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5 ways to connect with friends and family while social distancing

Even though people have to skip in person social gatherings, people are finding creative ways to feel connected
/ Source: TODAY

As social distancing has become reality many are trying to figure out how to still enjoy their friends, family and community. People across the country are using technology to their advantage, employing Zoom, Google Hangouts and Facebook Live to host happy hours, board games, dinner parties and church to be both isolated and connected at the same time.

Here are a few ideas for the next time you're feeling lonely:

1. Turn meetings into virtual hangouts.

When Aaron Hajduk learned that Pennsylvania was closing bars and restaurants to slow the spread of the coronavirus, he knew he needed to re-think the happy hours he had planned. He wondered if technology could help him. The remote IT worker had been using Google Hangouts and Zoom for meetings and thought they would be perfect for a virtual happy hour.

“I use Zoom for work so I bought a subscription so we could get more participants and a longer meeting time and that worked fantastically,” Hajduk, 50, told TODAY.

When Aaron Hajduk realized social distancing would mean an end to happy hours, he planned them on Zoom. He's hiring local out-of-work bartenders to help them as the industry suffers. Courtesy Aaron Hajduk

Hajduk heads two social groups — Pittsburgh Craft Beer Society and Pittsburgh Whiskey Friends. The organizations support local businesses as they learn more about beer and whiskey (while enjoying it, of course) and often raise money for local nonprofits. While he’d miss the social libations, he understood being able to connect was what really mattered.

“Even though we are socially isolated we are keeping that sense of community that there is someone here and wants to listen and wants to talk,” he said. “Some of our members are in the health care community they are going into work every day. Their jobs are very much patient direct. Talking to them about that and having an opportunity to vent (helps them).”

Starting this week the group meets on Zoom (if they want to be seen) or Facebook Live for viewers from 5 to 7 p.m. daily. About 35 people joined during their last meeting.

“Slow but sure,” he said. “Each session has increased a bit in attendance.”

Brian Wissner is using Google Hangouts to play his regular Dungeon and Dragons game with friends from a distance. The police officer says anyone can plan a virtual game night, which really help friends support one another.

"It allows others to gauge your stress level and potentially even identify a crisis and help you," the 41-year-old from Pittsburgh told TODAY via Facebook messenger.

2. Host happy hour.

Hajduk hopes to hire virtual bartenders for future happy hours, giving out-of-work service employees a chance to make money and earn tips through a virtual tip jar. He’s thinking they can teach the group to make a cocktail with ingredients around the house or talk about a spirit or beer.

“We have a love for whiskey or beer and have a passion to give back in some way, shape or form,” he said. “We are better together.”

When Colin A. Weil was helping Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City transition much of its prayer, education and gatherings to virtual ones, he got an idea for a virtual cocktail party. He tried it last weekend and loved that it brought so many generations together for an hour to unwind.

“People were comparing drinks and drink recipes. It was fun,” he told TODAY. “It was really nice to not just hear a voice on the phone but to also see a live person.”

Colin Weil loves celebrating his birthday with family and friends and didn't want to let social distancing stop him. He's planning a Zoom bash for about 200 people for his birthday on Monday. Courtesy Colin Weil

On Monday, Weil turns 54 and he decided to host a Zoom birthday party, which he’s billing as Zoomio 54. He expects about 200 people to help celebrate as he drinks champagne and eats cake with his daughter. While social distancing can be hard, he thinks there's a silver lining to this.

“I hope one of the good things that comes from this crisis is how technology can be a social good,” Weil said.

3. Plan a dinner party, remotely.

Sarah Ishman, 32, and Erin Angeli, 30, hosted a Zoom dinner party with friends in Michigan over the weekend and found that setting a computer on the table and turning on the camera worked remarkably well.

“The first thing we talked about was what are we having for dinner,” Angeli told TODAY. “It fed my extroverted self and it also continues a sense of normalcy.”

Sarah Ishman and Erin Angeli hosted their first Zoom dinner party with friends, which helped them feel a little bit normal as they are social distancing. Courtesy Sarah Ishman and Erin Angeli

Ishman said the dinner party helped her feel connected, too.

“It makes it feel less like we’re less stuck at home,” she said.

4. Stream religious services.

Angeli is a pastoral fellow at the Commonwealth, a church in Pittsburgh. While she first worried that she’d miss meeting with members, she’s been using technology to have coffee dates with them.

“We have some people in our congregation who are immune-compromised and they are having to be very, very careful,” she said. “One FaceTime call after another can keep them going.”

Churches are certainly using technology to connect with their members without seeing them in the pews. While some churches have always streamed their services, more and more are using video and social media to take church to people's home.

“Most parishioners were very happy to see we were doing it,” Eric O’Brien, communication director of Christ Episcopal Church, outside of Pittsburgh, told TODAY. “Our intention is to keep the services as normal as possible.”

The Rev. Canon James D. Shoucair, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, in Pittsburgh leads a small congregation in the last service. The church is halting in-person worship to do its part to slow the spread of COVID-19 by offering streaming services. Courtesy Christ Episcopal Church

A lot of their parishioners live in retirement communities and can’t leave. This gives them a chance to connect with their religious community so they don’t feel so “isolated.”

5. Plan a movie night.

A new Google Chrome extension, Netflix Party, makes it easy for people in different locations to watch the same movie on their computer at the same time. It even includes a group chat feature that allows chatty friends to share their plot theories in real time. It's as close as social distancing gets to a theater experience without the soda-sticky floors and loud talkers.