3 years later, the pandemic cocoon is giving way to social butterflies
Long after Maine’s first case of coronavirus, communal activities and gatherings are reaching pre-pandemic levels again, though troubling remnants of isolation persist.
The thwack of beanbags hitting cornhole boards reverberated throughout a building in Portland’s Old Port on a recent weeknight.
Participation in indoor tournaments has made a big comeback, organizers said. And renewed interest in recreation programs like cornhole competitions is one of many signs that perhaps people are socializing more as Maine marks three years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s just a nice feeling to be able to get outside of your own house and spend time with people doing things,” said Morgan Segale of Westbrook, a member of the Hot Dog on a Stick cornhole team.
The first official case of COVID-19 in Maine was reported on March 12, 2020. Along with the waves of sickness, hospitalizations and deaths that followed, the pandemic brought more remoteness and social isolation into our lives.
Remote work, remote school, remote chats with families or friends.
There is no comprehensive data to measure to what extent people are currently socializing in person – going to dances, concerts, plays, bars and restaurants, playing sports, hosting dinner parties, attending church. The routine activities were disrupted by COVID-19 restrictions that limited gatherings. And even when the restrictions largely were lifted in 2021 and 2022, waves of new COVID-19 variants made many people – especially older adults – reluctant to return to what used to be typical activities.
Is 2023 the year we return to normal, whatever that means nowadays? Some signs indicate social gatherings are coming back.
• Parks and recreation departments are reporting surging enrollment in youth and adult sports, senior trips, arts and cooking classes, swim lessons and summer camps. Both Portland and Falmouth parks and recreation departments are at levels that exceed 2019 sign-ups.
• Some social clubs, such as the Woodfords Club and Irish American Club in Portland, are reporting participation numbers that nearly match or exceed 2019 levels.
• Casco Bay Sports, an adult recreational sports program that operates leagues for about 12,000 adults in Greater Portland, is now back to 2019 levels after nearly three years of reduced participation.
But there also are indications that some social activities remain less robust than pre-pandemic times. And the pandemic effects are intertwined with a continuing long-term trend away from socializing in person as online interaction and social media become more dominant.
• Some schools report a return to social activities among students, while others see extracurricular participation continue to lag. High school sports participation is down, although that also reflects a longer-term trend that began before the pandemic.
• In a recent survey conducted for Newsweek magazine, 42% of respondents said they are less sociable than they were in 2019.
• Time spent socializing, attending church and other social activities fell from 2019 to 2021 and has been on a steady decline for at least a decade, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. Meanwhile, time spent watching television increased.
The pandemic is by no means over. It remains a daily concern for some, and a shift in conditions could chill social activities again.
While the illness caused by the virus no longer causes severe symptoms for most vaccinated people, some who are more vulnerable do develop complications and others struggle with a variety of chronic symptoms – what’s known as long COVID-19. More than 170 hospital patients statewide had the disease as of Friday, including 33 in critical care.
The bottom line is we won’t know for some time what is happening right now on a societal level, said James Cook, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maine at Augusta.
“One of the things that we can know is trends that are close to us, such as with our family, friends groups, participation in local organizations,” Cook said. “But one of the problems with local information is it’s really not representative of the whole. People associate with others who are like themselves.”
Cook said, for example, that participation in local parks and recreation programs only measures the activities of people who are inclined to participate in those programs and is not representative of the general population. That’s true of any number of groups, such as church congregations.
What is known is that people are social animals, and isolation is a severe threat to overall health.
Isolation can cause depression and anxiety, dementia and increased risk of heart disease, strokes and suicide, among other health problems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some people who try to avoid the virus for a variety of reasons – including those with compromised immune systems – are finding ways to maintain social connections. But people who avoid crowds and indoor gatherings, if they are not vigilant about cultivating friendships and finding ways to socialize, are at risk of isolating themselves.
Gail Carlson of Waterville said her socializing has changed, but she does not feel isolated.
“The biggest thing is no one comes to my house and I don’t eat inside in restaurants and bars,” said the 56-year-old, who feels a duty to avoid contracting or spreading the virus. “I will mask everywhere I go inside. My friends know that Gail is going to want to go outside or meet outside.”
Carlson said she “doesn’t feel hamstrung” by her limitations and she has gone to see indoor shows in New York City – masked – and traveled to the U.K.
“I’ve been able to do everything I want to do,” Carlson said. “I haven’t felt like I had to say no to people.”
CLUBS, ACTIVITIES SEE STRONG DEMAND
Some groups are reporting very high interest in social activities that were cut off during the worst years of the pandemic.
Nick Cliche, recreation director for the Portland Parks and Recreation Department, said current demand has surpassed 2019 levels. The department would offer even more programming if it had the staff to manage it.
“The desire for people to recreate both inside and outside is very high at this point,” Cliche said. And it’s not just youth sports. Senior trips, such as museum outings, have nearly doubled compared with 2019, and cooking and drawing classes are full. Youth sports like basketball and indoor soccer are at unprecedented levels in recent years, and more people are using Riverside Golf Course.
