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A Message on a Drone, a TikTok and a Socially Distant Date: Here’s the Story Behind a Viral Meet-Cute

5 minute read

At a time of social distance, most people’s dating lives are at a standstill. Since leaving home is a health risk, digital tools like FaceTime and Zoom and the good old-fashioned telephone have replaced our face-to-face past, stepping in to help us meet new people and stay in touch with old friends through screens and wires alone.

But that didn’t stop Brooklyn, New York-based photographer Jeremy Cohen from taking a shot at connection — from afar. Over the weekend, Cohen sent the modern-day equivalent of a message in a bottle: he flew a drone with his phone number from his balcony to someone on a neighboring rooftop in order to avoid breaking the social distancing efforts imposed by the coronavirus. (New York City currently hosts 15,000 of the world’s estimated 440,000 COVID-19 cases and is under stay-at-home guidance.) The result of Cohen’s efforts? A long-distance “date” of sorts, with the meet-cute and subsequent dinner all documented over TikTok.

Tori Cignarella, the subject of Cohen’s attention and the mysterious young woman in his now-viral drone video, was just enjoying a Saturday on the roof of her Bushwick apartment building when it all went down, letting off a little energy in the form of dancing to an unknown audience. “There were people in the direction I was facing and I just started dancing,” she told TIME. “I like making people laugh if I can, and I like making myself laugh, too.” Spotting her enthusiastic moves from afar, Cohen wondered if she was perhaps creating a TikTok dance video of her own. But it turns out that was not the case. “I was doing the High School Musical ‘We’re All In This Together’ dance,” she said. “A poor rendition of it, but that’s what it was supposed to be!”

Cignarella, who helps manage a co-working space in the city, was a few days into remote work and remaining at home in her apartment with her roommate. Cohen, who is a freelance photographer who regularly shoots for events like music festivals, had been keeping to himself in his apartment since the start of the week; he lives alone. Both had noticed the people spread out over their neighborhood’s rooftops, taking advantage of the unseasonably warm day — while maintaining safe social distance. (Cohen is even working on a photo project of the scene.)

At some point while Cignarella was dancing, Cohen waved at her. She responded in kind. “I really like meeting new people, so if someone’s going to wave to me, I’ll gladly wave back, I’m not going to ignore it,” she said. That interaction was enough for Cohen to decide he needed to find a way to communicate. “I felt like this weird connection with her, to be honest,” he told TIME.

He remembered an idea he and a friend had dreamed up about sending a number via drone. “I thought, this is a perfect opportunity to do this,” he said. For her part, Cignarella was certainly surprised by the unexpected turn of events. “It was a ‘holy cr-p’ kind of moment — like, Oh my god, this is happening right now?” she said of being the recipient of the drone. “It was really cool.”

Although the drone first flew a little too far overhead, Cignarella eventually was able to take down Cohen’s number, which he had taped to the device. Cignarella’s phone died in the middle of the proceedings, so it took her an hour or so to respond. But after texting and making sure he flew the drone safely back, they ultimately set up a virtual date, sitting down at separate tables on their adjacent rooftops with a video call set up to get to know each other despite the limitations of a city in the thrall of coronavirus.

So how did it go? “It went well,” Cignarella said. “I won’t spill too many details. It went well is all I can say.”

For Cohen, who describes himself as an “optimistic” person (and, in his TikTok bio, a “hopeless romantic”), the constraint of a city staying home is just a chance to get creative — and give new things a go. ‘I’m never not going to take the chance,” he said. “I would always wonder what if, which is way worse.” Cignarella concurs: “Whether anything romantic pursues out of this or not, at the very least, I’ve gained a friend. Especially because he lives just across the street: I’m really excited to have a nearby friend I can hang out with, once this quarantine is hopefully lifted, very soon.”

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Perhaps more importantly, Cohen and Cignarella’s meet-cute has brought some brightness and light to the internet when people are searching for it most. Anyone can follow their story, thanks to Cohen’s videos documenting the experience. He credits his professional storyteller mom for his predilection for sharing stories, of which TikTok is just another tool in his creative arsenal. His video of the drone now has nearly 30 million views on that platform, perhaps a reflection of our collective craving for content that sparks joy.

Social distancing is, by nature, a lonely condition. But Cohen and Cignarella prove human connection finds a way — even when you shouldn’t walk outside. “If Tinder and Bumble aren’t working out, try flying a drone!” Cohen joked. Just remember to keep washing your hands.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com