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Coronavirus

The coronavirus has disrupted the rhythm of Coloradans’ daily life. That can leave uncomfortable voids.

From vanpools to worship to the sudden halt of live sports, the changes have forced many to seek alternative solutions that reinforce social connections

Members of the choir at St. John's Cathedral in Denver practice social distancing as they're pre-recorded for Holy Week services that will appear online. (Provided by Noble Bison Productions)
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Well into the stay-at-home order for all Coloradans prompted by the new coronavirus, the incremental isolation strategies have brought one thing into sharp focus: We are creatures of habit, and many once-reliable social — and even spiritual — anchors have all but disappeared.

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They pale in comparison to the dangers posed by the pandemic. But the absence of reliable rituals from the commute to work to the cultural touchstones of seasonal sports and weekly worship has disrupted the rhythms of our routines. 

“I think for a day or two, it was a shock to the system more than anything,” says Jonathan Stone, a Denver electrician.

He was talking about the sudden emptiness once filled by live sports — for him, especially the pause in the Colorado Avalanche season.

“Everything was postponed,” Stone says. “College hockey, college baseball — they just canceled the seasons. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing. Even my men’s hockey league has been postponed, so I can’t even do that. It took a few days for the shock to wear off. I’ve got to find something else now.”

In ways large and small, the dependable activities that provide the scaffolding of daily life have taken a hit from the social restrictions introduced to combat the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, says Jamie Vickery, a research associate at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado and a postdoctoral associate at the university’s Institute of Behavioral Science. 

“Sports fans getting unmoored by the absence of live sports, people not being able to attend religious services — people are feeling voids in their everyday life,” she says. “It may feel trivial, something like being able to go to a local coffee shop, but we have these routines and feeling them upended is discomforting. Things people could anchor onto in the past for dealing with anxiety seem to be gone.”

Sona Dimidjian, director of the Renée Crown Wellness Institute and a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU, has done research for the past 20 years on an approach called behavioral activation. It’s a component of cognitive behavioral therapy, the most widely studied and scientifically supported approach for addressing depression and anxiety.

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) blows past Vancouver’s Tanner Pearson (70) during their NHL game at Rogers Arena on November 16, 2019 in Vancouver. The Avalanche won the game 5-4 in overtime. (Derek Cain, Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The way it works, Dimidjian explains, is that individuals are instructed to pay close attention to their daily activities and schedules, and write down a list of what they do and track how those activities make them feel. Then they look for links and patterns between activities and emotions or moods.

“One of the important aspects of depression is that those daily routines can become disrupted in ways that can lead to people continuing to feel down or to feeling worse over time,” she says. “We work with people to kind of become scientists of their own lives and noticing what the patterns are, and using that information to schedule activities and restore daily routines in ways that are supportive of one’s mood.”

More recently, she has been working with women in pregnancy and early parenting and collaboratively designing a peer mentoring program called Alma, often involving phone or video conferencing. The coronavirus has given new urgency to the effort.

“We’re looking at ways to make that program more widely available,” Dimidjian says, “given the vulnerability, social isolation and profound routine disruption that everybody has experienced that makes everyone more vulnerable to common mental health challenges like depression and anxiety. We know these skills are important in maintaining a positive mood.”

For many of those who now must work from home, the morning commute — in normal times a period of social interaction for some — meanders from the bedroom to wherever the laptop resides. Workday interactions with colleagues or fellow commuters, for better or worse, are reduced to phone calls and teleconferences.

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For the sports-minded, the cancellation or at the very least postponement of play has wrecked what many consider the most glorious time of year. Pro hockey and basketball were on the cusp of the playoffs — with both Colorado teams genuine championship contenders. March Madness was about to begin. And baseball, in a perfect world, would just be starting the near-daily grind with renewed hopes.

“Definitely that’s a means of escape on a daily basis,” Stone says of the live lineup of televised sports. “You want to go home and watch a game, but that’s not happening. There’s only so much watching the NFL Network you can do to get ready for the draft. It’s almost out of sight, out of mind.”

At least TV offers some options. For the fans invested in tickets to actual games, there’s nothing at all — just a void where there used to be the anticipation not only of the event, but the social connection with thousands of others participating in the shared joy of fandom.

Sports may approach religion for some. But more traditional faith-based institutions also have found that social distancing guidelines dilute the spiritual communion that provides regular replenishment for their congregations.

Many places of worship already have a working familiarity with technology, and so it’s not surprising that they’ve moved their services online so the faithful can participate from the safety of their homes. But while the internet can bring the words and sounds and images to the people, it doesn’t capture the human interaction that’s the foundation of any congregation.

