Miles (and a virus) apart: How long distance couples are navigating COVID-19


McKenna Mitchell

Long distance relationships were already considered difficult before the COVID-19 pandemic. With the amount of travel, money and planning involved in a long distance relationship, COVID-19 added a new obstacle for many couples to overcome. 

When COVID-19 was declared a national emergency on March 13, 2020, travel became more restricted and people began staying home more. 

In 2020 there was a 42% decline in annual travel compared to 2019, according to the U.S. Travel Association. International travel took the biggest hit in annual decline. 

Now, over a year after the pandemic began, four couples are still learning how to maintain their relationships and avoid the virus while being far apart.

Mallory Milliken, 18, and Devin Grimm, 19, are making time for each other while living on different continents. 

Sydney Johnson, 22, and Chris Lau, 25, are working toward their goal of living together in the same city again while on opposite sides of the country. 

Cassidy Howard, 22, and Luke Brotan, 22, are trying to maintain balance in their relationship despite difficulties in traveling to see each other. 

Finally, Ashley Schweitzer, 20, and Sergio Diaz, 19, are crossing state lines to be able to avoid the restrictions that would keep them apart. 

Mallory & Devin 

Bowling Green → Germany 

When Mallory Milliken graduated from high school, she had one thing in mind: to not have a boyfriend. She was on track to start at WKU in the fall 2020 nursing program. After a serious relationship in high school, Mallory wanted nothing more than to stay single for college. That is, until Devin came along. 

“It was just crazy, honestly,” Mallory said. “Like, we just fell in love and it sounds so cheesy, it sounds like a movie.” 

Mallory met Devin Grimm through mutual friends in the early summer of 2020 and the early days of the pandemic. Mallory said he begged her to go on a date with him when she initially resisted, trying to stick to her staying-single-pact with herself. But the first date stretched into multiple dates until the two were officially together on May 27. 

“I was like, I don’t want a boyfriend, absolutely not,” Mallory said. “He begged me to go on a date with him and I was like, well if I go on a date with him, doesn’t mean I’m going to have a boyfriend. Now, here I am.”

Devin is a military policeman stationed in Fort Campbell, Tennessee. When the two met, Devin told her he had an upcoming deployment rotation to Germany “for a couple of months.” After a few more dates, Devin was finally honest with her about the fact that his deployment was actually 10 months long. 

After a happy summer together, Devin left for his rotation in Germany on July 27, 2020. The separation was hard for Mallory, she said, but she started off by telling herself to get through the first month. 

Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions in Germany, Mallory is still unable to fly to visit Devin. According to the U.S. Embassy in Germany, they are currently not allowing U.S. citizens to enter the country unless they fall into certain exceptions. 

The couple will have to remain apart with no visits until Devin returns from his rotation in May. 

“I kind of just had to put on my big girl pants and suck it up, for a lack of better words,” Mallory said. 

For Devin, the distance was hard for him too, but it showed him new things to love about Mallory.

“Her patience for me is probably one of my favorite things (about her),” Devin said. 

Since he has been overseas, Devin said Mallory has made him feel included in the holidays he was missing like Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s Day by sending him care packages. His favorite present– that he specifically asked for, he said with a laugh– is a miniature inflatable “tube man” or “air dancer” usually seen at car dealerships. 

In order to work with the 7-hour time difference between Kentucky and Germany, Devin started working the night shifts so he can be awake when Mallory is awake. The two also have Facetime meal dates– Devin’s dinner in the evening when it’s Mallory’s lunch in the afternoon– sometimes followed by a long distance movie date. 

“He always puts effort into our relationship,” Mallory said. 

When Devin returns to the U.S. in May, he will continue working at Fort Campbell and Mallory will be able to go home for the summer to have a momentary pause on their long distance relationship. When she returns to WKU for the following year, the couple will be an hour and a half apart, a sizable difference from the 7-hour time difference and thousands of miles to Germany. 

