How do people get together with friends and family but still keep apart from one another to prevent the spread of the coronavirus?

Mitch Hallan may have an answer but not the only answer. The 33-year-old husband and father of two works as a global product manager at 3M and lives in Maple Grove, but grew up in the Brainerd lakes area.

“Our friend group is doing Saturday night get-togethers via Google Hangouts,” Hallan said in a Facebook post.

Google Hangouts is a communication software developed by Google that allows people to interact online with photos, emojis and group video calls for free, and it is just one of the ways to stay connected while social distancing.

“This past Saturday, eight different couples joined from around Minnesota and one from Guatemala … interesting to hear how jobs are currently functioning … and good for overall mental health!” Hallan said in a Facebook post before a phone interview with the Dispatch. “Every couple calls in from their respective home, and you can do it via your iPad or whatever you have, and then your face shows up on your screen and then as we’re talking between the eight different couples, whoever is talking, it picks up your voice and that person is shown.”

Google Hangouts is just one example of how people are still finding ways to interact with each other, virtually if not actually in person. Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, and video conferencing software such as Skype and Teamviewer are other ways to stay connected.

Earlier this month, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed an executive order closing theaters, museums, gyms, community clubs and other areas where community transmission could occur.

A sign posted at the front entrances of the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter informs the public it is closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Submitted photo / Mindy Peterson-Lee
A sign posted at the front entrances of the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter informs the public it is closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Submitted photo / Mindy Peterson-Lee

As of Monday, the Minnesota Department of Health officials confirmed 235 cases of COVID-19, the potentially fatal respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus that first emerged in China in 2019, with one case recently reported in Cass County. But officials suspect the actual numbers to be much higher.

“For us in Minnesota, I’m going to ask once again, we need folks’ cooperation,” Walz said during a March 16 news conference. “We need to stop congregating, we’re going to close the bars, we’re going to close the restaurants, we’re going to close the places where we gather.”

Hallan is working from home like almost all of his regional coworkers. He said his corporate campus in St. Paul has 12,000 employees, but it basically shut down a week ago.

“It’s very much a reality that people need to take seriously. And the stock market and the volatility there could be one indicator,” Hallan said. “I think everyone cares about money unfortunately and so that's probably gotten a lot of people’s attention.”

Hallan graduated from the University of St. Thomas with a Master of Business Administration degree and was an undergraduate at St. John’s University in Collegeville near St. Cloud.

“We have a pretty solid, fine group of several couples where we like to get together, and then we always in the summer have a weekend retreat that we do together, etc., and so we’re very social, but obviously right now we can’t get together,” Hallan said.

Google Hangouts allows a user to include all of his or her friends with group chats with up to 150 people; and keep in touch with friends across Android, iOS and the web, and sync chats across all electronic devices such as computers, tablets and smartphones.

“You can do it in your home. … And you're able to be freely doing other activities while you’re engaging in conversation. … Typically, it can be hard to get together as couples because you have to arrange babysitters,” Hallan said. “The reason we like it is because it’s a good placeholder. It does have that in-person feeling, so to speak, but certainly it doesn’t have the actual in-person benefits.”

According to The Nielsen Co., staying home can lead to almost a 60% increase in the amount of content that is watched in some cases — and potentially more depending on the reasons — according to the research company focused on viewing habits.

“My wife and I have been to the movies once in the almost three years since our son was born. Obviously, we do all our movie-watching at home with Netflix, Hulu, Disney+,” Hallan said.

In countries like South Korea, there was a 17% increase in TV viewing, according to Nielsen, and Italy has seen a 12% increase in TV watching in the Lombardy region, the center of the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Italian Joint Industry Committee, Auditel.

Netflix Inc. will cut traffic by 25% on networks across Europe in a relief measure for internet service providers experiencing a surge in usage due to government “shelter in place” orders aimed at slowing the coronavirus outbreak, according to Reuters.

“As far as social interaction, yeah, that’s certainly a challenge right now, which is kind of the reality we’re living through right now,” Hallan said.

Netflix Party is a Google Chrome web browser extension for watching Netflix remotely with friends who are also subscribers of the streaming content service that boasts a large library of older movies and TV series along with original content in series and movies, but not first-run feature films typically shown at theaters.

Netflix Party synchronizes video playback and adds group chat, so viewers can simulate the feel of going to a movie together at movie theaters like the recently, and temporarily closed, Mann Lakes 12 in Baxter.

After installing the Chrome extension from the Chrome Web Store, select anything from Netflix.com to watch; click on the red “NP” icon located next to the address bar; click “Start Party” to get the party started; and share the party URL to invite friends.

Will Google Hangouts or Netflix Party ever replace, though, a handshake, a high-five or a hug from the person next to you? Hallan does not think so, despite being a user of Google Hangouts and a subscriber of Netflix.

“I really hope not. That would be terrible. I think obviously in-person interaction is best. As a society, that’s what we’re used to,” Hallan said.

As a public service, we've opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status.



FRANK LEE, county and features reporter, may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.