Dr. Michael Boney, director of music at St. John’s Cathedral, plays the organ during pre-recording of Holy Week services that will be available online. (Provided by Noble Bison Productions)

At St. John’s Cathedral in Denver, the staff has taken all recommended measures to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, starting with the canceling of all public worship to meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guideline to limit the size of gatherings. Even as the Episcopal cathedral moved its offerings online, it limited to 10 the people who could be present for video prerecording of all upcoming Holy Week and Easter services. 

A musical quartet, two organists, two priests and two videographers. They made it under the wire by a few hours before the mayor tightened restrictions even further, says St. John’s Cathedral Dean Richard Lawson.

He makes two key points about the project. First, Lawson says he’s proud that the staff had the time and resources to produce a high-quality recording that will enable parishioners to hear the special music as well as the priests’ voices.

Dean Richard Lawson of St. John’s Cathedral pre-records a Holy Week sermon while being videotaped in March. The services, which can’t be held in the cathedral because of coronavirus guidelines, will be available online. (Provided by Noble Bison Productions)

“The second thing is, it’s not the same,” he adds. “I hope we never have to do this again. The church, at it’s best, is a meeting. It takes place at a real time and place. There’s so much we can’t turn into online content. There’s a hole and we can’t fill all of it.”

Vickery, the CU researcher, notes that from a social structure standpoint, not having that religious routine each week deprives worshippers of a way to think or pray on their anxieties or issues. In fact, there’s a term for the sociological concept of physically coming together for community and common purpose — “collective effervescence.”

“Not feeling that sense of community, people are trying to adjust virtually — and for some maybe that fills that hole,” she says. “But they’re not having that face-to-face conversation. There are so many other elements embedded in religious life, social networks that may originate within religious life but go far beyond walls of where people attend religious services.”

When Lawson speaks about the absence of that physical presence for his congregation, he repeatedly returns to a single word: Grief. Church, he notes, is meant to nurture flesh-and-blood interaction, whether it’s between two or 2,000 people. And it could still be quite a while before his parishioners are free to experience that.

Dean Richard Lawson speaks during the videotaping of Holy Week services a St. John’s Cathedral. The services will be available to view online. (Provided by Noble Bison Productions)

“It’s sad and it’s disappointing, but it’s understandable,” he says. “It’s going to be a season of grief, and all the technology in the world cannot take that away.”

That said, evolving science suggests that while online communication is different, it also offers benefits of increasing scale for engaging people, whether therapeutic purposes or just social gatherings, says Dimidjian of CU.

“This is not to say that we are moving toward a world where everything is remote and digital,” she adds, “but in the time we’re in, people can take comfort in knowing that research has been conducted that supports benefits that people can access through learning and connection in digital spaces.”

The temporary closing of the cathedral’s physical location has disrupted other rhythms in the community at large. Its commitment to providing space each week to recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous remains, though of course they, too, have had to take their meetings online. Unfortunately, something called the Women’s Homelessness Initiative, which provides a safe space and homecooked meals to more than two dozen women, can’t transition online and so has been suspended.

Write On, Colorado: Check out how Coloradans are dealing with the pandemic

As for parishioners, Lawson hears mostly how they miss each other — the weekly act of seeing friends, meeting new people and chatting with their priest.

“But the second thing I hear is that people are being inspired to pray and think theologically in new ways, on their own,” Lawson says. “They’re not as tethered. Learning to pray at home, to speak extemporaneously to God, is an incredible gift the season brings us. Praying at home, on a walk, just being conscious of the nearness of God’s spirit in our lives, we can do that now more than ever. Technology and stay-at-home orders shouldn’t affect that one iota.”

Stay-at-home orders did affect one everyday routine for a group of Colorado Springs residents — their commute.

The members have changed a bit over time, but the current group of five has been together for the past year. Elizabeth Lopez Vaughan was the most recent addition, last March. They meet at 6 a.m. each morning at the Woodmen Road Park-n-Ride on the north end of the city and share a van to downtown Denver. 

At least they did until recently, when all of them except one received word that they’d need to work from home as Colorado combats the coronavirus.

So they needed to make a decision: dissolve the group and leave one member of their group to fend for herself, or work out something with Enterprise, which provides the van. Although the length of this interruption in their welcome routine is uncertain, their universal resolve to keep the band together carried the day.

With Enterprise providing a subsidy, the riders who wouldn’t need to commute decided to each pay a share of the cost anyway so their co-rider could keep the van during the interruption and not rack up miles on her personal car. Then, as the stay-at-home restrictions ease, they’ll reconstitute their vanpool and resume the ritual that has become such an anticipated part of their workday.