Mallory is optimistic about their relationship because their timelines match up near perfectly: She will be graduating from WKU the same year Devin’s contract with the military will be over. Until then Mallory is grateful for her relationship with Devin and everything it has taught her. 

“It’s made me a lot more mature because you can’t fight over dumb things and you can’t let little things get in the way of your relationship,” Mallory said. “You really have to trust your person, so I think it definitely has made our relationship a lot stronger.”

Sydney & Chris

Bowling Green → California 

In March 2020, Sydney Johnson was excited to visit her boyfriend’s new home in San Francisco, California. Chris Lau had just made the jump to California after his graduation from WKU in December 2019. After meeting at WKU and dating for a year while the two were both in college, the move marked a new era of their relationship: long distance. They planned to continue dating long distance until Sydney graduates in May 2021. But what the two were not expecting was that this visit to California was the last week of normalcy that their relationship and the rest of the world would see. 

Looking back, Sydney describes the week as scary and nerve wracking. The COVID-19 virus was still a mystery and Sydney was far from the comfort of home. She saw videos of people fighting over toilet paper and empty grocery store shelves.

“I was seeing stuff on Facebook about how the shelves were cleaned out at the grocery store and stuff and I was like, ‘I don’t even know how I’m going to get food when I get back,’” Sydney said. 

The couple had just celebrated one year of dating in January 2020 before the pandemic began. Sydney said they had certain expectations transitioning into a long distance relationship, but COVID-19 changed all of that. They had to start from scratch and redefine what their relationship would look like with the restrictions they had. 

“I think we had a lot of different expectations before COVID hit of what it was going to look like,” Sydney said. “And then after COVID It was just like, so different.” 

Instead of more frequent visits, Sydney said they had to go longer without seeing each other than they initially expected. She said traveling to see each other is also a longer process, sometimes taking seven hours to fly from Nashville to San Francisco with layovers.

When they aren’t traveling to see each other, they have developed new ways to keep in touch. Sydney said she likes to call Chris on the phone when driving during the day, but they always talk each night before they go to bed. 

“I think one of the hardest things (is) trying to find things to talk about,” Sydney said. “I want to keep him involved in things that are going on here and stuff but it’s, like, hard to because he’s not here.”  

Sydney said another difficult thing about long distance is that it is harder to have more meaningful moments with each other without being together in person. Coming back to Bowling Green without Chris was also difficult for Sydney, but she sees the positive changes in their relationship. 

In January 2021, they celebrated two years of dating, another milestone before Sydney’s graduation and the potential of living together in the same city again. Sydney is going to pursue a career in broadcasting with a focus in video and production while Chris is currently working for Apple. They are considering moving to Chicago, a compromise between Chris’ desire to be near a colder city and Sydney’s desire to stay close to her family in Louisville. 

“It’s okay if I don’t see (Chris) every single day, like we’re still gonna be good, we’re gonna be fine,” Sydney. 

Cassidy & Luke 

Bowling Green → Illinois

On Thanksgiving, Cassidy Howard realized she couldn’t smell the candle in her hand. Her boyfriend, Luke Brotan, started handing her different things to smell, including alcohol. Nothing. Finally, Cassidy decided to smell the fresh fertilizer outside Luke’s house. Still nothing. She had COVID-19. 

“He was trying to calm me down and stuff, and making me smell all these weird things,” Cassidy said. “And I was like ‘Oh my god Luke, I have it. I have COVID.’” 

This was the only time Luke was able to visit Cassidy during the fall semester of 2020, and she had caught COVID. For most of their relationship, COVID has been a major obstacle. 

On February 17, 2020, Cassidy and Luke began dating long distance after their unique introduction in 2019. Cassidy had been dog-sitting for Luke’s father, Larry, for a while, and he always wanted Cassidy and Luke to meet. Finally they did, and after an awkward family dinner, they began dating despite living about seven hours away from each other.  

