Coronavirus pandemic inspires neighborhood dance parties, taco Tuesdays: ‘There's lots of ways we can connect across 6 feet'

Ken Whitley and neighbors held an impromptu block party on their cul-de-sac in their metro Atlanta neighborhood, sitting in pods that are six feet apart and outlined on the street with chalk. (Credit: Heather Whitley)
Ken Whitley and neighbors held an impromptu block party on their cul-de-sac in their metro Atlanta neighborhood, sitting in pods that are six feet apart and outlined on the street with chalk. (Credit: Heather Whitley)

From neighborhood dance parties to bingo nights, people across the nation are finding creative ways to connect with their neighbors outside of their homes, while also respecting social distancing rules.

In Bayville, NJ, residents organized bingo night from the safety of their own decks, calling out each number drawn over megaphone. In Berkley, Calif., neighbors gathered outside their homes, some with tambourines in hand, to sing together. In Olathe, Kan., neighbors organized “taco tuesday” with each other, eating the meals at the end of their driveways. And in Provincetown, Mass., residents gathered at a distance on the beach to serenade Ilona Royce Smithkin, who turned 100 last week.

“These folks who are doing those behaviors are taking a page out of all the happiness scientific work,” says Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University and host of the podcast, The Happiness Lab. “There's so much research suggesting that the one thing we really need for happiness is social connection. Happy people tend to spend more time with others.”

Heather Whitley, a freelance writer, lives in a neighborhood in the metro Atlanta area that regularly gets together for block parties — until the pandemic hit and social distancing became the norm.  Three weeks ago, before Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp ordered a statewide stay-at-home order, Whitley says she noticed her husband and her neighbor sitting outside in their cul-de-sac in beach chairs… six feet apart

“I looked out there and I was like, well, that's cute and clever. So I went out with some sidewalk chalk, and I just drew circles around them,” she says. 

Related Video: Neighbors Hold Social Distancing Block Party

More neighbors joined, more circles were drawn. 

At one point, she says she took out a megaphone to speak with neighbors in the pods farthest away from her. “It was good to have some sense of normalcy again, to say, ‘Hey, it's Friday night. We're still able to go outside and see our neighbors, see our friends, and talk like we normally would.’”

Neighbors in a metro Atlanta neighborhood gathered for a spontaneous block party, after drawing social distancing pods, spaced six feet apart, on the street with chalk. (Photo: Walt Deetz)
Neighbors in a metro Atlanta neighborhood gathered for a spontaneous block party, after drawing social distancing pods, spaced six feet apart, on the street with chalk. (Photo: Walt Deetz)

“These folks have realized that social distancing doesn't have to mean social isolation,” says Santos. “There's lots of ways we can connect across six feet. And the act of getting creative about doing so is a way to preserve your mental health in a really challenging time.”

But as more states mandate stay-at-home orders, Whitley says she and her neighbors are less inclined to stage block parties — even at a safe distance.

Santos says there are still options to connect and enjoy the outdoors, and encourages people to get outside and exercise — at safe social distances, of course — or take an online exercise class. But, she says, there’s something particularly beneficial when physical activity is combined with the social. 

“One thing we know is that exercise isn't just good for physical health. It's really essential for mental health,” she says. “A half hour of cardio every morning is as effective as a prescription of Zoloft for reducing depression symptoms.”

Lisa Kubes, a physical therapist who lives in Marietta, Ga., says she sees many families taking advantage of the nice weather by walking around a road that forms a loop in her neighborhood.

She had the idea with a friend to create a circuit on the loop, creating stations along the route and writing exercise instructions on the ground in chalk like “10 jumping jacks” or “dance!”

Mackenzie and Maddox Germany do jumping jacks in a makeshift circuit loop created by a physical therapist in the neighborhood. (Photo: Teri Germany)
Mackenzie and Maddox Germany do jumping jacks in a makeshift circuit loop created by a physical therapist in the neighborhood. (Photo: Teri Germany)

“I think people are so desperate for the fresh air and to be out of their house for a few minutes, that what it's actually doing is connecting us in a way that probably would've never happened otherwise, ” she says.
Kubes, who leads a running club for elementary students called Kilometer Kids, had originally intended the stations as a way to motivate students in the neighborhood to run and move. But, she says entire families started doing her circuits — at a distance from other families.

Santos says Kubes is not only encouraging people to get active, she’s spreading kindness. 

“In addition to getting exercise and finding a way to be social, she's also doing this nice thing where she's giving the people of her community something to look forward to,” says Santos. “Whatever we can do in this time to be more other-oriented, it's great because it helps other people, but it's also great because it improves their own personal well-being too.”