When COVID-19 closed basically every type of gathering place, plenty of people expected their social lives to go the way of the dodo.

Of course, that was before many of them knew much of anything about videoconferencing platforms, or that learning the requisite technology would be relatively easy.

As a result, getting together with others for the most part has become as simple as logging in on your computer, tablet or smartphone. And quite a few folks who normally would meet in person now are staying safe and doing it online, often following a regular schedule, whether it be for clubs and organizations or something a bit more laid-back.

“For me, anyway, it’s a little bit like a lifeline,” Peters Township resident Jan Hoyt said about twice-a-week Zoom meetings in which she and her husband, Tom, frequently participate.

Joining them online are fellow patrons of a local restaurant who had gotten to know one another over the years.

“Let’s face it. We’ve all been through a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress. And to have that time during the week, it is like a throwback,” Jan said. “It’s obviously a ‘new normal,’ but it’s happy hour! There’s something so fabulous about happy hour with a group of friends. And if anything, I think we’ve all gotten to know each other much better.”

In that regard, communicating virtually tends to be more effective than trying to do so in a crowded establishment.

“You can’t see everybody, and you walk around and you don’t get all the conversations,” Tom said. “Here, you get to kind of engage with everybody at the same time. It’s just a good way to stay in touch with people you used to see on a weekly basis.”

The Hoyts enjoy their virtual social activities, but to a greater degree, they look forward to Sundays with their sons.

Dan Hoyt lives in the Los Angeles area, and Jim Hoyt is in the vicinity of Las Vegas. Their parents haven’t seen either of them in person for more than a year.

To help mitigate being apart physically, everyone connects virtually practically every weekend.

“At first, it was all about, are you OK?” Tom recalled. “What are you doing about it? What’s going on with work? What’s happening in your area?”

Jan chimed in, “Can you get enough food? Do you have hand sanitizer? Do you have toilet paper?”

Once everyone was reassured, the family members agreed to continue meeting Sundays online to keep it that way.

“Gradually, it was less of concerned calls and more just touching base and comparing notes on, what’s the state of things in Vegas? What’s the state of things in Pittsburgh?” Tom said. “It became less COVID-related conversations.”

Along the way, more Hoyts joined the proceedings.

“One day I was brave and suggested to my folks, ‘Hey, there’s this thing called Zoom. Do you want to try that? We could talk to the boys, and we could talk to you.’ And after all the issues you’d think you’d have with 90- and 93-year-old parents, we figured it out,” he said, referencing Florida residents Pat and Vern Hoyt, respectively. “So every now and then, we’ll include my folks in on the Zoom.”

Reassuring people during the pandemic has been a primary mission of the Bethany Ministry of St. Gregory Byzantine Catholic Church in Upper St. Clair, a group that provides outreach to parishioners, especially older adults.

“With Bethany Ministry, that’s something we normally do one-on-one as needed. But this time, it was the whole shebang. We felt like we wanted to check on everybody,” ministry coordinator Dorothy Mayernik said. “We know our parishioners, and everybody seems to be in good shape, usually. But people need support.”

The dozen-plus ministry members developed a detailed plan for responding to various needs, from offering support to parishioners who lack close family members in the area to providing essentials such as shopping for groceries and picking up prescriptions. Also, members took the initiative to make telephone calls to check on everyone’s well-being.

“It was a really good experience, even for the callers,” Mayernik reported, except perhaps the case of one person who couldn’t be reached by phone. “So one of our members went over to the house and knocked on the door, and it turned out the parishioner is hard of hearing.”

On the other end of the age spectrum, youngsters may have a leg up on technological know-how, but the pandemic still presents its share of problems.

Eighth-grader Komel Nulwala, for example, participates in numerous online activities, including his classes at Upper St. Clair’s Fort Couch Middle School for the better part of the academic year. But glitches such as him losing his Internet connection can be a source of frustration.

Nonetheless, Komel welcomes the virtual opportunities to take karate lessons and interact with his friends, particularly through multiplayer video games. Plus he continues to be a member of the Botburgh robotics team.

“Every Sunday, we have an online workshop meeting through Google Meet,” he said.

“We basically meet up, the whole team: programmers, builders, designers, all of us. We talk about what we did, and with that, talk about how to improve if there’s any problem with the robot, and where we need to go.”

To make changes to their robot, just a few team members get together as necessary. And then they’re ready for regional competitions that the organizers manage to hold online.

Prior to the pandemic, many organizations at least had broached the possibility of online meetings. During the past year, they pretty much have become essential.

Bethel Park resident Al DeLucia took over in July as governor of Rotary International District 7305, which administers clubs in Fayette, Greene, Washington and several other counties.

He recalled meeting with then-governor Jim Hahn at the onset of the first round of COVID-related restrictions, discussing how to proceed with district business.

“Probably within a week or so, people started talking about having Zoom meetings,” DeLucia said, and once implemented, they proved to be effective. “People are a little surprised at how easily their club members adapted to it and accepted it.”

His own club, McMurray Rotary in Peters Township, took the technological leap early, as did others.

“When clubs started offering the Zoom possibility, a lot of people who liked to go to meetings were on,” he said. “But also, a lot of people who hadn’t been to meetings for a while were attending. So the clubs started to see that this is something that our members aren’t completely against, and it offers a good opportunity to keep in touch with our members.”

Although districtwide membership has dropped by three dozen since the start of the Rotary year, “We were anticipating that we were going to be down probably significantly more than that,” DeLucia said.

“We’ve got clubs that have attracted new members even though they’re not meeting in person,” he reported. “We have, right now, the possibility of chartering two new clubs before my year’s over. If we chartered two new clubs, that would be probably 50 new members.”

Even when restrictions on in-person gatherings start to ease, DeLucia sees videoconferencing as a continued Rotary presence.

“I think that’s going to be a part of most clubs’ meetings,” he said. “There’s going to be some hybrid option.”

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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