The term "superspreader event" hadn't been coined a year ago. Still, holding a large gathering scared Katie Martin.
"All of a sudden, the idea of thousands of people coming together didn't sound so good," said Martin. "And holy moly, what if someone got sick because of our event?"
The great-granddaughter of Irish immigrants, a former Miss Shamrock and current president of the St. Paul St. Patrick's Day Association, Martin heads the volunteer group that stages the annual parade in downtown St. Paul.
"The St. Patrick's Day Parade is this tradition that we count on. Big boisterous families march together in their crazy green costumes. The bagpipers and the Irish dancers come out, then we all flood the pubs and bars," Martin said. "People come from all over Minnesota and even fly in. It's like a family reunion."
Last year, as the deadly potential of the coronavirus began to sink in, officials in St. Paul canceled that reunion. Soon, other rites of March — from Lenten fish fries to the high school hockey tournament and NCAA March Madness — were scratched. People comforted themselves that this was a once-in-a-lifetime sacrifice required to preserve their health and the health of others.
A year later, many of those events have been canceled, suspended or altered once again. But there's more at stake than mere disappointment: We're at risk of losing our connections to what psychologists call our "weak ties."
These are the third cousins you share a pint with once a year on St. Patrick's Day or the college buddies you sit shoulder-to-shoulder with at a sports bar while you track your basketball brackets.
While not members of our nuclear families or intimates, the acquaintances we interact with casually and only occasionally are essential to us. They help us find jobs, romantic relationships and other opportunities.
First identified by a Stanford sociologist almost 50 years ago, weak ties have been researched ever since. A recent British study found that those with larger networks of weak ties ranked as happier overall.
"We are hardwired to join other people with whom we share certain things. This secondary tier of relationships serves a number of functions that provide an important piece of our sense of identity," said Kathy Dowell, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "These are voluntary memberships in groups with their own norms and rituals."
Powell explains that being knit into the broader social fabric of a club, congregation or college alumni association creates a subtle support system that many of us took for granted and never thought to contemplate until it abruptly vanished.
Zoom won't do
While many people have tried to maintain those more casual relationships through Zoom and other platforms, Dowell regards these electronic links as unsatisfying substitutes.
"Those connections have to be replaced and people are reaching out and filling them online, but it falls short on an emotional level," she said. "It feels artificial, it lacks the intimacy of the face-to-face, being in a community with its own spontaneous language and behaviors."
That's what Matt Walzer discovered last year, when his extended family held a Zoom Seder during Passover.
"Our family typically has two Seders. It's common to have 20, 30 people at two big tables," said Walzer, managing director at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.
The annual event "ties the family together. I'd say 80 percent of the people I see at Passover are people I'm in touch with infrequently," he said. "Without getting together for the holidays, I could go a long time without having these meaningful connections."
While he was growing up, Walzer's parents regularly hosted a big annual get-together. He and his wife recently purchased a new home with an eye to finding a dining room big enough for them to host a Seder.
But this year, instead of replying to a flurry of e-mailed invitations and signing up for food assignments, he is once again planning a Zoom Seder when Passover begins on March 27.
"Not getting together is a loss. It's not a loss of life, but you do grieve a little bit," he said. "My wife and I will drop everything for family once we can safely be together. It's become more obvious how much we need each other."
Back with a vengeance
When it arrived, the pandemic brought with it a fear of others, those outside our tight "pods." We shut ourselves off from many of the people we previously interacted with to limit the pathways the virus could travel.
"Thinking back, remember how stressed we were at first?" said psychologist John Brose, clinical director of the Associated Clinic of Psychology. "We were under siege. You didn't know if you were going to kill someone or if someone was going to kill you. The enemy could be your son, your lover, your neighbor — or you could bring death to them."
Some of that fear has subsided. Now, Brose said, he's seeing COVID fatigue.
"As we head into the second year, people are discouraged. We are living lives we didn't choose and sometimes don't recognize."
If there's a silver lining, it's that being cut off from others has underscored the importance of relationships — all of them.
"Social connectedness is an essential nutrient for humans. That's what puts gas in our tanks," he said. "This year has brought to the forefront what is important."
Dowell agrees. "We have an innate drive to move toward these affiliations," she said. "We will have a deeper sense of how we value that."
There are signs that the force of the coronavirus is weakening, with the increasing amount of vaccine available and the number of infections falling. If the infection rate continues to fall, restrictions will likely be eased.
When it's safe to gather, experts say there's little risk that a year of social distancing will dampen our eagerness to reunite.
"Once the green light is given, people will re-immerse themselves," said Dowell.
Perhaps Mother's Day and graduations will be celebrated in more traditional and satisfying ways.
This year's St. Paul's St. Patrick's Day celebration, however, will be anything but traditional. Instead of parades, there will be a drive-through reverse parade featuring stationary parade units with Irish entertainers and dignitaries. (The event, which takes place at noon Wednesday near the State Capitol, will be livestreamed on the association's Facebook page, facebook.com/StPatsmnn.)
"Everyone has to hang on a little longer," said Martin. "We always have the biggest crowds when St. Patrick's Day falls on a Saturday. Next year it will be on a Thursday, but I know we will have Saturday numbers. We'll be back with a vengeance. And we can't wait!"
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.