Lost in the crowd: When a pandemic takes away the friends we didn’t know we had

A.W. Geiger
·9 min read

If I were to ask you how your relationships have changed over the past year, which ones do you think of first? Maybe a roommate who saw your ups and downs. Or a partner who you’re a little annoyed with. Perhaps a family member whose quarantine hobby makes you smile.

And what about those other ones, the less obvious but equally steady ones? The barista who always asks you how you’re doing. Your charming dance teacher. That acquaintance you always seem to run into. Did you just feel a pang in your chest?

The coronavirus pandemic has had clear and irreversible effects on the relationships in our lives, including these serendipitous relationships we don’t always think about. As part of a series on the pandemic’s effects on Charlotteans’ relationships, we explored how COVID-19 has affected casual relationships — and revealed how important they were all along.

‘It’s not just a haircut’

Family, close friends, romantic partners — the importance of these relationships to our well-being is clear to anyone. Yet casual relationships, dubbed “weak ties” in 1973 by sociologist Mark S. Granovetter — are arguably just as important. Passive relationships improve your happiness, grow your network and expand your world perspective.

“There are certain things we need socially,” said Charlotte-based therapist Veronda Bellamy. “One of those things is that we need to feel connected to people. It’s important we have those connections, whether it’s a librarian or someone you’re used to seeing day-to-day; going to the grocery store, the nail salon; having those transient relationships. Not having that now is really having an impact.”

“If you’re being reasonably COVID safe, a lot of those traditional avenues for connection aren’t there right now,” said Ryan Wishart, a psychotherapist who has a private practice based out of Charlotte. “That’s coworker relationships, going to the bar, going out to dates, hobbies, church communities. All those things I would get clients to do normally – you can’t now.”

Charlotte psychotherapist Ryan Wishart said it’s harder to make connections during COVID-19.
Charlotte psychotherapist Ryan Wishart said it’s harder to make connections during COVID-19.

That some talk about casual relationships as unofficial stand-in therapy lends more credence to their power. (How many times have you found yourself divulging your life’s details to your hairstylist? Surely more than once.)

“Everyone has some ‘therapist’ in their life,” said Amy Kunz, a licensed marriage and family therapist whose practice is based in Charlotte. “But now, we can’t get our hair cut, we can’t go to the bar. One of my clients said, ‘I’m down a therapist. I can’t get a haircut.’ I think people generally feel like that. It’s not just a haircut. It’s not just a drink at a bar. It’s a connection.”

‘They just want to dance’

As we all know now, passive closeness plays an underappreciated role in many experiences, whether it’s rubbing shoulders with a stranger at a show or sliding between sports fans to get the bartender’s attention on game night.

For dance, the power of casual intimacy is particularly profound, and this is particularly true for Latin dance, which is, at its core, all about closeness. (Just look up sensual bachata on YouTube.) Which begs the question for those dancers: How do you practice a dance of closeness when you can’t be close to anyone?

Jennifer Geyer, owner of Charlotte-based Rumbao Latin Dance Company, which offers classes, was forced to answer that question when COVID-19 came knocking.

Jennifer Geyer, owner of Rumbao Latin Dance Company in Charlotte, said COVID-19 has changed nearly everything about how her students practice.
Jennifer Geyer, owner of Rumbao Latin Dance Company in Charlotte, said COVID-19 has changed nearly everything about how her students practice.

“From what I can tell, our pre-COVID community has been really sad in losing something they relied on and depended on,” Geyer said. “For them, it was really tough to not have socials (dance events), to not go out and meet friends and dance with friends. It’s not the same when you’re not socializing and switching partners.”

“It was really sad because we had a lot of support pre-COVID, and when we tried to move them online at the beginning, we felt like, ‘No one’s coming anymore.’” she said. “But, you know, everyone was going through the same thing. … This is a pandemic, everyone is adjusting, people are losing their jobs.”

Latin dance is “not the same when you’re not socializing and switching partners,” which meant a lot of adjustments at Rumbao Latin Dance Company, owner Jennifer Geyer said.
Latin dance is “not the same when you’re not socializing and switching partners,” which meant a lot of adjustments at Rumbao Latin Dance Company, owner Jennifer Geyer said.

Though reforming her dance company to accommodate the pandemic’s limitations was daunting, Geyer channeled an attitude of flexibility and creativity into online class offerings — at one point offering classes for free — and more.

And through the challenges came unexpected silver linings. She’s been able to work on high-quality videos showing off the dancers’ talents. She’s also better able to focus on individual dancers’ technique.

“Most people in my classes are brand-new,” Geyer said. “What’s nice is I can set a new expectation of what happens in class. They’re a clean slate. They just want to dance.”

