In the waning days of fall, many Minnesotans felt a sense of dread about being stuck indoors and distanced from friends during the long pandemic winter.

Heather Vick was one of them.

She lives in a sociable neighborhood in southwest Minneapolis, where neighbors had regularly been getting together outdoors.

"In fall, everybody was getting worried," she said. "What's going to happen in winter?"

Heather and her family provided the answer: Son Christopher Vick, with an assist from dad Tom Vick, built an ice bar in their front yard.

"We wanted something to get the neighbors together where they could be outside, be safe," Heather said. "People are looking for anything to get together with folks."

To be safe, the Vicks keep the gatherings small, and encourage mask-wearing between sips.

"It has really changed things socially," Heather said. "Usually in Minnesota you don't see your neighbors until spring. It's a huge game-changer."

Starved for socialization during the coronavirus, many Minnesotans have come up with creative ways to mingle outdoors in the dead of winter, including heaters on patios, hot tubs and good old-fashioned Minnesota fun, such as sledding, skiing and skating parties.

And that's a win-win, according to experts. In addition to allowing human interaction in a low-risk way, spending time outdoors in the cold, rather than hunkering down indoors for the frigid months, has numerous health benefits, both physical and mental, from burning more calories to delivering a mood boost. (See our story on the Embrace Winter challenge.)

'Life-changing' hour

Liz Knutson gave her Minneapolis deck a makeover this fall so that she could continue hosting family, friends and neighbors, even as temperatures dropped.

"I bought a gas fireplace," she said. "It's literally the best thing we've ever done."

Previously, she and her husband had a wood-burning firepit, but it took awhile to generate heat, and the wet logs got smoky. The gas fireplace, which she bought at Lowe's for about $400, turns on "in a second," she said, instantly making her deck "the one outlet I have to be with neighbors and friends, two at a time."

The fireplace is just for starters. Knutson places chairs 6 feet apart and puts a heating pad on each one, topped with a towel, along with a blanket or throw.

"It looks like a nursing home," she said with a laugh.

She's been inviting people over in late afternoon for an hour or so. Fortunately, last month's weather was relatively mild, by January standards. "I guarantee that for an hour you'll be warm," she said. "And an hour with a friend is life-changing."

Sometimes she and her husband chill together on the deck even when they don't have company, just for a change of pace. "It's like having another room," she said.

In hot water

Knutson's neighbors, Katie and Matt Erickson, found another way to enjoy winter outdoors; they bought a hot tub.

"It was kind of an impulse buy in late fall," said Katie. "We wondered, 'What are we going to do this winter? How can we get our kids [daughters 14 and 11] to hang out with us?' "

Once they made the decision, however, it wasn't easy to find one. "There was so much demand," she said. "We had a connection with a friend on the East Coast, who was able to track one. We were desperate."

At $6,000, it was "definitely a splurge," but "it's paid off," Katie said. "We've been in it pretty much every day. Especially when it's snowing — that's our favorite."

With everyone in the family working and learning from home, "the days get so monotonous. It's nice to have something to look forward to at the end of the day."

From the warmth of their hot tub, the family has watched football games, and listened to music or podcasts. They've also hosted a couple of families who they consider to be in their "COVID bubble," Katie said.

"Even if it's super cold, we can be outside," she said. "If we don't have the jets on, we can keep it at 104-105 degrees, and can be in there one and a half hours."

Building the ice bar

When Heather Vick told her family she wanted an ice bar this winter, Christopher, 32, took action. A trainer for the Detroit Tigers, he usually returns to the Twin Cities during his offseason.

"I love Minneapolis, and I love coming home to live with my parents for a couple months," he said.

After his mom made her request, he went to Target and bought storage containers and a roll of plastic tarp. Total investment, about $50, he estimated.

His father, an engineer, built a wood frame, and Christopher began making the ice blocks, filling the storage containers with water until they froze into stackable blocks of solid ice, with snow as mortar.

"It took a good month of freezing blocks," he said. "It was fun."

The ice bar is equipped with a shelf for holding beverages and has cupholders frozen into place. Christopher even used molds to make cups and shot glasses out of ice.

The Vicks stocked the bar with liquor they had on hand ("Booze gathers in the house, sits there in a closet," Heather said) and neighbors have brought bottles as gifts and to share. "We always have hot chocolate or something else nonalcoholic," Heather said.

During the mild January, the bar melted a bit, but Christopher repaired it. He recently converted the top of the ice bar into an air hockey table, for added winter recreation.

Heather has been posting photos of the ice bar on social media, including the Facebook group "That's So Minnesota."

The ice bar has helped make the weird winter a lot more sociable and fun.

"It's a great way to comfortably and safely be around each other," said Christopher, "in a very Minnesota way."

How to set up an outdoor gathering spot

Liz Knutson, an interior designer (One Day Design), shared what she's learned about setting up and enjoying a winter outdoor gathering spot:

• Choose a spot that's sheltered from the wind.

• Add some type of heater for warmth and coziness.

• Heating pads on chair seats is "a game changer," Knutson said, guaranteeing an hour of comfort.

• Provide plenty of blankets or throws.

• Serve hot beverages.

• It's worth the effort. "Even an hour with a friend is priceless," Knutson said.