ALONE TOGETHER IN THE PANDEMIC: HOW WE LOST OUR SOCIAL SPACES AND HOW WE FOUND THEM AGAIN.

Author:Suderman, Peter
 
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THE PAST IS a different country, one I used to live in.

In that country, as I remember it, people moved about and met with others freely, passing close to strangers on the sidewalk, wearing gloves and scarves only when the weather required it. They rode crowded buses and packed subway trains, commuting to their offices so they could sit through meetings in close proximity to their yawning colleagues. They stood in lines and watched kids climb on playground equipment. They went to restaurants with dates and had intimate conversations over dinners prepared by someone else, delivered by platoons of waiters whose hands touched each and every plate. They shared sips of expensive cocktails with fussed-over garnishes containing liquors imported from all over the world. They propped themselves up on comfortingly scuzzy stools at crowded dives, drinking cheap beer as other patrons unthinkingly brushed against them. They watched sports, and they played them.

In that country, people sweated out their frustrations in gyms, sharing weights and treadmill grips. They watched suspenseful movies in darkened theaters, never knowing who might be sitting nearby, breathing in unison as killers stalked through crowded streets onscreen. They hugged each other. They shook hands.

They gathered together, to celebrate, to mourn, to plan for a future that seemed, if not precisely knowable, likely to fall within expected parameters. And, though it seems foreign now, they treated each and every one of these moments as ordinary and unremarkable, because they were.

No longer. Over the course of a few weeks in March, America, along with much of the Western world, became a different country. A novel coronavirus was spreading via physical proximity. So in order to slow its transmission, the places where people gathered together--bars, restaurants, gyms, stadiums, movie theaters, churches--were closed. Workers were sent home from offices. Much of the populace was put into lockdown, under orders to shelter in place. People were effectively sent into hiding. What they were hiding from was each other.

The toll taken by the virus and COVID-19, the deadly disease it causes, can be measured in lives, in jobs, in economic value, in businesses closed and plans forgone. That toll is, by any accounting, tremendous--more than 74,000 dead in the U.S. by the first week of May, more than 33 million unemployed, an economy that may shrink by 20 percent or more-and in the coming weeks and months, it is certain to rise.

As lockdowns swept the country, we lost something else, too, something harder to measure: connection, intimacy, the presence of others, the physical communities of shared cause and happenstance that naturally occur as people go about their lives. We lost our social spaces, and all the comforts they brought us. Yet just as quickly, we went about finding ways to reclaim those spaces and rebuild those communities, by any means we could.

FRIENDSHIP MACHINE

AMONG THE FIRST casualties of the pandemic were sports. After a player for the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19 in early March, the National Basketball Association (NBA) suspended its season. Major League Baseball quickly followed, canceling spring training and postponing the start of the regular season indefinitely. In the space of a few days, every other professional sport currently in season followed suit.

Athletics facilities of all kinds--from YMCAs to Pilates studios--closed their doors, with no idea when they would reopen. In multiple cities under lockdown, public officials singled out pickup games as prohibited. This was the country we were suddenly living in: You couldn't watch sports. You couldn't play them. Group exercise of almost every kind was all but forbidden.

Games and athletic pursuits have many purposes. They strengthen the body and sharpen the mind. They pass the time. And they build bonds of loyalty and friendship, camaraderie and common purpose. In short, they're a way of making friends. In the days and weeks after the shutdowns, people found ways to quickly, if imperfectly, replicate or replace all of those things.

With facilities closed, fitness centers began offering online classes and instruction. Vida Fitness, a major gym chain in Washington, D.C., rolled out virtual memberships, featuring a regular schedule of live workouts and a library of full-length instructional videos. Cut Seven, a strength-focused gym in D.C.'s Logan Circle neighborhood owned by a husband-and-wife team, started a free newsletter devoted to helping people stay in shape from home. All over the country, group Pilates and yoga classes moved to videoconferencing apps like Zoom, with individual lessons available for premium fees. A mat and a laptop in a cluttered bedroom isn't quite the same experience as a quiet studio with fellow triangle posers, but it beats nothing at all, and has even become a kind of aspirational experience. We're all Peloton wives now.

Competitive sports went virtual as well. The National Football League held its annual draft online. Formula One organized a "virtual Grand Prix" around the...

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