Long (Social) Distance: Tips for Staying Connected With Loved Ones During the Pandemic

By Jamie GreysonLast Updated Nov 24, 2020 12:49:43 PM ET
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Since the coronavirus pandemic began worsening in March of 2020, millions of Americans started heeding the advice of medical experts — and the mandates of local and state officials — and have been practicing social distancing in order to mitigate the spread of the virus. And now, with renewed efforts from state and local governments to encourage sheltering in place during the most wonderful time of the year, it’s becoming clearer that our holiday celebrations will be anything but typical — a common theme for 2020, and one that’s also leaving many of us wondering how to navigate winter festivities without our loved ones physically present. But taking steps to stay safe this season — particularly by forgoing in-person gatherings to slow COVID-19’s spread — doesn’t mean you have to toss your social calendar or avoid seeing friends and family altogether.

Now, as pandemic shutdowns trudge on and temperatures drop, we'll be spending more time than ever indoors — and that's a good thing for keeping ourselves healthy. But this relative isolation also highlights just how important it is to stay connected to loved ones who may find it difficult to deal with loneliness and reduced daylight hours as the world figures out long-term plans for managing COVID-19. From board game nights to virtual happy hours, these creative ways to stay in touch with your loved ones during the pandemic — and the typically social holiday season — will help you (and them) feel energized and not so alone while getting your fix for some wintertime cheer.

Throw a Holiday HouseParty (From a Safe Distance)

Before we all collectively revert back to playing Words With Friends like it’s 2010 again, we recommend downloading HouseParty, a free app that lets you connect with friends and loved ones for some mindless fun. If your friend group consists of folks who love a good game of Head’s Up, then this app is for you. And even if that isn’t your normal schtick, all of the sheltering in place, social distancing and self-quarantining — and the fact that you’ll probably be turning down many an invitation for holiday parties this year — call for a virtual get-together made easy.

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For those who’ve never heard of HouseParty, it’s a video-calling app similar to FaceTime. But what makes it unique? It allows up to eight people to connect at once, and people can see who else is online and jump in and out of various chat groups as they please. Imagine if all your loved ones opened gifts or popped a few New Year’s champs bottles together this way — it’d definitely make a great substitution for your usual in-person merriment.

To be honest, this is the sort of frenetic energy we all need more of during this period of isolation, and it could be a great approximation for the holiday mingling between groups and conversations we normally do at a winter party. Not ready for that awkward catch-up with a long-lost cousin you haven’t seen since last Thanksgiving? The app also comes with some fun built-in games that work well as ice-breakers, including a trivia contest, Head’s Up and a feature akin to DrawSomething (R.I.P.). It even approximates Facebook’s old "poke" feature — though here it’s an aggressive wave instead. (Maybe turn off your notifications?) If you’re looking for some spontaneous group-chat shenanigans, rest assured that HouseParty is always lit.

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Zoom Into Happy Hour & Dinner Dates

Whether you use Zoom or Google Hangouts for work-related meetings, both make for a great holiday dinner date. If you live alone, have found yourself social distancing without your loved ones or simply miss toasting your pals, video-chatting apps like these make it easy to toast — and maybe get a little toasted with — the ones you hold dear. How’s that for some winter cheer (and cheersing)?

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There are several ways to go about this kind of virtual meetup. Some folks opt for the happy hour version, and that does make for a great holiday reunion. Theoretically, this can be more of a group hang: Invite as many people as your service will allow, pour some beverages and start catching up. If you’re feeling particularly crafty, think up a specialty cocktail ahead of time — and hope everyone on your call stocked up on the same liquor options. If you and your friends don’t drink the same kind of libations, trading recipes is fun too. And don’t leave out your sober pals or the kids in the family. You don’t need booze to have a good time, and mixing up a refreshing non-alcoholic drink is just as fun — what’s a winter holiday without some eggnog?

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If you’re looking for something a little more lowkey to get that feeling of routine back, you might want to try hosting a Zoom dinner party instead of a happy hour. For a dinner party setup, we recommend conferencing with just one other household — maybe some family members on the other side of the country who can’t fly to you this year. That way, you can place your laptop or tablet across the table — on those empty placemats — as if you’re actually sitting with the folks on the call. As is the case with the virtual happy hour, coordinating recipes can be fun, but sharing your own unique, self-quarantined spin on your family’s traditional holiday dishes is just as compelling. Reclaim some normalcy — and set the table for more than just a party of one.

Netflix & Chill (& Party)

We’ve all tried to call or FaceTime a pal who’s living across the country while watching a movie. And then we’ve all gone through the absolute burden that is trying to sync up said movies. Your buddy pauses and counts down for you to hit play — 3, 2, 1… You blew it. You’re now two seconds ahead of them. It’s frustrating, especially if you have multiple people watching on either end of the call and headphones aren’t an option. (No one likes out-of-sync audio echoing through the phone, right?)

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Luckily, all our prayers have been answered thanks to a handy Google Chrome extension called Netflix Party. As the name implies, this extension from cinematic heaven makes it super easy for folks in different locations to watch the same movie (like those irresistibly cheesy holiday romance stories or the quintessential National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) on their computers all synced and good to go. Better yet? It features an AIM-looking group chat feature, so you can share your theories about how much the Griswold family’s December utility bill cost, all in real time. Voila — an in-home theater, minus the smell of stale, overly buttered popcorn.

Game Nights Galore

If the thrill of HouseParty’s (admittedly) limited game selection has petered out, try throwing a good ol’ fashioned game night in lieu of your regular holiday party. Unless everyone in your group owns the same products, it may be hard to play anything that involves an actual board, but there are definitely some winning options that make for great over-the-FaceTime fun, like Scattergories and charades. If you’re looking to play classics like Monopoly or Yahtzee, there are some easy-to-access desktop versions of these games.

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And that brings us to our next point: video games. If breaking out the board games proves too tricky, online multiplayer and co-op games have your back. Don’t have a gaming headset? No problem. Tons of regular gamers use the free voice app Discord to chat — and, in the beginning days of the pandemic, the company’s account signups were up 200%, according to NPR. From old party-game standbys like Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe to the popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft, the social gaming possibilities are endless and do make for an effective way to connect with friends and family when the mercury drops and you’re stuck inside. If you’re looking for something a bit slower-paced than those titles, we recommend this round-up of more serene, atmospheric games.

Phone a Loved One (No, Seriously)

This one isn’t just a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire lifeline anymore. In fact, the phone is your self-isolation and shelter-in-place lifeline. For those who may have forgotten, that camera/texting-enabled device/really big pocket watch that you carry around is actually a phone. Sure, plenty of us have phone-phobia these days, but extreme times call for extreme measures — and during a year when the holidays are extremely different and traditions are conspicuously absent, all it might take to beat winter loneliness is hearing a loved one’s voice.

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Though it sounds both obvious and ridiculous all at once, try picking up the phone and calling your friends and family. While it’s nice to chat face-to-pixelated-face, sometimes the baggage of video-chatting is too much. Maybe you’re distracted by how you look or the lighting’s off or the audio’s cutting out because your connection isn’t great. Apart from these technical problems, sometimes taking the pressure off — the not having to look directly into someone’s eyes — can help us all be a little more honest and a lot more vulnerable. There’s something about the phone, about all that static and distance, that helps us open up, which is especially important around the holidays when things can get extra emotional (and in a year where we can’t give physical hugs). Sure, goofing around on FaceTime and filtering your face on Snapchat are all well and good, but nothing beats an old-fashioned heart-to-heart over the phone.