From staff meetings to religious services, the novel coronavirus has led to a wealth of new, online and socially distanced ways to gather. Are we connecting more deeply now than we were before?

It started with a Facebook notification back in April, a few weeks after my colleagues and I began working from home to combat the spread of Covid-19. I’d begun wondering if I would ever experience the in-person, collegial atmosphere of the newsroom again.

“Temple Beth Shalom is live,” the notification read. I’m no longer a member of the synagogue where my children studied for their bar and bat mitzvahs; we honor our heritage as a family, but are not religious in the organized way. But I loved our kids’ teacher, who is now the rabbi, with his gregarious energy. So, curious, I clicked. And there he was, performing a “Quarantine Havdalah”—marking the end of the Sabbath—with a guitar and a candle at his dining room table. One of his four children was clambering precariously on a banister behind him. The other three were horsing around at the table.

Congregants were commenting in the live feed, and every so often, Rabbi Benjy would stop and read them aloud or welcome a newcomer. “Hi, Marilyn!” His kids got more rambunctious. “Where is that peace we’re looking for?” the rabbi joked. “Not in this house, that’s for sure.”

“Real life. So refreshing,” a congregant responded in a Facebook comment.

The service stayed with me, so intimate and relaxed; so different from my experience attending formal services in the sanctuary.

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A few days later, a group I meet with monthly to present and discuss original essays gathered on Zoom. At the time of our usual pre-meeting cocktail hour, the host placed us in “breakout rooms”—small groups of four to six—for conversation. It’s a new club, and we don’t know each other well. Conversing like that, our faces filling the screen, felt, paradoxically, more intimate. And for a person who suffers shyness in cocktail party situations, it was less awkward than our usual setting. I learned things about the others in my group I don’t think I would have otherwise. I liked it.

Then I got a call from Harmony Project founder David Brown. I’m a member of the choir, and he was calling to check in—indeed, the staff was calling all 500 participants, just to see how we were doing and to help keep the connection alive during a time when we could not meet to rehearse—singing, it seems, can spread the coronavirus. Harmony staff have continued this ritual every other week since March, and judging from the comments in the choir’s Facebook group, others appreciate it as much as I do. A moment on the phone, alone in a room, helps revive a sense of inclusion in this large and diverse community.

Soon I began noticing all kinds of new moments of connection. Some seemed to blur traditional boundaries, as when my husband, often somewhat formal at his law school podium, introduced his students over Zoom to our new puppy. A friend in my book club brought her college-age son to an online meeting. Dr. Amy Acton gave a wave during a press conference to her teacher husband and his students. During a staff meeting on Google Hangouts, I could see the laundry stacked on the washer in my boss’s basement office.

And I saw other, more impactful examples of a new kind of connectivity. We were in a pandemic crisis, after all. Newly created clusters of people were gathering online to help. A Mutual Aid Central Ohio group sprang up on Facebook, where individuals and families in need could connect with people offering to help with anything from a ride to grocery money. The group now has more than 12,000 members and has migrated to a website to better accommodate the volume of activity. On Slack, techies formed a group called Can’t Stop Columbus, aimed at using the online collaboration platform to brainstorm and launch initiatives addressing Covid-19 and its fallout, with groups coalescing to perform curbside concerts for shut-ins, make and distribute masks, raise money for laid-off service workers and much more.

Was a world where so many of us were trapped in our homes, unable to visit with family, colleagues, community and friends, causing us to focus more on connecting, rather than less? And on the larger community level, Columbus prides itself on its culture of collaboration—the Columbus Way. But that’s about civic leaders coming together to solve problems. Was Covid-19 democratizing that culture?

It’s true that the online connection opportunities I’m describing are not always available to those who lack internet access, and that while some of us are able to keep safe by staying home and working or learning remotely, many are not. It’s also true that the coronavirus outbreak has wreaked immeasurable damage to the community. But this story is not about that. It’s about what we might be learning about ourselves and our relationships as we adjust the ways we communicate in a stay-at-home world. There are downsides, for sure, as we try to combat loneliness by interacting with images on a screen. But are there upsides as well? How could this experience change the way we interact in the future—and in the face of subsequent crises?

***

Although the statewide stay-at-home order in March characterized churches as essential services, most houses of worship closed and have not yet reopened, posing a real hardship for those for whom religious affiliation is a core aspect of identity. To keep its community alive, I learned, Temple Beth Shalom was not only streaming services from the rabbi’s home on Facebook Live but also using the platform daily to showcase congregants sharing their talents, including music, yoga, sewing and even offering home renovation and makeup tips. I contacted Rabbi Benjy Bar-Lev to find out how these interactions were affecting his congregation. He said, in an email, that the online services were attracting a “whole new set of ‘regulars,’” in part because they are accessible to some who may find it difficult to come in person.

