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Seeking socialization in strange times, people turn to virtual happy hours and birthday parties

To celebrate her son Bobby's first birthday, Liz Burnham originally was going to host about 20 relatives and close friends at her and her partner's house in Mystic for a lumberjack-themed party, in part because "Bobby looks great in a plaid shirt."

But Burnham's brother was self-isolating after traveling, and her mother was in a public-facing position working at a town hall that hadn't closed down yet, and her father-in-law has health issues that made exposure to anything a concern.

So, Burnham canceled the party and instead held a 22-person virtual party via the video conferencing service Zoom on March 28, with attendees from as far away as California and Arizona.

They tried singing Happy Birthday but, with the video lag, it did not go well. Burnham only sees her cousins roughly every six months, so everyone went around to give a life update.

"It became a lot less focused on Bobby than it would've been otherwise, but it was, I think, really nice to have a chance to catch up with everybody and see how everybody was affected," she said.

Burnham, 36, made a yule log cake to go with the lumberjack theme but was pleased to otherwise not have any food to make, and to keep the camera on the clean part of her home rather than having to clean everywhere.

With COVID-19 and its consequent stay-home orders upending traditional social plans, people have turned online for virtual birthday parties, happy hours and movie nights.

For Maddy Biggins, celebrating her 22nd birthday on March 31 meant eating cake and opening cards with her family at home in Stonington, and then hopping on a Zoom call with eight or nine friends. It was a mix of high school and college friends, meaning some were just meeting for the first time.

They talked about things like their online schoolwork, a summer internship and a hair-dying trend going around on video-sharing social media network TikTok.

"We're all bummed that we couldn't see each other, because in years past we've gone out to eat, but it still felt like normal just being able to see everyone," Biggins said.

Groton resident Liz Duarte, 67, has taken to holding virtual happy hours twice a week with her friend Deb de la Cruz and a few members of de la Cruz's family. The tradition started out as a virtual coffee hour, as Duarte had gotten used to going out for coffee and meeting friends for breakfast.

"I think what I loved the most was we could just laugh, and there was more than one person laughing," Duarte said. She's also "not a big phone person," preferring to see people's faces. People on the call might show off things around the house or their flowers, or talk about how their kids are doing with distance learning.

"I look forward to it and it's a reason to put on earrings in the morning," Duarte said. "Someone might see me."

Duarte is also in a local chapter of the progressive social club Drinking Liberally, which usually meets at The Social in New London, but she set up a Zoom meeting with 15 or 16 people this month. Some things haven't changed: They're still talking about voter suppression.

Just checking in

In New London, Elaine Maynard-Adams, 60, has been having a virtual happy hour on FaceTime once or twice a week with six to 12 family members in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Every drink becomes a coronavirus drink, so someone might be drinking a "COVID-19 cosmo" or a "COVID-19 margarita."

"We try to keep the conversation light," Maynard-Adams said. Some lament the fact that the Boston Red Sox season hasn't started yet, whereas others are grateful because they think "it's going to be a pretty crummy season." There's talk of remote learning from those home with children, and trading of meal recipes.

"Just the opportunity for all of us to get together, it's like sitting in somebody's living room when we're all together or out on my back deck at a pool party," Maynard-Adams said. "For me, it just gives me the satisfaction of knowing that everybody's OK."

Niantic resident Dale Goulekas, 62, is doing virtual happy hours with a group of 10 family members and friends. Goulekas is retired but has some people in the group working from home — for insurance agencies, auto businesses and a real estate company — so they aim to start about 5:30 in the evening.

"We'll just go around and ask what everybody did today," Goulekas said, "and some people are cleaning out closets, some people are making masks, other people are doing a lot of cooking."

They'll talk about the news and how it's affecting everybody, and the big discussion this week was plans for Easter.

Watching movies 'together'

Along with virtual birthday parties and happy hours, some are having a Netflix Party. You can add an extension to the Google Chrome browser that lets viewers in different locations start a movie at the same time and write comments on the side.

That's what Kim Thompson, 32, has been doing with members of the Lyme-Old Lyme Junior Women's Club, a service organization. They watched "Julie and Julia" on Tuesday night and plan on watching an Adam Sandler movie Friday night, "something fun for husbands to watch, too."

"It's just like that chatter you get during a movie," Thompson said of the group chat, which on Tuesday included comments like, "I'm so hungry now that we're watching this" and "Oh gosh, I could never cook a lobster."

She also had a Zoom call for her 4-year-old, Adora, and other kids about her age.

"One of them was outside showing their friends all the stuff they had colored with chalk. One of them wanted to show their dress-up outfits," Thompson said. She added, "At one point, my daughter had her harmonica, and one of the other little girls had her toy piano, and I'm like, 'Oh my God, we have a little 4-year-old jam session going on.'"


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