Elizabeth Lopez Vaughan of Colorado Springs loves sharing a vanpool with four other riders, but the stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus means she — and all but one of the others — is temporarily working from home. Still, the work-at-home contingent is helping to subsidize the cost to keep the van for the person still commuting to downtown Denver, so they can stay together as a group once conditions return to normal. (Provided by Elizabeth Lope Vaughan)

“I miss hanging out with them, talking and rapping and joking around,” says Vaughan, an executive staff assistant in the Office of the State Court Administrator. “I like hearing what’s going on with William’s puppy or Leah’s dog or Eva’s grandson or daughter or husband. I miss it a lot. Not the drive part. But I miss them.”

Dimidjian points to the vanpool dynamic as one example of how our current circumstances demand the need to be particularly sensitive to the impact of disruptions in our routine, and also intentional about how we respond to those. 

“Finding ways people can support one another in that process is critical,” she says. “It helps to address not only some of the sources of daily routine disruption but also to restore disruptions in social connections.”

The roughly hour-long trip in the morning is early enough to miss much of the rush-hour traffic. William normally drives this leg, and he enjoys a quiet morning, so the mood is generally relaxed and some of the riders catch a few extra winks. On the way home, though, the van rocks with music or comedy and conversation.

Leah Chura, a corporate accountant, generally drives the route home. She enjoys hearing the varied opinions about politics and their respective work environments. It all stays in the van.

“You can talk about things without long-term consequences,” she says. “It’s nice to have this group. It’s actually therapeutic. We’re consistently seeing the same people daily, so we can talk about work-related issues without it ever getting back to our co-workers. It’s interesting how it changes from morning to evening.”

Surveys by Way to Go, a program that helps coordinate multi-rider commutes, show that about 140,000 car poolers ride in the Denver region, accounting for 8% of commuters. Car poolers average about 19 miles each way while the average vanpool covers 44 miles each way. About 100 vanpools operate in the region, carrying roughly 550 commuters. Most of them are sidelined now. 

But that won’t last. For the Woodmen Road five, the routine is worth resurrecting.

“We all like our group,” Chura says, “and we don’t want anyone to leave.”

While live sports can be enjoyed remotely and in solitary communion with the video screen, even that pleasure has dried up with the coronavirus. And at this time of year, when live events normally present a tantalizing menu virtually every night of the week — and when every diversion from the pandemic is a welcome respite — the absence of programming hits particularly hard.

Now, the sport calendar has been supplanted with rebroadcasts of “classic” games from the past — and sometimes video contests simulating matchups between rivals. For the truly desperate, there have even been showdowns pitting opponents in dodgeball and cup-stacking.

There also are the random videos in which sportscasters flex their vocal chords in creative ways to stay in mid-season form. And then there’s sportscaster Joe Buck’s effort to interrupt the boredom by lending his voice to fan requests for play-by-play calls of everyday life — which, perhaps inevitably, elicited some requests that were NSFW.

But those hardly take the place of the runup to the playoffs, the NCAA bracketology, the pomp and circumstance of the Olympics and the eternal optimism of spring baseball, which millions of sports fans instinctively anticipate like they’re built into an internal clock. 

Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, left, keeps the ball at arm’s length from Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns in the first half of game Denver won in overtime on Nov 10, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

For the seriously jonesing fan, classic games reruns constitute weak methadone. And for those fortunate enough to gain access to tickets, video can’t come close to capturing the experience of sitting in the arena, or the ballpark, to participate in the shared rituals of sports.

“More often than not, these connections we have, attending services, going to sporting events, this makes up our social fabric,” Vickery says. “Those being unavailable upends our day-to-day life and can produce more anxiety for sure. Outside of this pandemic, there’s more than one reason that people participate in collective activities. But anxiety is a way to highlight what is happening now.”

Megan and Isaac Carlson, who live in Northglenn, flat out canceled their cable service when the ongoing impasse between Comcast and Altitude took both the Nuggets and Avalanche off the schedule. But they could still watch almost every Nuggets home game thanks to their first year as season-ticket holders — until the NBA pulled the plug on a season that may, or may not, achieve post-virus resolution.

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The season schedule was their calendar, and it betrayed them.

“It feels like a year since they played,” says Megan, who works as a nanny. “It feels way longer than that. We always said that even if we don’t know what day it is, we know what game is next.”

Isaac, who works for Sprint, takes some solace in watching replays of Nuggets games if he attended in person and can spot himself on TV, or glean something from the commentary that he might have missed from his seat. But it’s not like it was, and the playoff drumbeat has gone silent.

“It’s a boring time,” Isaac says, “with nothing to do. Spending time with my family, we’d always play basketball, but we can’t even do that now.” 

Melanie Ward and her sister, Laurie Ward, share a house in Parker and, for the past eight years, Nuggets season tickets. For them, the sporting ritual begins in the summer, when the NBA releases its schedule.

“We plan our lives around the games,” Melanie says.

She allows that she does enjoy watching reruns of pro games, or switching to ESPNU to see current NBA stars in replays of their college games. So at least there’s still a basketball vibe in the house.  