He also said the open communication channels online helped draw people in. “There is a back-and-forth throughout the service between the rabbis and participants, and among the participants themselves,” he writes. “This makes such a difference in helping us foster a sense of community, even from our living rooms.”

Genoa Baptist Church in Westerville began offering drive-in services in mid-March (“Come as you are, just stay in your car!” reads a message on the church’s Facebook page), and they’ve been widely attended, with dozens of families posting group selfies from their cars to the church’s Facebook page. “What an awesome way to reach your community!” posted Amy Lewald during the first such service.

The early weeks of the stay-at-home order coincided not only with Easter but also with Ramadan, causing Dublin resident Hoda Amer to reexamine her approach to a holiday she has always enjoyed for its social elements. This was to be the first year her youngest children were old enough to stay up late and celebrate breaking the fast, something normally done at the mosque. Instead, she decorated the house, prepared desserts she’d never made before, and the family took iftar (the post-fast meal) and prayed together at home, joined by her adult stepchildren who had come back to Ohio to work remotely from her home. In May, the children painted the family car to participate in her mosque’s Eid parade. “We actually ended up bonding more as a family,” she says.

***

The strengthening of family ties during a moment of isolation and threat is a common theme among those I talked to. Many, like Amer—and like me—had young adult children, some in their first jobs and others in college, returning to the nest to shelter in place together. We celebrated birthdays, Mother’s Day and, in my case, a daughter’s college graduation—with Zoom parties. Many of us also felt moved to draw the next circle of family virtually closer, Facetiming or finding other creative ways to visit with grandparents, siblings, cousins and more, both near and far.
Sarah Saxbe of Bexley began a series of porch visits with her mother where her children would sit outside a screen door while their grandmother, inside, read to them from the memoir she is writing. “I don’t think we would have done this otherwise,” says Saxbe.

And it wasn’t just family; many I spoke with found they were getting to know their neighbors better, too, as staying home suddenly awakened them to their proximate community.

Shirley Nyhan was pleasantly surprised by a leaflet that appeared in her mailbox announcing a treasure hunt for neighborhood children. Parents in her child-centered South Bexley neighborhood had created a shared but socially distant activity for kids who often played and attended school together, pre-coronavirus. Inspired to share her own passion with the kids, Nyhan and her granddaughter Zoe, who was quarantining with her, assembled rock-painting kits of small stones, paint and brushes and left them on neighbors’ stoops so children could paint them and leave them in unexpected places to give people a lift.

Jody Wallace, walking in a different neighborhood, was just the kind of person they were hoping to reach. Wallace lost her mother just before the stay-at-home order was enacted. She was able to have an in-person memorial service, but soon found herself isolated in her mourning. She took comfort in walking her Clintonville neighborhood and photographing many of the anonymous but supportive messages neighbors left on streets, sidewalks and in Walhalla Ravine: hidden toys, more painted rocks, “yarn bombs” and chalk messages. “I was looking for some connection, some loving-kindness toward myself,” she says. “It just made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”

***

The search for ways to bring our usual activities into an online space has spawned a wealth of creativity within the arts community, from the many live-streamed concerts by musicians no longer able to perform in public to Can’t Stop Columbus’ Curbside Concerts and the Gravity Uplifts public mural project, both of which brought together nonprofit and for-profit groups to support artists and activate their work for hope and healing.

Russell Lepley and Filippo Pelacchi, whose Flux + Flow organization is both a performance group and a dance and movement teaching center, not only took their classes online but also recruited 30 students to begin work on a new piece. Twice a week, the group, which informally calls itself The Spatula Dancers because they use spatulas and pot lids as props, gathers on Zoom to rehearse, each in their home environment while Lepley and Pelacchi demonstrate from their studio. (Partners in life as well as in business, the pair can teach together without the need for social distancing.)

“We wanted to find a way to keep our community feeling like they were moving forward and to give them something to hope for,” says Lepley. They’ve received a grant for the work from the Greater Columbus Arts Council and commissioned singer/composer Sharon Udoh to create the music. Of course, they don’t yet know whether the final production will be in-person or virtual.

They’ll figure it out when the time comes.

***

Perhaps most striking is the way that people motivated by community service were drawn into the online space even if they were unfamiliar with the latest technologies. Weinland Park resident Merry Ellen Austin first encountered the Can’t Stop Columbus community just as she was quitting her job as a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at a psychiatric clinic after being reprimanded for urging colleagues to adopt social distancing practices to avoid the spread of Covid-19.

The volunteer group was organized on Slack, a virtual workspace application, to share ideas for combating the coronavirus and addressing needs caused by the lockdown. Austin had never heard of Slack, but she was immediately drawn in by the collaborative spirit and fast pace of the group. People logged in to contribute ideas or expertise whenever they were able—which was often. “I was just blown away by how efficient it was and how excited everybody was.”

