Bars closed? House parties and happy hours move online

A couple enjoy a happy hour and cheers friends and family from their home using Zoom to connect digitally at the end of their first Friday working from home due to concerns over the rapid spread of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in Brooklyn, New York, US. Downloads of group video chat apps — where each person who logs in to a group chat appears in their own “window” on the screen of a phone, tablet or computer — have gone through the roof. — Reuters

LOS ANGELES: Coronavirus lockdown or not, Amaya Howard plans to unwind after a hard day's work by sharing a few glasses of wine with her friends.

But with bars closing across the United States, they have started meeting online via Houseparty — one of several group video apps doing a roaring trade during the pandemic.

“The idea came about of doing a happy hour — we just get on the app and just drink wine and talk,” she said. “Mostly it’s about a lot of randomness, but occasionally someone will say, ‘I just can’t believe how crazy what’s going on is’.”

She is not alone. Downloads of similar apps — where each person who logs in to a group chat appears in their own “window” on the screen of a phone, tablet or computer — have gone through the roof.

Just this month downloads of Houseparty, which was highly popular with teens a couple of years ago, have surged tenfold to 210,000 per day, according to Apptopia.

Others such as Zoom, used mainly for remote working, and Google Hangouts, Skype and Rave have also seen upticks.

For Esmee Lavalette, a Dutch film student in Los Angeles, the lockdown has presented a chance to hang out with friends back in the Netherlands — although the time difference has necessitated some “daytime drinking”.

“They always have a weekly drinks nights, but now since everything's canceled, they decided to do it on Houseparty,” she said.

“And now for the first time in like a year-and-a-half, I could join them. So I was drunk at like 2pm.”

The call ended when the night grew too late in Europe — and Lavalette returned to her homework. Even drinks for her graduation, which was set to take place this week, are now being shifted to cyberspace.

“I still have a lot of beer leftover so that's what I'm gonna drink,” Lavalette said. “And some vodka.”

‘Girl's night’

As well as a chance to catch up and blow off some steam, users say the apps are good for their mental health in these anxious times.

Rachel Chadwick, a local government worker in Leeds, England, has struggled with anxiety and depression.

“I’m quite extroverted... so obviously this self-isolating is really difficult for me,” she said.

Chadwick and her friends usually meet for a “girls night” once a month, which is now being played out on the app.

“Tomorrow night we’re doing a little pub quiz where each of us has a category, but we all have drinks and snacks,” she said. “We can keep it lighthearted so you don’t feel like you’re losing the plot.”

One of the friends has “borrowed” a whiteboard from work to keep scores on.

The Houseparty app also features built-in games such as trivia, drawing and wordplay. This is a draw for Fiama Liaudat, a Spanish teacher from Argentina living in North Carolina.

She and fellow teachers dotted across the state would typically explore bars together, or meet at someone's home to play board games before the virus.

“For us, the app means we can continue, but on our phones,” she said.

Up until four

“The weather is perfect here and the night is warm, so I can imagine being on the balcony with a beer playing with them,” she said. “But I have to make a new online shop now!”

The surge in video group chats has even presented the opportunity to make new friends.

Howard, now back home in Dallas, used to chat with strangers through travel meet-up apps while living in Philadelphia, where she worked with non-profits.

They recently logged into Houseparty where they all met for the first time face-to-face.

“We were probably on it until four in the morning, five in the morning... everybody had their own drinks,” she said.

“They definitely don't feel like strangers to me now.” — AFP

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