‘Happy hour” is a magical phrase signifying a time to gather with friends, discover new cocktails and enjoy budget-friendly nibbles.
COVID-19 has turned happy hour into just me, at home, drinking a cocktail in my pajamas. That’s more like existential crisis hour.
While stress-scrolling through news feeds, I kept seeing posts about “virtual happy hours.” I was intrigued, yet daunted by the parts involving technology, which seems to spontaneously malfunction in my presence. But I wanted to savor a cocktail again with friends, so I thought maybe I could be brave and figure this out.
As it happened, The Grocery Cocktail & Social was hosting a virtual happy hour on March 27. I decided to join.
Beforehand, I checked in with Juliana Chau, the enterprising 22-year-old bartender hosting this event. She wouldn’t be at the bar, however, which is closed per Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order. Instead, she’d be hosting out of her own living room.
“I’ve actually got a decent little bar set up at home,” Chau said as the online event approached. “I think that’s also the neat thing. It’s vulnerable, in a way, because you’ll be seeing where I live. I’m definitely going to clean up a bit before we start video chatting. Because this is the new reality. We should all be in our homes.”
She knew it might feel a little weird, but predicted that people would still find a way to connect.
“With this virtual cocktail hour, we’re not able to go to the bar environment and be served by someone,” Chau said, “but we can still enjoy each other’s company while enjoying delicious cocktails that we made ourselves.”
She was planning her own cocktail (Sea Bishop gin with Fever Tree tonic) and interested to see what others would be drinking. She was determined to make the occasion festive by encouraging, fittingly enough, cocktail attire.
“We should have an excuse to get dressed up. I want it to be like a fancy dress-up cocktail event,” Chau said, noting that we’d only be able to see each other’s upper bodies. “If people are wearing their pajama bottoms with a tux on top, you’ll only see the tux.”
Chau, who is wrapping up her teaching degree at WSU Vancouver, hosted through Zoom, a platform she’s familiar with because the university has switched to online classes.
To help other technophobes like me, Chau posted detailed instructions on The Grocery’s Facebook page and Instagram feed. At 7 p.m. March 27, everyone who wanted to attend, and who had already downloaded Zoom onto their smartphones or desktop computers, pasted a link into their search bars that took them directly to the online location of the party.
In the interest of truthful reporting, I should say that I had trouble — not with downloading Zoom, which was a breeze, but with getting the audio and video components to work. I’m glad I persevered, because virtual happy hour was such an interesting experience.
About 30 people attended. Many were from well-known Vancouver hot spots, such as Amaro’s Table, Loowit Brewing, La Bottega, Brothers Cascadia and Tap Union Freehouse. Chris “Salty” Reed, who co-owns The Grocery with his wife, Cindy, was there. One logged in from as far north as Bellingham, another Zoomed in from California. Most were in their 20s or 30s, with a few older outliers.
It was not like being in a bar, enjoying easy banter with a couple of friends amid the low buzz of chit-chat and ambient clinks of cutlery and glassware. The Zoom format allows only one person to speak at a time, and interruptions are jarring, so that means jokes and quips are very difficult and side conversations are impossible. Conversation does flow, but in bits and spurts. It takes some getting used to.
After everyone introduced themselves, a loose structure emerged. Someone would pose a question, and then the entire group would listen while one person answered. It was a little awkward but also kind of nice. Anyone who spoke up had our full attention.
A few people shared cocktail recipes or mixed complex concoctions while we watched, but many people drank beer or wine. One attendee sipped champagne, and another had a mocktail (me).
It was less about what people were drinking and more about what they were saying, which was wryly funny and mostly optimistic, even hopeful. Someone joked that this was safer than happy hour at a bar, because if you got tipsy, you were already at home. Another person quipped, half-seriously, that we should now start greeting each other with a wink and an air-kiss. There were also a lot of dogs being introduced, and a couple of kids wandered into parents’ laps.
People discussed the challenges of self-isolation in the age of COVID-19, but there was more talk about the future — not about what will be lost, but what might change for the better.
Some savored days that didn’t feel so consumed by work and hoped that employers will appreciate the benefits of telecommuting and flexible hours. Others were heartened by dramatic environmental improvements around the globe, clean air over once-polluted cities. Still others were delighted by how neighbors are on the street and in their yards, waving to each other and perhaps meeting for the first time.
When Chau asked if everyone would like to have another virtual happy hour, we all said yes.
“I can’t wait to do this again,” said Reed, The Grocery’s owner, “but I really can’t wait until we don’t have to do this at all.”
In the meantime, Chau encouraged participants to support local businesses by ordering takeout and delivery from those who offer it, although The Grocery isn’t among them.
“For business that are closed, including salons and other places, buy gift cards,” Chau said. “Keep us in mind for after all this is over.”