To catch up with the conversation, she spent two weeks reading through all the Slack channels as well as watching YouTube videos to acquire skills. Despite her initial lack of ability, Austin was soon helping build an app to enable better communication between health care and social workers on the front lines of the pandemic. “I had to Google everything!” she says. After that, Austin became one of the group’s “navigators,” welcoming new visitors to the site and helping them find a conversation or channel that suits their interests, availability and skill sets.

Pre-coronavirus, Daria DeNoia, an education policy and practices consultant for the Ohio Education Association, spent many of her days traveling around the state to conduct professional development sessions with groups of teachers. Stuck at home now, she has learned to use Zoom and Microsoft Teams to connect with teachers in far-flung corners of the state—and to connect them with each other, bringing together educators from suburban, urban and rural districts with zero travel time for anybody.

She’s using the technology, in part, to help teachers cope. She points out that many were suddenly tasked with teaching remotely from their homes, even as they tried to help their own children with the switch to distance learning. She and colleague Makia Burns, both trained in restorative practices, established a series of online listening circles. “There’s a sense of grief for what we’ve lost,” she says, “and we’re trying to give people a chance to work through that.” DeNoia can’t wait to get back to meeting with teachers in person, yet she sees a continuing role for online sessions to help build community among teachers in disparate and distant districts. “You really learn so much about the people we serve,” she says. “About what they need, and what they believe. And that affirms my belief in the power of connection.”

The power of connection and community is no surprise to LC Johnson, the founder of Zora’s House. Johnson created the organization shortly after moving to Columbus in 2015 as a coworking space for black women and women of color, because she felt it would fill a gap. But her customers soon told her that the physical space was secondary to the community Zora’s House offered—and she adjusted her business model to recognize that the organization is a collective, not only a workspace.

As a result, says Johnson, when Covid-19 forced her to close her doors, she did not lose members but rather saw an uptick. She hosted a series of virtual lunches. “Just people coming together to process, check in with each other, see another face, talk to another adult that’s not your child,” says Johnson. “And those were so healing in a lot of ways, and needed for many of us.” And then, just as Zora’s House was getting ready to roll out a series of virtual lunches and other events in June, George Floyd died with his neck beneath the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis. “And just like that, the world changed,” Johnson says.

***

I had completed most of my interviews and was just beginning to write this essay at the time of Floyd’s death. My search for the silver lining of the coronavirus crisis suddenly seemed less pressing and relevant as his brutal killing and the outpouring of grief and anger that followed overshadowed concerns about the global pandemic.

And yet. In early June, as people took to the streets of cities and towns across America for more than a week of protests that often led to tense or violent confrontations with police, my newsfeed and inbox filled with invitations to join virtual and livestreamed events to confront the issues at hand without the risks of gathering in person. A stay-at-home “pots and pans” protest; online panels discussing police brutality and proposals to defund the police; conversations about racism and white privilege.

Could it be that all the livestreaming and Zooming, the FaceTiming and socially distanced attempts at connection were rehearsals for this very moment?

When I received an invitation to a Zora’s House event, “You Good, Sister? Healing Circles for Black Women, WOC and Allies,” I signed up for the “Allies” circle. There I found an earnest, open group of white women helping one another figure out how best to support the Black Lives Matter movement and to deal with their own feelings of guilt, pain, anger and helplessness without burdening the black women who had so much on their own plates. Many of the women present did not know each other; some were not even from Columbus.

The same was true in the circles for black women and women of color, says Johnson. “Would it have been amazing to be able to bring folks together at Zora’s House and for us to be able to hug each other and cry together, and heal and burn incense and save the room? Yes, that would have been amazing,” she says. But she points out that in one of the circles she attended, participants logged in from Denmark, Australia and California as well as Central Ohio. “The reach got bigger. Although we had to sacrifice the in-person hug, we were able to connect to a broader audience of women who are grieving and hurting and healing.”

For Johnson, the honesty and thoughtfulness of the women who came together in these circles was not a function of whether the interaction was taking place in physical or virtual space. Rather, it sprang from trust. Black women trust Zora’s House because the organization makes it clear it will honor their voices. In the same vein, people feel safe bringing half-baked ideas to the Slack channels of Can’t Stop Columbus because it is immediately obvious when you enter the online domain that brainstorming is welcomed and no idea is too crazy to consider.

It’s as if the barriers to gathering in person have made us all more sensitive to the need to include everyone when we do gather—as when a rabbi stops his online service to welcome a new arrival, or when someone writes on a sidewalk, “Thanks for being our neighbor.” Or when an organization for black women and women of color generously creates an online gathering space for white women allies, even in a moment of crisis for the black community.

Perhaps, on that distant day when we can all gather in person, standing close with our faces unmasked, we’ll come equipped with new skills for making everybody feel welcome and safe.