After almost a year of dealing with COVID-19, Jennifer Geyer said most of the students at Rumbao Latin Dance Company in Charlotte are now newcomers and she’s better able to focus on individuals.
After almost a year of dealing with COVID-19, Jennifer Geyer said most of the students at Rumbao Latin Dance Company in Charlotte are now newcomers and she’s better able to focus on individuals.

A safe space for Black women

The necessity of community and connection holds particularly true for Black women, who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and whose role in broader socio-political movements have often been sold short.

The Black Girls Social Club, which has a Charlotte chapter, was created to offer a safe space for Black women to connect, support each other and grow.

“I believe that we have created a space for Black women who feel like they don’t fit into the clichés,” said Charlotte chapter president Nicole Goode. “(With the club,) they don’t have to be a certain way. … When we’re in these spaces, we don’t have to perform. We can be ourselves.

“I know a lot of women who have transplanted to Charlotte,” Goode said. “They don’t have anyone here. We’re trying to be that for them: their friend, their family, their mom, their aunt. They might say, ‘I miss my friend, and I want to see them.’ And we want them to think, ‘But I have this other friend from BGSC who I can reach out to.’”

Months after BGSC was founded, COVID-19 swung a wrecking ball at the very idea of close connections. Yet, while a social club and a pandemic might make an unfair pair, the social club managed to not only survive but thrive, with 2,200 members worldwide and counting.

“I think a lot of members are joining because they’re seeking that special social space,”founder and CEO Carmen Jones said. “They’re joining because they’re lonely. They’re bored. They’re at home with a partner and want their space. They want that social connection.”

And that desire for connection extends beyond the isolation wrought by the pandemic. In a year that laid bare painful realities about U.S. society, from violence against Black bodies to political turmoil, The Black Girls Social Club created a refuge for Black women.

“Black people are looking for a safe space,” Jones said. “And I think the Black Girls Social Club provides that.”

How to find community over coffee in a pandemic

Casual connections flourish at local coffee shops, which play an undeniably essential role in a community.

“A coffee shop is the first place for people to go to to find connection,” said Taylor Russell, manager at Smelly Cat Coffee House & Roastery. “You can still do that now, but it’s limited. It’s harder to have those longer conversations, those connections.

“I miss that sense of getting to meet new people — just our customers randomly striking up a conversation, or when customers become best friends or when a new family moves into the area. I definitely miss that a lot.”

For the team at Smelly Cat, a beloved coffee shop in NoDa, maintaining that community connection while respecting COVID-19 protocols is key.

“Everyone adapted pretty well and was understanding that we needed to take these precautions during this time,” manager Taylor Russell said. “When we realized we would stay in this business model for as long as we needed to, everyone started to find some creative ways to make that connection with people.”

Baristas at Smelly Cat Coffeehouse & Roastery, normally a prime place to make connections, have seen customers adapt to a new normal during COVID-19.
Baristas at Smelly Cat Coffeehouse & Roastery, normally a prime place to make connections, have seen customers adapt to a new normal during COVID-19.

The coffee house’s committed staff has gone above and beyond to maintain their intimate connection with the community, from small gestures like personalized notes on customers’ bags and cups to larger ones like having employees test the flow of the new system by “playing the customer” earlier in the pandemic. And with a majority of customers expressing appreciation, Smelly Cat’s “new normal” has paid off.

A casual connection at a coffee shop looks different now — you might get a smiley face on your cup instead of an hour-long conversation with a new friend. But connection is connection.

And sometimes it comes with a tail.

“One thing I’ve noticed is how we’ve had a lot more neighborhood dogs in people’s daily routines,” Russell said, laughing. “We’ve started making a lot more puppuccinos. I’ve even started a highlight on our Instagram about the dogs because so many come now. Now we know most peoples’ dogs in the neighborhood.”

‘You can make beauty where you are’

“It’s been a tough year for everyone, and yet I really believe there are going to be great things that come from COVID,” Bellamy said. “There really has been a huge sense of community I’ve noticed when I am outside. I’ve noticed people are more patient. There has been this humanity that has grown.”

“We’re coming to a place of acceptance and realizing, ‘OK, this is what it is. It’s probably never going to go back to the way things were. What do I do now?’” Bellamy said. “And we have to have connections and relationships in order to feel well. It’s important to come to acceptance and define what you need going forward.”

“Lend a hand where you can,” Bellamy continued. “Help others be in a better position. … Give from a full cup. Make sure you’re making change in your neck of the woods, no matter where you are. You can make beauty where you are. That’s what’s important.”

Taking just a moment to make someone feel cared for is important now, Goode said.

“I think it’s up to [each] person to make a conscious decision to communicate with those around them,” Goode said. “Making an effort and asking, ‘How are you doing?’ And saying, ‘No, really, how are you doing?’ … It’s important to appreciate the God-given friendships that you have and to take full advantage of them.”

Read more

Should you just give up dating for a year+? How does finding love work during COVID?

So close, but so far: The challenges of being alone and being with others during COVID

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