woman eating lunch practicing social distancing

Socializing After “Safer At Home”

After nearly two months of staying home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Wisconsin and many other states are relaxing their guidelines. Restaurants, retail outlets, bars, fitness facilities, hair salons and many more businesses are reopening and office workers are returning to their business places as life begins to return to normal. But with the risk of infection still present, socializing safely will mean putting a few new practices into place.

Follow Suggested Guidelines

“It’s likely to be a ‘new normal’ for a while,” said Catherine Langdon, a Licensed Professional Counselor at the ThedaCare Behavioral Health in Menasha. “Social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding hugging and hand shaking and frequent hand washing may be a part of our lives for an extended period of time.”

When possible, people should follow the guidelines offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state and local health agencies and medical professionals to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This includes keeping your social circle small and take advantage of improving weather conditions to enjoy the company of friends and family outdoors where the risk of exposure may be lower. Organize walks, hikes, bike rides, badminton games, picnics and other activities that allow a small group of children and/or adults to gather and have fun while still maintaining social distancing – that is, staying six feet away from those who are not members of your household.

Set Boundaries

Nearly every person has experienced change because of the pandemic. With this in mind, it is going to be an important time for everyone to be respectful of one another’s opinions and the level of risk with which others feel comfortable.

“Generally being a good citizen and community member means respecting the level of risk other people are comfortable with,” Langdon said. “We have a number of people in our population – older people and those with chronic diseases or compromised immune systems – who are more vulnerable and at higher risk to get COVID-19. Acting in ways to help protect them is responsible.”

Keeping fellow community members safe might include using an elbow bump or “air” high five in place of hand shaking. Relying on social media and video platforms to stay connected with more vulnerable family and friends is also encouraged.

“There is a normal grieving process when we can’t act as we would like, and it’s okay to feel that way,” said Langdon. “To deal with those feelings, it’s best to focus on what we can control and how we can maintain safety for ourselves and those we love.”

Be Respectful

The key to adapting successfully to these changes is mutual respect. It’s okay to respectfully disagree with others and set your own boundaries. Getting into arguments through social media sites or in person, on the other hand, isn’t helpful.

“You simply can say, ‘I respect that you feel differently and let’s agree to disagree at this point’,” Langdon explained.

Inevitably, we all have friends who have responded differently to the pandemic. Respecting their choices while continuing to act in the way that makes you feel comfortable may mean you won’t be able to interact closely for a while.

“They can choose to do what they want to do, and you can continue to act in the way that makes you feel comfortable,” she said. “It’s not personal; it’s about how other people feel and allowing them to do what they feel is best for them. At the same time, we can do what we feel is best for us.”

Reach Out for Help

Many of us – especially those choosing to stay home – continue to be negatively impacted by social isolation. Without regular human contact, it’s common to experience increased depression or anxiety, which can lead to physical symptoms such as a loss of appetite, poor sleep, sleeping too much, having less energy and being less motivated.

“If you are experiencing any of those symptoms,” said Langdon, “Don’t hesitate to reach out for help from your medical provider, a therapist or a friend.”

Langdon encourages people to use the resources they have to make connections.

“If you can get online, video call or use other platforms to connect with family or friends,” she said. “There are also reliable chat rooms or forums for people who are struggling. If you don’t have Internet connectivity, you can leave a note on a neighbor’s door or just make a phone call. We are social beings and everybody has different needs socially.”

You might also consider doing some of the things you don’t necessarily feel like doing, such as cleaning your house, making a good meal, and getting enough sleep.

Those experiencing significant mental or emotional stress can reach out to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) for peer-to-peer support, or text The Center for Suicide Awareness HOPELINE – 741741 to chat with a trained specialist 24/7.

Stay Positive & Be Kind

Last, but not least, it’s good to practice gratitude for the good things in our life, even if life is not perfect.

“A positive attitude goes a long way toward helping us find ways to cope,” she said. “Think positively and try to be creative to improve your situation.”

While the relaxation of the safer-at-home guidelines is good news to many, not everyone will be comfortable re-engaging in activities like eating at restaurants, letting kids have play dates, attending weddings or other social gatherings or working out at fitness facilities.

“Everyone gets to set their own boundaries, and we all need to respect other people’s opinions and comfort zones,” she said. “By doing so, we can continue to work together to control the spread of the virus and help our communities return to normal and move forward in our lives.”