When students returned to campus in August amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many socialized outdoors at a safe distance. As the weather becomes colder, students are faced with an important question: how can they socialize now?

Rackham student John Gearig said he’s worried about colder weather, as he doesn’t think it’ll be as safe to spend time with friends indoors. 

“If weather permits, I prefer to be with people outdoors, but it’s not very possible,” Gearig said. 

In a normal year, students get exercise when walking short distances to class and to meet with friends. As temperatures drop, this becomes less common, especially since most students have many of their classes online. Preeti Malani, University of Michigan chief health officer, said she encourages students to continue spending time outside even when the temperature drops.

“Even when it’s colder, it is still important for your overall health to try and get outside,” Malani said. “There’s a saying that there’s no bad weather, there’s just inadequate clothing. Not to say that you can spend hours and hours outside in the winter months, but definitely find ways to be outside when it’s possible.”

Because common areas in the residence halls are closed, students tend to rely on the few buildings open on campus to connect with each other and get out of the cold. LSA freshman Lauren Wittek said students are told to follow social distancing requirements in these indoor spaces.

“Most of the time that my friends and I are inside, it’s in the Union, so we have to have our masks on,” Wittek said. 

When spending time together indoors, Malani said wearing a mask and maintaining distance will prevent the spread of the virus.

“Indoors you can still get together, it’s just a matter of maintaining some distance and wearing a mask,” Malani said. “One of the concerns is that students won’t follow the guidance (of density limits), but I have no doubt that the students will follow the guidance. If you can have a mask on and can be in closer proximity, you want to try to maintain that six feet if you can, and you want to have a well-ventilated room.”

University contact tracers have identified six COVID-19 clusters in the residence halls. Though some attribute this to the shared common areas and restrooms in communal living spaces, Malani said most of this spread is through social contact. 

“I would say that people in congregate housing are at risk just because they can be in settings with large numbers of people, but living there itself is not a higher risk,” Malani said. “On paper, it is definitely a risk, but people are learning to manage that risk. But, they’re managing that risk in a way that maybe puts them at risk of loneliness or isolation.”

As more people long for social connection, social “pods” or “bubbles” have become increasingly popular. A social pod is defined as a group of people who choose to treat each other as a part of their quarantine group. These people agree to take precautions when in the outside world, but do not take social distancing precautions when spending time together. For students who live together, forming a social pod is an achievable way to limit contact with others.

“I believe that this idea of social pods is a really good one,” Malani said. “Trying to find three or four friends that you routinely spend time with.”

LSA freshman Lauren Mleczko, who lives in the residence halls, said she has formed a social pod to limit her contact and feel comfortable with her exposure. 

“The more that we spend time together, we become a bubble, and so at that point it becomes more of a family group within the same dorm building,” Mleczko said. “You start to spend more and more time surrounding yourself with the same people.”

Looking ahead, Malani said she hopes campus will remain connected despite colder weather presenting challenges for safe outdoor activities. 

“I think this is where creativity and innovation is going to be important,” Malani said. “I really hope the students take it upon themselves to use their incredible resilience and grit to come up with ways to say ‘You know what, this is how we are going to connect.’”

Daily Staff Contributor Kaitlyn Luckoff can be reached at kluckoff@umich.edu.

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