“But we miss everybody so much at the Pepsi Center,” she says. “You get to know the workers, all the friends you meet that work there. I might be a fool, but I’m optimistic that the season may not be lost.”

She’d be fine with resuming the NBA season in the summer, if that’s what it takes.

Denver electrician Jonathan Stone misses the daily promise of live sports on TV at this time of year. He’s doing a lot more reading. (Provided by Jonathan Stone)

“People need each other,” Ward says. “I feel like when it does finally start up again, it’s going to be the most joyous, most exciting, fun thing to see everybody again. And we’ll appreciate each other so much more. All of us take it for granted, all aspects of our lives. When it starts up again, it’ll be the most wonderful reunion of all of us.”

Ike Obidike, a 37-year-old software developer in Highlands Ranch, shares the sentiment that it’s all about being there. He’s a fan of basketball and Los Angeles Lakers star Lebron James, first and foremost, but has developed an affinity for the Nuggets, as long as they’re not playing the Lakers. He owns an array of replica jerseys recognizing players from around the league, and enjoys tweaking the fans around his season-ticket seat at Pepsi Center.

“When it comes to live games I enjoy the atmosphere,” he says. “I miss that camaraderie, watching with people I call my friends. One thing we have in common is we all know basketball. We’re from different walks of life, but basketball unites us.

“I like the reaction I get from them when I go wearing the opposing team’s jersey. That’s how friendships started. I have a ton of jerseys. It was like an ice breaker.”

There was also the imminent start of the Tokyo Olympics. While Olympic competition plays to a sports rhythm of much longer beats — every two years — it nonetheless carries a sense of anticipation, especially for fans of those sports like swimming and gymnastics that get their moment in the limelight less often.

The Inter-Allied Games, an Olympic-style competition, filled a sports void at the end of World War I, in the final stage of the 1918 flu pandemic. (Provided by the National World War I Museum and Memorial)

A brief historical digression: This isn’t the first time the Olympics have gone missing in the wake of a pandemic. The 1916 Olympics were canceled in the midst of World War I, but after the Armistice in November of 1918 — not incidentally, in the throes of a worldwide flu pandemic — a substitute sprang forth.

Even in the days before the Olympics became a marquee television event, the value of competition was recognized as a morale booster for troops who remained overseas during peace negotiations. Many died from the flu while awaiting the ships that would take them home, but the first and only Inter-Allied Games, as they were called, provided welcome diversion for soldiers from 14 allied nations and even produced some world records.

“Like we’re finding out today, if you’re confined in one place, you get a little stir crazy,” explains Doran Cart, senior curator of the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. “That’s what was starting to happen in these embarcation camps. This was the third wave of the influenza epidemic, which hit a lot in France and caused bitterness as soldiers watched fellow troops fall ill and die.”

A 25,000-seat facility was built in Paris and named Pershing Stadium, after the leader of U.S. forces, where track and field, boxing, baseball and basketball competitions were held. Other venues hosted rowing, golf, tennis swimming and diving and equestrian events. Every session, from June 22 to July 6, 1919, was sold out.

All the European newspapers and many in the U.S. carried news of the competition, and newsreels of the athletes’ exploits flickered across movie screens worldwide. The Army’s black athletes mostly weren’t permitted to compete, but one — long-jumper Solomon “Sol” Butler —  was so dominant he was allowed. Seventeen years before Jesse Owens would dominate the Berlin Olympics, Butler won the gold medal to the cheers of French fans who didn’t share the American prejudice. 

Similarly, women — and there were many who served there in the war — weren’t allowed to compete. However, French tennis star Suzanne Lenglen put on exhibitions, playing and beating a succession of male opponents in what took on the trappings of a precursor to the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs battle of the sexes. A month later she won one of her six Wimbledon singles titles.

A boxer holds the American flag during the Inter-Allied Games in 1919 in Paris. (Provided by the National World War I Museum and Memorial)

The 2020 Olympic Games will eventually return, but how the delay will impact athletes, especially those whose training regimens adhere strictly to the Olympic calendar, remains to be seen. Everyone will be a year older. Will some athletes’ window of opportunity slam shut?

And what about the Nuggets and the Avalanche, both perched high in the standings with just a handful of regular-season games unplayed? Could their leagues restart lengthy playoffs that would extend well into summer? Or will two epic team performances stand for nothing?

“I did have hope,” says Stone, the hockey fan, “but as this goes on, and I see the stay-at-home orders creeping into April and May, I don’t see how it’s possible, just the logistics of it.”

He’s turned his attention, for the moment, to his spring reading list. First up: “Endurance,” retired astronaut Scott Kelly’s memoir of the challenges presented by a year in space. 

“The timing,” Stone says, “couldn’t have been more perfect.”


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