As shelter-in-place orders swept the country, Zephi Friel found herself living with a guy she had only just started dating. It was a desperate measure for a desperate time, made more complicated by their divergent political viewpoints.
In what feels like an old-school dating story, Friel met Dennis Ketner through work. She is an EMT in rural New Hampshire, and he is an IT specialist who worked as an EMT for 10 years. Friel needed a new car, and Ketner told her his friend Gary was selling one, but he was currently in Alaska. Retelling the story, Friel realized that it was a classic line to get her number. She has yet to confirm if Gary is real.
The first week of March, Friel met up with Ketner in Concord, New Hampshire for lunch while she browsed for used cars at a lot near his work. By the end of the week the United States would have 444 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Friel, 31, and Ketner, 33, started seeing each other casually.
It was just a few days after Super Tuesday, and much of the nation was focused on what a general election matchup could look like between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Friel was disappointed by Sen. Bernie Sanders falling behind in his attempt to win the Democratic nomination, but the election and politics didn’t come up in the couple’s early conversations because the world quickly changed.
Ketner left town for a vacation on March 6, but returned home a few days later in fear of getting stuck or not being able to return home.
By this point, Americans were hearing daily about increasing infection and death rates across the country. The second week of March, things got increasingly more serious. First the NBA cancelled its entire season after some players tested positive for coronavirus. The next day, Trump gave a somber Oval Office address to the nation and restricted travel between the U.S. and Europe. By March 14, confirmed cases in the U.S. would climb to 2,816, and consumers emptied shelves of toilet paper and black beans.
Friel lived with her dad in Amherst, about a 45-minute drive from Ketner’s place in Epsom. Her father struggles with an undiagnosed illness that Friel says takes a lot out of him. As the intensity of cases began to spread, she and her family grew more fearful about living in the same house and the possibility that she could accidentally give the disease to her dad. As an EMT, the majority of her trips are to assisted living and nursing homes, some of the hardest hit locations across the country.
Ketner’s offer of a place to stay, while early in their relationship, eased the anxiety that she would literally bring her work home with her and unintentionally harm her family. Besides, she felt good about their two-week-old romance.
“Like right at the end, we just made it. You know like Titanic, how the people that work in the boiler rooms, and all the doors are shutting? We just made it through the doors.” Friel said.
Still, their relationship was pushed under a magnifying glass. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu rolled out emergency orders starting on March 16, cancelling in-person school and stopping gatherings of more than 50 people. One week later the order was made more strict — no more than 10 people could congregate at a time.
Traditional dating would generally include going to grab a drink, seeing a film, hanging around groups of friends to know each other a little more.
“I might have this idea of what a normal or healthy courting period might be, where it’s like, very chill. Like you arrange to hang out, like in public places,” said Friel.
Family, history of exes and politics are conversations that usually happen further down the road. As most conversations now lead to COVID-19, and the virus became more politicized, Friel quickly got to know the politics of the person she was now living with.
It became apparent that she and Ketner shared few political similarities. He’s a self-described Libertarian who, despite letting his new girlfriend stay at his place out of an abundance of caution for her family, believes that the orders to shelter in place will do more harm than good. The only role the government should play during this pandemic is “to provide advisories, especially to those most at risk” and “to protect the rights and freedom of its citizens” he said in an interview conducted over email.
Friel, who studied politics in Washington D.C. before leaving school, wouldn’t call herself politically active. But she was inspired by Sanders, and had helped the senator win February’s New Hampshire primary as a volunteer knocking on doors.
“I don’t know who he voted for [in the primary]. I haven’t asked him. I probably didn’t want to know the answer,” Friel said.
Ketner said in the interview that he voted for Trump, participating in the Republican primary, but added that he will likely vote for the Libertarian Party nominee in the general election.
Political polarization has increased nationally, and dating is just another example of it. Though Friel and Ketner have both said they “agree to disagree” on the topics they start to argue about, a global pandemic has made them confront things that might have gone untested.
Disagreements early in their relationship made Friel realize they didn’t see eye-to-eye on topics such as taxation, which she said Ketner feels is government theft. A phone conversation about whether or not people were overreacting to COVID-19 ended when Ketner hung up on Friel. She received his apology a few hours later via text.
Plenty of couples survive when they don’t agree on politics, but an informal survey of 25 people for this story found that political viewpoints are important when finding a partner. Half of the respondents said they would not date someone with differing political views, or have ended a relationship over a political disagreement.
Dating app companies including Bumble and Tinder, as well as researchers at the American Enterprise Institute think tank have all noted that political views play a more important role in how likely or unlikely someone is willing to date a person. Bumble added features in October 2016 to state party preference and whether or not a user was “a voter.” The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) found that couples with different political views are increasingly rare, and more so since Trump’s election.
Ahead of the 2018 midterms, OkCupid’s internal data showed that women are not only more likely to vote in elections but also care more about their partners’ political views. Abortion is the No. 1 issue cited as a deal breaker for singles, according to AEI. As someone who can potentially get pregnant, Friel said this was her top priority as well.
Abortion is a heavy topic that many couples don’t discuss within the first few months of dating, and it hasn’t come up yet for them.
Ketner, who strongly believes in personal freedom and responsibility, said he welcomes all freedoms as long as they don’t interfere with someone else’s rights.
They have butted heads about things like wearing masks in public. Friel said she gets annoyed seeing people wearing them improperly, and knows that it’s not a foolproof way of preventing COVID-19. Still, she wears one in public to make other people feel safer. She said Ketner told her that he had a conflict with a grocery store cashier for not wearing a mask.
“We’re just on different planets when it comes to this.” she said.
On May 2, Ketner attended a protest in Concord at the capitol to end the shelter-in-place orders. The protest was organized by Reopen NH and followed similar rallies across the country for state governments to allow businesses to open, and to “restore our freedoms,” according to its website.
Almost one week after the protest, New Hampshire saw its largest one-day spike in confirmed cases and COVID-19 related deaths. Stay-at-home orders are still in effect in the state until the end of May, but Sununu, a Republican, began a phased re-opening of the economy on May 11.
Friel doesn’t know how their relationship will unfold when things in her state get back to normal. She knows that if businesses open, the health threat to her dad doesn’t just go away.
She still stays a couple nights a week at her dad’s house, but keeps to the basement.
“If I’m at home I do kind of have my space, but I feel like the goblin that lives downstairs right now,” she said. “My mom will bring me food under the stairs.”
In the hypothetical situation that there was a vaccine that came on the market and life would resume as normal, Friel is unsure what her relationship with Ketner would look like. Already, she describes herself as commitment phobic.
“This is such a weird dynamic. The circumstances around us are just so against how I would operate if things were ‘normal,’” she said. “I kind of have this theory that things are working because they have to. And it also feels like it’s temporary. So it feels like it’s doable right now.”
Ketner, for his part, seems to be looking ahead to a time when people aren’t housebound.
“He’ll say, ‘I want you to pick a place where we could spend a nice weekend, get a bed and breakfast when all this is done,’” Friel said.