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Soon we’ll be in crowds again. Are we ready?

Gathering again will be a joyous step in collective healing — and it may come more naturally than we think.

By Schuyler Velasco

Jon Livingstone is an introvert. Lindsay Slowhands is anything but.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Livingstone, 36, typically spent his days in his apartment, where he lives alone. Then in the evenings, he’d “put my outfit together, get my wig ready, and turn her on 100%,” Livingstone says of Slowhands, his alter ego — a ditzy, bleach-blonde party girl clad in bright, skin-tight costumes. A professional drag queen, Livingstone-as-Lindsay hosted regular drag-show/dance parties in San Francisco bars, feeding off crowds of hundreds.

Bouncing, writhing, and lip syncing to bubblegum pop hits from the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lindsay Slowhands heckled the audience; they screamed right back. She tossed people “pills” (Tic Tacs and Pop Rocks) and poured shots into their mouths. And she generously doled out hugs and kisses to her regulars, some of whom had been coming out to see her since 2011. “They were crazy and loud,” Livingstone remembers. “They got pretty amped up when there was a bunch of them all squished in.”

COVID-19 changed all that. In March 2020, San Francisco went on lockdown; after a summer reprieve, lockdown returned in the fall. Bars and restaurants closed. Packed events became a relic of the Before Times. For Livingstone and countless other live performers, it was a devastating financial loss — the parties he hosted at bars like Oasis and Underground SF were his primary source of income, and his secondary gig as a hair stylist proved a poor safety net. But he felt the social blow just as intensely, and he’s hardly alone. The experience of packing into a small space with a crush of other people has been among the most acute, universal losses of the pandemic era. And the way we talk about it — longing for choir practices, wedding dance floors, the sold-out nosebleed sections of baseball stadiums, massive music festivals — suggests that we’re hoping for a seamless return to normal.

“I miss being around stinky, gross bodies,” says Megan Tabaque, 35, a playwright and actor who made her pre-pandemic living making what she describes as “sloppy, messy, punky theater.” Many of her productions took place in old warehouses and on city streets, where the cast would rub shoulders with the audience: “You’re in a cool space with a bunch of strangers and you don’t know what might happen. It’s less controlled.” Those types of shows haven’t been possible for a very long time.

“I miss being around stinky, gross bodies.”

Megan Tabaque, playwright and actor

But the truth is, even when crowds return, we, the crowd-goers, will have changed. The threat COVID-19 poses, and the way the disease is transmitted, have conditioned us to be skittish of the very things that give crowds their meaning and purpose: the nourishing presence of others, the shared glances and surprise hugs, the act of laughing together (which we now associate with airborne, viral droplets). We say we want to be around the thick press of other human beings. And we do. But we also might never think of crowds the same way.

The feeling of loss most of us experience when we reminisce about gathering together is not just in our imaginations. Being in the physical presence of others affects us on a fundamental, even biological level. “When we’re in rooms in close proximity, we’re getting nonverbal feedback from each other. Breathing and heart rates synchronize,” says David DeSteno, a psychology professor and director of the Social Emotions Lab at Northeastern University. “That type of social interaction definitely leads to increased feelings of connectedness, which leads to increased feelings of well-being.”

Conversely, the absence of human contact has measurable health effects. DeSteno describes loneliness as “one of the worst things that can happen to humans”; in terms of health outcomes, he says, the distress it causes is as harmful as smoking regularly. An oft-cited 2015 analysis of studies on millions of subjects, performed by Brigham Young University neuroscientist Julianne Holt-Lunstad, found that loneliness increased rates of early death by 26%, and social isolation increased mortality rates by 29% — regardless of outside factors like age, gender, and geographic location.

“All those things that make us feel closer to one another psychologically don’t happen over Zoom channels. It’s never going to be as rewarding,” DeSteno says.

In the right situations, the sheer volume of a crowd can make the positive effects even stronger.

“Crowds are a source of positive social support,” says Chris Cocking, a professor at the University of Brighton in the U.K. who studies group behavior and collective resilience. “People have some kind of inherent propensity to be with others, to share experiences.”

Indeed, before the pandemic, Tabaque found crowds thrilling. At the end of 2019, she was in Portland, Oregon, directing Batman Returns Returns, a holiday rock opera satirizing the 1992 Michael Keaton movie. The show, which played for audiences of close to 1,000, was heavily improvised, with crowd singalongs and the actors and musicians moving constantly through the audience. “I was in a really euphoric place,” she remembers.

Now, though, when she thinks of people, she thinks of risk. “I feel both excited and afraid to be in a room with people again,” says Tabaque, who’s ridden out the pandemic with her partner, pug, and cat. “I’m of two minds about it because so many people I know have gotten sick and died.”

