Joan DelFattore, a professor emerita at the University of Delaware who writes about choosing to live alone in a couples-oriented culture.
Prof. DelFattore, 74, has lived alone for 41 years. She argues that solo dwellers are a diverse group: some want to be alone; others are divorced, widowed or single and want companionship; some are introverts who prize solitude, others are extroverts who need to socialize.
Prof. DelFattore suspects those who choose to live alone will likely fare better through lockdowns than reluctant solo dwellers. These days, she streams films with friends and did a birthday luncheon by video call. Recently, she and four women who used to travel together met on Zoom for a virtual trip to the Metropolitan Opera.
“This closeness, this sense of loving and being loved, is part of the environment in which I move. It goes with me. I don’t need the person in the room,” she said.
Lyba Spring lives alone in Toronto but sees her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, exclusively. She speaks often with friends and her daughter in Montreal, preferring her landline phone to video calls. Ms. Spring, 72, is involved with community organizations and also writes music with friends, virtually.
“It’s another way to have a kind of intimacy with people because we’re creating something together,” she said.
Ms. Spring feels the expanded public health guidelines acknowledging singles are an intelligent, human move: “People are desperate for intimacy, whether it’s physical or emotional.”
Seeking comfort, some solo dwellers are choosing to date through this especially isolating winter. “Cuffing season” is the somewhat unflattering term for securing a partner through the cold months. This year, singles face the challenge of finding someone they can trust through a pandemic.
Sarah Soteroff, a senior account manager in public relations, lives alone in Toronto. With Christmas parties cancelled and bars and restaurants shuttered, Ms. Soteroff is using the Bumble and Hinge apps to date. Despite the cold and an early-setting sun, Ms. Soteroff prefers outdoor strolls to dating by video call.
While she feels good commiserating with dates about the pandemic, she’s found the new dating terrain tough. Singles who hope to meet in person need to be upfront about their level of exposure and attitude toward risk. On Bumble, a filter lets people specify whether they want their dates virtual or in-person and socially distanced, with or without masks.
“There is less room for spontaneity,” said Ms. Soteroff, 35. “Everything feels very formulaic and prescribed.”
In the spring, Christopher Morello moved from Toronto to Dorchester, Ont. He went from seeing friends and colleagues daily to living alone in the woods. After meeting a man on Bumble in March, “We’ve decided to be officially ‘cuffed,’ not seeing other people,” said Mr. Morello, a 26-year-old manager in the travel industry.
To minimize risk, the two had to speak honestly about which friends or relatives each might be seeing. “At any other time, you’d be seen as this crazy, controlling partner,” Mr. Morello said. “But numbers are going up and these conversations are inevitable.”
Recently, he met a neighbour who lives down the river. The woman, an artist, now uses a small building up a slope behind Mr. Morello’s house as a studio, and the two collaborate on projects.
“In this age of pandemic, when you have to be a lot more selective about who you’re around and say ‘no’ more often, it’s interesting how new things open up.”
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