A "Shamrock Search" on St. Patrick's Day offered outside fun and social distancing. Photo by Meg Evans Smith

Self-quarantine. Social distancing. Lockdown. Pandemic. These are words many of us never thought we would use in our lifetimes, but with the continued spread of the new (or “novel”) coronavirus, which causes the disease called Covid-19, this vocabulary is the new normal. To help reduce transmission and contain the virus, companies around the nation are instructing employees to work from home, or shutting down and laying people off. Schools, universities, museums, theaters, and public libraries are closed. Concerts and sporting events have been postponed or canceled. Illinois, like many other states, announced that bars and restaurants can offer only carry out and curbside service, no dining in.

As a result, millions of Americans are finding themselves at home working remotely or twiddling their (thoroughly washed, for 20 seconds) thumbs, and going out for fun as we know it is on hold. Keeping adults and children occupied during the weeks, even months, of “coronapocalypse” may prove challenging.

Recently some Evanston RoundTable contributors shared — by e-mail, for safety’s sake — their plans for staying busy during the virus pandemic.

“Finally gonna organize my basement, paint a bedroom and read the pile of books that have been waiting for me on my bedside table for months,” wrote Anne Bodine. “And gonna cook, cook, cook! Stay calm and stay well everyone!”

“There are card games and board games,” wrote Les Jacobson, “long walks, streaming classic movies and TV series (highly recommend “Last Tango in Halifax” with the great Derek Jacobi), good books and lots of sleep!”

Trying new recipes, cleaning clutter, and planting spring vegetables are on editor Mary Helt Gavin’s list of things to do while sheltering at home.

“Starting vegetable seeds indoors, getting spring garden planted, spring cleaning, good books and games with the kids home from school here,” wrote Allison Sloan, “though we may start putting on musical productions in the yard like in Italy to keep our sanity.”

“We played Battleship last night…and I fortunately have a collection of about 2,000 movies on DVD and laserdisc,” wrote Matt Simonette. “As an altruistic move, we’re pledging to watch those as much as possible to free up the Netflix bandwidth.”

Indeed, people may already be experiencing slower internet connections due to much higher concentrations of remote working, e-learning, game playing and video streaming. (TIP: Plug computers and other devices directly into your internet router to bypass WIFI and improve your internet connection.) 

The doctor says go outside and move around.

One of the best things people can do during this Covid-19 outbreak is to stay healthy and keep their immune systems functioning well, saidTeresa H. Horton, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Research in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Getting outside helps with that in several ways.

“Physical activity lowers stress, sunshine promotes vitamin D production, and you will sleep better both because you have been physically active and your circadian (internal) clock has been exposed to bright, natural light,” wrote Dr. Horton, who studies the health benefits of spending time in nature. While encouraging people to observe the social distancing and personal hygiene recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she suggests taking a walk or a hike, working in the garden, enjoying some time by a lake or river, listening to the birds, or planning a family picnic in the back yard.

Some plants, especially conifers such as cedars, cypresses, firs, junipers, pines, spruces, and yews, release volatile organic compounds called phytoncides that boost immunity, Dr. Horton explained, so she encourages everyone to spend time around plants and trees.

It takes a village to make virus containment fun.

In the spirit of enjoying the outdoors and preventing cabin fever, some neighborhoods organized “shamrock searches” for St. Patrick’s Day, which turned out to be sunny and pleasant. Folks taped green paper shamrocks to their windows for kids to count as they strolled the sidewalks with their parents. Families are also meeting at local neighborhood intersections to play Simon Says, with a family standing on the grassy parkway at each corner calling out Simon Says commands from a safe distance.

Through social media outlets such as Nextdoor.com, people are organizing community efforts to help their neighbors and small businesses. Some are encouraging the purchase of gift certificates from favorite local shops and restaurants to help keep them afloat; others are offering to run errands for and bring supplies to their more vulnerable neighbors.

Parenting during a pandemic.

While families are figuring out fun things to do together, they also face many weeks of juggling at-home work with their kids’ online school lessons and play, or being their child’s sole companion.

“We are taking walks and playing in the yard to get out excess energy,” wrote Amber Yancey-Carroll from north Evanston. “We are also watching movies as a family and playing games. We have also ordered some puzzles to keep us busy.”

Amber and her husband are both able to work from home — she for the federal government and he leading a Northwestern University technology team. Their kindergarten-aged daughter and fourth-grade son have a six-hour remote school day that includes writing, reading, math, and social studies/science, as well as drama, art, and music on a rotational basis.

“All of this under one roof while working full time and having video and tele conferences,” wrote Amber.  “I handled the morning portion of the ‘school day’ and Matt takes the evening. We are trying to schedule our meetings for the part of the day when we are not also supervising our respective part of the school day.”

In south Evanston, stay-at-home mom Catherine is feeling optimistic but also a bit weary at the prospect of being her kindergartener’s only playmate for weeks on end.

“My son’s school has been great about providing activities and ideas for how to continue learning over these weeks and we have been having family dance parties and watching movies together thanks to the wet spring weather,” she wrote. “But we are definitely feeling the loss of friends to play with in person – Google hangouts are just not what the kindergarten set needs – and being parent, teacher and play date all day every day makes for a very full, very long day for mom.”

Suggestions for socializing, entertainment, and self care

Sources around the country have offered up a variety of ideas for both adult and kid-oriented activities, maintaining connections with others, and tending to physical and mental health, all without risking exposure to others.

Listen to podcasts and audiobooks from Hoopla, podcast apps, library web sites

Enjoy virtual tours of museums, galleries, and national parks

Stream live or pre-recorded concerts

Participate in live-streamed fitness and yoga classes

* Let kids engage in free play inside and outside (following social distancing guidelines)

* Loosen screen-time rules (but just a bit)

* Dust off your old-fashioned board games and card decks

Use cooking videos to fine-tune kitchen skills and help liven up all those home-cooked meals

* Remember to keep some structure in your day

Make adult time for yourself

* Stay in touch with your community and check in with your adult friends

* Stick to a normal sleep schedule

Let the RoundTable know what you are doing to stay healthy and safe. Email meg@thesciencetype.com

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...