That unknown — how we will be expected to act, and how others around us might behave — can make the idea of being in a crowd of strangers again daunting. Uncertainty, like isolation, affects us on a physical level, taxing our brains and the rest of our nervous systems as we learn and anticipate a new set of social behaviors, according to Lisa Feldman Barrett and Karen Quigley, psychology professors who run Northeastern University’s Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory. “A practical example is: Now, when I go to the grocery store and I’m standing in a line, I’m constantly looking over my shoulder to see if somebody behind me is standing six feet apart or not,” Quigley says. “I don’t have confidence about the predictability of that stranger behind me, and I find that incredibly distressing.”

Over the course of the pandemic, managing that stress — and finding release — has been a challenge across continents. There have been moments, like the racial justice protests that erupted across the world last June, when collective emotion overcame COVID-era caution. Some people, of course, disregarded pandemic rules and warnings, attending packed political rallies or extended family gatherings — either because they overtly questioned the dangers of COVID, or because the comforts of togetherness made them willing to take a risk.

But for the most part, we’ve searched desperately for pandemic-safe ways to nurture social connection — Zoom baby showers, virtual concerts, circumspect outdoor gatherings, and public events with highly regulated, choreographed movements for patrons and performers alike. Over the summer, Livingstone and others in the San Francisco drag community experimented with new ways to connect with their former audiences. One project, “Meals on Heels,” involved drag queens delivering catered food to people’s apartments and doing shows outside on the street. Lindsay Slowhands hosted a few rooftop parties with socially distanced tables.

“It was so different, like dinner theater versus a nightclub,” Livingstone says. And it changed the performance itself. Lip-syncing, foundational to a drag queen’s act, isn’t possible in a mask. Face shields fogged up. “I never used to really talk too much on the mic, or it was really quick and jokey,” he says. “It challenged me to talk with the crowd and make it last longer than, in my brain, it should. It was challenging me in ways that I liked, but also I wanted to get back to the party.”

Indeed, all types of gatherings have been forced to adapt, in ways that might inform the way we manage crowds in the future. The most high-profile experiments thus far have been in the sports world, from the NBA playoff bubble to football games with distanced seating. Efforts to bring fans into the experience as safely as possible have ranged from cute gimmicks, like projecting Zoom faces into the stands where spectators would normally be, to creative venues that allow for extreme social distancing. In Texas last fall, the Professional Bull Riders brought COVID-tested enthusiasts onto an aircraft carrier to cheer on their favorite cowboys.

“All those things that make us feel closer to one another psychologically don’t happen over Zoom channels.”

David DeSteno, psychology professor at Northeastern University

The music world has adjusted, too. Jennifer Huggins, 33, used to coordinate bar services for huge music festivals in the U.S. South; the last event she staffed, the Trifesta concert series in Louisville, Kentucky, found her in charge of 375 workers, slinging drinks to crowds that swelled to nearly 25,000. Since the pandemic, many of the promoters she worked with have switched to drive-in events, or socially distanced concerts where patrons can sit or dance on raised platforms, marooned far away from the other attendees. For the all-day events, some attendees bring their own porta-potties.

Once more traditional festival setups return, Huggins predicts, new restrictions on sharing food and drinks — for both staff and patrons — are likely on the horizon. Venues without assigned seating may make allocating six feet of space per ticket sale standard practice, in compliance with social distancing guidelines. But not every concertgoer will comply. “Now, mind you, the people who go to these things, they don’t…” Huggins pauses. “Rockers are rockers, you know what I mean?”

Cocking, at the University of Brighton, agrees; staying six feet apart doesn’t come naturally during an exhilarating live performance. A regular of rowdy music shows in his younger days, Cocking notes that rituals like mosh pits and the “wall of death” — a staple of heavy metal concerts in which the crowd parts, Red Rover-style, and each side runs toward the other at full speed — might be lost to history.

“People seek out higher density at demonstrations and at concerts,” he says. “You go and dance down the front at a gig. You’re less likely to stand at the back, because you want to be with others having the same experience. That’s obviously an issue in a post-COVID world until we all have the vaccine, and even then there will be concerns about infection and transmission. So how do we encourage people to behave in socially responsible ways at crowd events?”

That’s an open question. For one, we can’t know for sure how we might naturally respond being around a lot of people again. “One of two things will happen,” DeSteno says. One is that people “will say, ‘Screw it all. I’m going back to the way it was. I’ve been missing this for so long.’ It’s kind of like a person who was on a diet and had been resisting eating Ben & Jerry’s. You might become less risk-averse.”