“There was a lot of pent-up demand, with people not having the ability to do things for so long,” he said.
Patrick Hackleman, managing director of Casco Bay Sports, which operates adult rec leagues, including the cornhole league, said participation came back in phases, starting with outdoor sports. The final groups to return to full participation were for close-contact indoor sports like basketball and floor hockey.
“We are finally at 100% of 2019 levels,” said Hackleman, who believes population growth in Greater Portland is also playing a role in demand. “It took us two years and nine months to come back 100%, but now we are doing great. People are very excited to be exercising with us again.
At the Woodfords Club in Portland, membership is up slightly compared with 2019, at about 160 members, said David Magee, vice president and rental manager. The club hosts a wide variety of activities, including gatherings for board games and role-playing games, candlepin bowling, dancing, bridge, dinners and billiards. The club is also booked for events like weddings and parties. And Magee said a group that plays board games has brought an infusion of younger people into the club.
“We’re in a very good place right now. We get calls every week from people asking about becoming members,” Magee said. “It’s certainly a relief to be able to get out and be among people again.”
Mike Freethy, president of the Irish American Club of Maine, said membership is nearly at 2019 levels, and the club is seeing an influx of younger people participating in dancing and live music events.
“People were tired of being indoors and stuck away from others,” Freethy said.
SOME YOUNG PEOPLE ‘HESITANT’
While data shows participation in high school sports declining as part of a longer-term trend, there is no comparable data about participation in other extracurricular activities, such as band, school plays, robotics clubs, chess clubs, speech and debate teams.
The South Portland High School marching band’s numbers have been decimated since the pandemic, band director Craig Skeffington said.
“During the pandemic, middle school kids were never brought into the world of extracurriculars, so they didn’t get into them at the high school level,” Skeffington said. And some students seem to be struggling from missed socialization.
“When we shut down, I think they shut down socially,” Skeffington said. Some students now seem more withdrawn, less mature and less adept at social interactions, he said.
Recently released research from the journal PLOS One concludes that the personalities of young adults have changed as a result of the pandemic. Over time, according to the research, young adults learn to decrease stress levels and increase traits such as agreeableness and conscientiousness. But by 2021 and 2022, young adults had lagging levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness and increased levels of stress, suggesting delayed levels of maturity.
“We often talk about how far behind students are academically, but the socialization has also impacted kids,” Skeffington said.
Clubs at Cape Elizabeth High School are up and running at pre-pandemic levels, Principal John Springer said. Demand for the programs, including robotics, speech and debate, model UN and the flying disc game known as “ultimate,” has been strong since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.
“Students were ready to get back into it,” he said.
At Old Orchard Beach, John Suttie, superintendent and high school principal, said participation levels are strong, but the school has had to shift how it engages with students.
“You can’t just throw out a sign-up sheet anymore,” Suttie said. “You have to invite them. You have to go an extra step or two and talk to them about it if they’re hesitant.”
For the juniors and seniors, they’ve bounced back quickly and returned to school activities, Suttie said. For students who were in middle school at the start of the pandemic, it’s taken longer to get them involved in the school, he said.
Summer St. Louis, an 18-year-old senior at Old Orchard Beach High School, said she’s seeing an increased interest in activities from her fellow students this year. She plays soccer, basketball and softball and serves on the student council and as a class adviser. Her peers are much the same.
St. Louis said she sees more people interested in joining student council. Attendance at homecoming was high and they’ve sold more winter formal tickets than they expected. And she said the the yearbook committee and prom committee are both very popular.
OLDER ADULTS ‘BACK IN DROVES’
At the People Plus senior community center in Brunswick, director Stacy Frizzle-Edgerton said she can’t expand the center’s programming fast enough.
Membership has increased 30%, programs have more capacity than ever, but there are still waitlists for every class.
“Seniors are back in droves,” she said. “I think the isolation of the pandemic really brought home the message that isolation ages you, and they don’t want to be alone anymore. They really got how important it is to have friends and be social.”
The Rev. Jane Field, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, said that in-person church attendance is rebounding, but most churches are maintaining livestreaming of services and archived videos of services to reach more people. For instance, some older adults may be too ill to attend church some weeks and appreciate the online service, and families with young children may find it more convenient to tune in from home. So while in-person attendance at most churches has not returned to 2019 levels, they are reaching more people, Field said.
At the cornhole tournament, which was held at X-Golf Portland, beanbags arced through the air, a few sliding and falling through the holes or pushing other bags out of the way. Players high-fived, laughed, drank and made “cornholey” jokes.
Al Kane, an expert cornhole player who also runs the league, said he’s noticed that not only are the players back – about 25 took part in the tournament – but also everyone seems a little more excited and enthusiastic to be back playing and enjoying each other’s company.
“After being locked behind our own doors, not being able to do stuff, you really appreciate times like these,” Kane said. “You don’t take anything for granted like you used to.”
Staff writer Lana Cohen contributed to this article.