Karen Houseknecht spends much of her time working at home teleconferencing with her colleagues and students at the University of New England. But after weeks of being home, she was missing her friends.

So last Saturday, Houseknecht and six girlfriends logged onto the Zoom videoconferencing app for a virtual happy hour. They laughed a lot, posed for a group photo and chatted the way they do during their regular outings.

“It was ridiculous, but we did it,” said Houseknecht, a professor who lives in Portland. “We tried to laugh with each other and come up with anything to talk about that wasn’t COVID-19.”

From happy hours to book clubs to family dinners, virtual meet-ups are becoming a mainstream way to socialize in the time of coronavirus.

Millions of people across the county who are working from home or out of school, have quickly become familiar with the teleconferencing app Zoom, which is now one of the most downloaded apps. And many are using the new videoconferencing skills to carry on their social lives remotely, too.

Along with Zoom, people are also using video calls on Google Hangouts, FaceTime and Skype to connect with friends and family during the coronavirus pandemic. Those apps are free or low-cost for personal use.

“For all of us, whether you’re introverted or extroverted, this whole situation is bizarre and scary,” said Houseknecht, 56. “We all know on some level social distancing is going to save lives, but it kind of breaks your heart. It’s very human to want to hang out with the people who you love when it’s hard or scary, but we can’t do that.”

An extrovert who draws energy from other people, Sean Fitzgerald, 29, has been missing weekly gatherings with his running group, Old Port Pub Run, and being with friends for their Monday night movie group. Both of those activities have moved into the virtual world.

On Thursday, members of the Old Port Pub Run group will log in to a video conference for announcements and a team photo, then everyone will head out on their own for a run. After, they’ll gather online again to socialize.

“It breaks up the monotony and allows people to get together and have normalcy at at time when people are uncertain and afraid about what the future holds,” said Fitzgerald, who lives in Gorham and works in sales for an audio-visual company.

Katie Mauro and her fiance, Mike Schelske of Portland, started a Monday night movie club more than two years ago in response to “Mondays being a bit of a drag,” Schelske, 29, said.

“I think that’s true now in this COVID-19 world more than it ever has been,” he said. “Finding a way to get up and look forward to every day, even if it’s going to be much different on its face than yesterday, is really important. There’s nothing better than getting friends together online to goof around.”

Movie club: Chauna Oak, left, and Sean Fitzgerald talk to fellow members of their Monday night movie club on Google Hangouts. Friends shown in the small screens are, left to right, Josh Russell, Mavis Hseih, Kyle Fetters, Zach Culver, Mike Schelske and Katie Mauro. Photo courtesy Sean Fitzgerald

Mauro, 27, said the group, which includes Fitzgerald, for the past two weeks has used Google Hangouts to discuss a movie after all streaming it at the same time from their homes. Continuing with their weekly movies together – they’re now up to 112 – gives her a sense of consistency and normalcy that some people are struggling to find right now, she said.

“Right now, there is so much uncertainty around COVID-19 and people’s day-to-day lives have changed so much. Sometimes it can seem out of your personal control,” Mauro said. “Having this be consistent every Monday and having something to look forward to (that) we can control is really nice.”

MJ Benson, a 53-year-old artist from South Portland, says she’s an introvert and doesn’t mind being home, but she does miss her friends. She belongs to a group of six couples who get together every six weeks for a themed dinner party. Last week they took the party online via Zoom.

In a Zoom meeting, participants’ faces appear in boxes on the screen of a user’s computer or tablet, and each participant can listen to or speak to the whole group.

“It’s a fun and easy way to do it,” she said. “It’s a little bit like Hollywood Squares or the Brady Bunch.”

Benson said it’s a bit of an adjustment to get used to socializing online. They didn’t have the same side conversations they normally do and there was a bit of talking over one another, but they were happy to connect and plan to do it again, she said.

“But you miss that physical connection of being able to hug someone or shake their hand, and also the immediacy of being face to face,” she said. “It’s an interesting dynamic to get used to.”

Michaela Cavallaro and her 13-year-old daughter, Skylar Cook, are used to seeing their extended family regularly, so they’ve started using video chats to get in some face-to-face time while social distancing. They’ve had “family dinners” over FaceTime and Skylar uses that app to talk to her grandparents regularly because she can’t visit in person.

Cavallaro, who is originally from New Jersey and now lives in Portland, used Zoom to hang out with a group of women with whom she had planned to visit Montreal this week. For two hours, they sat knitting and catching up, a social event she said was “awesome.”

The highlight of virtual socializing for Cavallaro came last weekend, when she and high school friends who are spread out across the country logged onto Zoom to hang out for five hours. There were laughs, tears and plenty of comparisons of the locally brewed beer they were drinking.

“It felt really casual and really reminiscent of all the times we spent together hanging out in someone’s parents’ basement and gabbing about stuff,” she said. “I think that was what felt so comforting about it. We had nothing but time.”

The technology may be especially appreciated by people who are older, have medical conditions or are alone in their homes. Residents of long-term care facilities that are closed to visitors, for example, have been using video calls to talk to family until it is safe to resume visiting in person.

Jim Moulton, 65, of Bowdoin has long used technology in his work and to connect with his children who live out of state. He and his wife, Lu, use FaceTime to see their 1-year-old granddaughter in Virginia almost every evening. It seemed natural to use that same technology to stay connected with friends, both from just down the road and hundreds of miles away, while social distancing.

The Moultons used FaceTime to have dinner with friends in Brunswick last weekend and will use Zoom for a virtual dinner with two other couples later this week. Last weekend, through an iPad screen, the Moultons felt the human connection they’d been missing as they talked with friends over separate meals, miles apart.

“There was a feeling of comfort,” Moulton said. “Things were the way they were the way they will be once again at some point.”


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