On the other hand, COVID-19 could leave an attenuated fear that will make people shy away from crowds altogether. They might think, “‘Oh my gosh, I never realized all of the possible threats here,’” DeSteno says, “and there’s going to be concern about trust and self-protection. Can I trust all these people to be doing what they should? If they’re feeling ill, that they’re going to stay home?”

History suggests that we may get over those fears sooner than we can imagine right now. John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza — a book about the 1918 flu — says that a century ago, society bounced back quickly from an era of mask-wearing and decreased socialization. But that pandemic, he cautions, is not a perfect parallel. “One of the biggest differences is the duration,” he says. “In 1918 it was very compressed. The lethal second wave passed through communities in six [to] 10 weeks; worldwide it lasted about 12 weeks.” And that second wave abated just as World War I was ending, which culminated in a “tremendous sense of relief.” 

Of course, people in 1918 also had a 1918 understanding of epidemiology. As terrified as they were during the pandemic, a relative dearth of knowledge about viruses meant they weren’t as fearful when the threat appeared to be over, says Christopher Nichols, a history professor at Oregon State University who studies the Progressive Era. “Once it was no longer catastrophic, people immediately went back to gatherings,” Nichols says. “It led into the ’20s dance hall craze, where you had newspaper accounts of dancing as moral ruin — people were all over each other. That would feel frightening to us today.” 

Even with our improved scientific knowledge, adoption of a new, socially distant way of life a century later has been far from perfect. The past year has given us plenty of examples of crowds forgetting their COVID manners — like the throng of Notre Dame college football fans who joyously stormed the field after their team upset top-ranked Clemson last November. But Cocking thinks that overall, crowds behave better than mainstream thinking tends to give them credit for. The key is communicating new guidelines and etiquette in a way that makes people feel like part of a group, and active participants in a movement to keep that group safe.

“You need to psychologically encourage more collective thinking,” he says, citing the social-science concept of “we-speak.”  

“So rather than giving messages [like] ‘you should do this,’ or, ‘I as an individual need to do this to protect myself,’” Cocking says, “the message should be, ‘How can we all look after each other? How can we protect the more vulnerable?’”

We may be more primed to respond to those messages than ever, thanks to the collective hardships of the pandemic. DeSteno has done research with collaborator Daniel Lim, a former Northeastern post-doc who is now a professor at Adelphi University in New York, showing that experiencing adversity can make us more empathetic to the experiences of others. “On average, people become much more willing to go out of their way to sacrifice and help other people,” DeSteno says. “When you were in that situation, if anybody helped you, you realize that even these small acts can be very meaningful. So you’re more likely to do it.”

He cites the “Cajun Navy,” a group of New Orleans boat owners who banded together to rescue their neighbors from flooding during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Since then, they’ve assisted in ad hoc volunteer efforts during several major storms in the region, and are credited with rescuing thousands of people. “They now care about everybody,” DeSteno says. “We see that [phenomenon] in our research over and over again.”

And we’ve all been through a lot since last spring. “There aren’t stats on it yet, but you’re seeing people engaging in all kinds of acts of kindness to help each other during this time,” DeSteno says. “If we’re willing to help each other, it helps us get through whatever disaster, whatever tragedy we’re facing in the moment.”

Tabaque, the playwright and actor, predicts that a drive for meaningful contact will influence the types of theater people want to see, the spaces that patrons will want to visit, and the stages where artists will want to perform. “To be in a hundred-seat house and feel intimacy inside of a smallish crowd with people,” she says, “will be the sweet spot for a lot of artists: mid-scale shows where we can really see and connect with each other again after being apart, whereas if you’re in a larger gathering you start to disappear. That is what my gut says.”

Still, transitioning back to in-person events will require adjustment. And some of the shifts we’ve already made to account for pandemic-era distancing could change the way we manage crowds even after the threat is gone. Timed entry for amusement parks and museums may be here to stay; livestreaming could become a permanent fixture of weddings and other milestone events for those who can’t make a long trip. Cocking mentions that some large festival organizers have tossed out the idea of requiring “vaccine passports” — documentation that attendees have received the COVID-19 vaccine in order to gain admission. And “some behavior may just become no longer socially acceptable,” Cocking says. “Putting your arm around strangers and sharing beers may fall by the wayside.”

Livingstone thinks it will take some time for people to reacclimate to crowds. But not long. Not for him. “Maybe this has taken a toll on people’s mental idea of being in a crowd,” he says. But “in my community, the gay community, we are ready to go back out there and be sweaty and dance together. We want it so bad. We don’t feel it’s ever gone away. We feel like we had to take a break.”

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Schuyler Velasco is Experience's Senior Editor.

Photos by Getty Images


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