Luke, a business administration and finance major, goes to school at Illinois State University while Cassidy studies social work at WKU. Not even a month into their relationship, the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency.  

At first, the cancelled classes and extended spring breaks were exciting. Luke was able to extend his spring break visit home and spend more time with Cassidy. But as the weeks went by, it was obvious that COVID-19 was not just going to be an extended spring break. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Luke and Cassidy have had to work around the difficulties of traveling to see each other. While Luke typically can drive to visit, Cassidy’s car cannot reliably make the trip, and her flights to see Luke were cancelled. 

“I just felt like I wasn’t doing my part of the long distance,” Cassidy said. “He just kept coming to see me over and over because I just couldn’t get to him.” 

In late March 2020 about 45% of all U.S. scheduled flights were cancelled, according to global travel data provider OAG. 

Her first successful flight to visit Luke was not until October 2020. It was her first time flying alone and flying with COVID-19 protocols. 

To cope with the long distance, the couple spends a lot of time on Facetime together. Cassidy said they will even fall asleep on Facetime and wake up still on the call in the morning together.

In February, the couple celebrated their one year of dating when Cassidy flew up to Chicago– “10 people on my flight there and 10 people on my flight back.” 

Until Cassidy graduates from her upcoming social work master’s program at WKU, she and Luke will continue to take turns visiting each other, maintaining balance in their relationship and working with the COVID restrictions.  

Ashley & Sergio 

Bowling Green → New York

When Ashley Schweitzer went to visit her boyfriend in New York, she didn’t actually fly into the state. Instead, she flew into New Jersey where her boyfriend, Sergio Diaz, drove three hours to pick her up. Then they drove back over state lines to avoid any evidence of Ashley’s traveling into the state. 

Ashley and Sergio met in high school and began long distance when they both left for college. Sergio studies electrical computer engineering at Cornell University while Ashley studies nursing at WKU. 

Their freshman year and newly-long-distant relationship was going smoothly until the COVID-19 pandemic began. They started having weekly Facetime lunch dates and even started writing letters. The distance is hard for the both of them, but Ashley said they make it work. 

“It’s kind of at the point where you don’t really have a choice, you just kind of have to accept it,” Ashley said. “That’s where I’m at with it.”

Now, the couple has to avoid the new Cornell and New York state restrictions that would keep them from being able to visit each other. 

Domestic travelers were originally required to quarantine after entering New York. On April 1, this restriction was lifted by the governor but is still a recommendation for travelers entering the state. 

Sergio said he also had to sign a document agreeing that he would not travel during his semesters at Cornell in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At one point, he was even getting COVID tested three times a week. Along with that agreement, Sergio is not supposed to have visitors on campus. 

For the fall 2020 semester, Sergio agreed to the terms and wasn’t able to see Ashley for almost 100 days. But this semester, Ashley decided to visit Sergio despite his agreement. 

In order to work around all the restrictions, Ashley flew into an airport in New Jersey. This allowed her to avoid the quarantine rule New York state previously had in place. Sergio picked her up and brought her back to Cornell. 

“I’d say it’s semi-enforced, in terms of like, as long as (Cornell doesn’t) find out it’s not enforced,” Sergio said. 

When Ashley and Sergio aren’t able to visit each other, they still keep in touch with their weekly virtual dates and daily phone calls. 

“This year it’s been a little bit more tough because of COVID,” Sergio said. “We talk every day, I’d say, which helps a lot in terms of at least getting to see her even if it’s through a computer screen.”

Ashley said her and Sergio talk about their future plans and life together after college.  

“I feel like with long distance it’s very hard to stay together if you don’t have a common goal,” Ashley said. “If you don’t see a purpose or like a future for your relationship, it’s kind of hard to do long distance because it’s kind of like, ‘What’s the point?’”

Aside from their future plans, they also hope for a future beyond COVID-19. Both Ashley and Sergio received their vaccines in order to do their part in ending the pandemic that is making the distance between themselves and others feel even farther.