Throughout the pandemic, Michigan residents have filled the void of little to no in-person human contact with virtual happy hours, coffee dates, book clubs, community message boards.
They’ve taught their grandparents how to use Zoom, held their birthday parties and holiday “gatherings” online, patched in loved ones on handheld devices so they could watch weddings or funerals without risk of disease. They’ve lost touch with some friends, deepened their relationships with others. Some used technology and a lot of time stuck at home alone to find lasting romance.
Taking all those interactions online had an impact on the in-person relationships people maintained, too.
Those quarantining with others, particularly romantic partners, have experienced significant, sustained stress on their main source of in-person interaction, because “we can’t get everything we need from one person,” said Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, an assistant professor in communication at Michigan State University and director of the Family Communication and Relationships Lab.
During a pandemic, the best stand-in for seeing someone in person has been video calls, Dorrance Hall said, because facial expressions, the tone of a person’s voice and other cues that might be missed in a text message are crucial to human interaction. But even those haven’t been ideal.
“We have affection needs, right? I don’t just mean hugging and kissing, but nonverbal affection, too, just feeling cared for and those warm interactions with people,” she said. “Trying to get those needs met virtually, especially anything nonverbal, is really challenging.”
The heartbreak, grief and loss the pandemic brought with it were often compounded by an inability to share those emotions with loved ones in person. But amid those horrors, social connections maintained or developed through phone and laptop screens gave people a link to the outside world, bringing people “together” when truly being together wasn’t an option.
Love in the time of COVID-19
Rachel Sherrell was living alone in Holt when COVID-19 began its spread in Michigan. With her work entirely remote and her usual social activities with friends and family abruptly halted, she turned to Hinge, an online dating application.
Shortly after the stay-at-home order went into effect, Sherrell met Eaton Rapids resident Aaron Jeffery through the app. Things took off from there, and both said their relationship progressed quicker than it might have otherwise due to a lot of deep, emotional conversations and a lack of other distractions.
“We got to know each other in ways that you might not connect if you meet someone right away,” Sherrell said. “You basically have to rely on being able to do questions and answers and not necessarily get the same experience.”
Jeffery said he was drawn to Sherrell because she was an independent person who thrived on outdoor adventure — her interests included scuba diving and world travel. Sherrell appreciated his love of hiking and rock climbing, as well as his commitment to his son and family.
“The way we connected when we talked, it seemed like we never really ran out of things to talk about,” Jeffery said. “It seemed like we had a lot of the same interests and activities and whatnot, so for me, I think I realized it pretty quickly.”
Over time, the texts, messages and video chats morphed into outdoor meetups, and by the summertime, Sherrell and Jeffery had become each other’s small social circle, spending more and more time together. Jeffery first introduced Sherrell to his son on video chat, then later introduced them in person on a hike. While they’ve now met each other’s immediate family, either at socially distanced gatherings or virtually, they still haven’t had the chance to meet most of each other’s friends and relatives due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns.
Eventually, they decided to take the next step. Last fall, Sherrell moved to Eaton Rapids to live with Jeffery and his son.
“One thing just kind of moved to the next, to the next, to the next, and it just flowed so smoothly. It just seemed right,” Jeffery said. “I think having that concentration of, ‘Hey, this is really the only person I have to really talk to at the moment and be around,’ really escalated things, I think.”
The pair has tried to make the most of their time together during the ongoing pandemic, cooking elaborate recipes to share and learning the ins and outs of living together. They said the open, direct communication that started their relationship has been key to deepening their relationship as it progresses.
Both Sherrell and Jeffery are looking forward to post-pandemic life. Jeffery is now certified to scuba dive, and the pair recently went out to eat together in one of their first “traditional” dates. But they’re not feeling beholden to pre-pandemic norms about what their relationship should be.
“Because of the circumstances that we met under, we haven’t really had a chance to even have something close to what we would have considered the normalcy of before,” Sherrell said. “For me, it’s more like figuring out what our new normal will eventually be.”
Zoom helps Canadian grandparents attend wedding
When Lansing resident Ashlea Phenicie got engaged in February 2020, she never imagined a scenario in which her grandparents wouldn’t be there in person to see her get married.
The 200-person wedding she and Daniel Lance were planning was quickly scrapped after the pandemic took hold, and they opted instead for a 10-person ceremony outdoors at Lansing’s Frances Park Rose Garden last September.
But Phenicie’s grandparents, Ray and Eveline Levasseur, live in Canada, and border restrictions have been in effect since the pandemic reached Michigan. Both Phenicie and her grandparents were heartbroken, but determined to make the best of the situation.
As they were driving to the ceremony, Phenicie said she had a heartfelt phone conversation with her grandparents, who told her they were proud and happy for her. A friend recorded the ceremony so they and other remote family members could tune in.
“Our solution was that my uncle went over to their house and set up Zoom and taught them how to use Zoom, and they actually projected it on their TV,” she said. “They got all dressed up in their little living room and they Zoomed in…I think that was the only way my grandparents could be at peace with it.”
Phenicie said she and her grandparents keep up a Facebook chat throughout the week, and typically do a video call at least once a month and on holidays. Post-pandemic, she thinks it will be a nice addition to keeping in touch across an international border — but the restrictions on in-person interaction have shown her how important those moments are to her.
“It has been really hard and really sad that there is no possibility of seeing each other in person, even if something terrible happens or something great like a wedding,” Phenicie said. “I think that technology has brought a lot of relief that we can still connect with someone… but to only have that doesn’t feel great.”
Using Facebook as a neighborhood gathering space
As it became clear group gatherings and casual face-to-face interactions weren’t going to be safe for a while, Justin Engel didn’t want to lose his sense of community.
The communications specialist at Saginaw Valley State University and former MLive/Saginaw News reporter was inspired to start a Facebook page, “Saginaw during the virus,” on March 15, 2020 to share updates and keep in touch.
“This was very much a global event that was going to be affecting us at a neighborhood level, and so I wanted something that kind of addressed that,” he said.
Engel initially invited about 40 friends and acquaintances who lived or worked in Saginaw to join the group, but within two weeks, it had ballooned to more than 1,400 members. Over the course of the year, Engel said the space, now at 1,800 members, has served many purposes — concierge service, community message board, virtual town square, group therapy.
Posts have ranged from memorials for prominent community members who died of COVID-19 to people sharing their takeout orders in support of their favorite Saginaw-area restaurant. More recently, much of the conversation has focused on vaccination updates and where people can go to sign up, Engel said.
He said many members have helped each other answer those questions, pointing one another to the resources they need.
“That’s what neighbors are for. That’s what you used to be able to do when you could walk across the street and talk to your neighbor up close,” he said. “Now we’re just doing it in this digital, virtual space.”
Initially, Engel said he hoped there wouldn’t be a need for the group for very long, that Saginaw residents and the rest of the world would soon be able to return to their pre-pandemic activities. Now that it’s been a year, he said he’ll leave its future up to the community — but for now, he keeps posting.
What comes next
Once Sherrell and Jeffrey are able, they’d like to travel on adventures and take part in some of the more traditional couple activities they haven’t had a chance to do yet, like meeting more of each other’s friends and family.
Phenicie is looking forward to the day the border reopens so she can see her grandparents again, and Engel is hoping he’ll be able to meet up with some of the new friends he’s made online over a steak sandwich at Tony’s, a well-known restaurant in Saginaw.
But after living so long with so much virtual communication, transitioning back into more traditional in-person interactions could be almost as tough as it was to shift away from them in the first place, experts say.
As the vaccine is distributed and the pandemic subsides, Dorrance Hall warned that after all this time, much of what was previously considered “normal” — like going into the office every day or attending a family gathering with distant relatives — is going to be an abrupt transition, especially for those who have largely stayed at home through the pandemic and have gotten used to the bulk of their interactions being experienced through a screen.
“A lot of people are going to struggle a lot with communication apprehension going back, just the anxiety of doing the small talk,” she said. “Being around other people all the time, we’re so out of practice with that. And so some people will jump into that really excited and willing, but I think a lot of us will experience a lot of emotional exhaustion around that.”
That said, Dorrance Hall noted humans are resilient — just as they adjusted to the realities of COVID-19, people will be able to adjust again to whatever their post-pandemic life looks like. She encouraged people to talk frankly with the people in their lives about the realities of their experience, recognizing the negatives while also identifying the positives.
“We do engage in this resilience process with others, so it’s really important to engage in communication with people about this,” she said. “We’re about to have to go through a whole other set of adjustments… but we can actually talk normalcy into being.
“Through our communication, we make sense of this and identify what we’re going to bring from this experience into our future…and make sure that what’s really important to us, we can continue and make routine.”
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