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Distanced by coronavirus, we’re living in virtual reality and missing actual people

Your new virtual day in your new virtual life: Fitness class online at 7 a.m. Go to work on your laptop for remote conference calls, presentations, meetings. If you are a student or teacher, classes via Zoom. Stock up on necessities by ordering food, toilet paper, vodka, CBD gummies, shampoo and, if you’re a gun owner, ammo, on the internet. You adopted a German shepherd puppy, so your obedience training group has a session online, interrupted by the recalcitrant pug. Dinner is cooked while copying chef Gordon Ramsay’s videotaped steps for salmon with shellfish minestrone. Book club online, with a discussion of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel about what could be Miami circa 2075, “The Drowned World.” Relax by listening to Coldplay’s Chris Martin on Instagram from his home music room. Watch the creepy new movie, “The Invisible Man.”

Fall asleep reading the latest news about the novel coronavirus on your phone, and realize you have not left your home cocoon for more than 24 hours. Promise to join online yoga class from your backyard in the morning.

Your virtual weekend includes a virtual bike ride on your stationary trainer, a tour of Vizcaya, placing online bets for Gulfstream’s Florida Derby, streaming your parents’ downsized 50th anniversary celebration, screening a Broadway show, church on Sunday morning, and finally, what will have to suffice since you canceled your vacation to Italy — a virtual visit to the Vatican and Uffizi Gallery, while ordering a delivery from your favorite Italian restaurant. Tomorrow: Pompeii.

Intensely digital

The novel coronavirus, which thrives on human contact, is forcing people into a more intensive digital existence. Thwarting the contagion requires social distancing, self-isolation and a retreat into the home, where the only way to satisfy cravings for connectedness is, paradoxically, through our soulless high-tech devices.

Life seems surreal, as if we’ve been dropped into a sci-fi plotline. If we’re living in virtual reality, what will happen to reality?

Cunning COVID-19 has attacked the essence of what makes the human race human, but people are fighting back with online adaptations to preserve social networks, communication and fellowship. It still takes a village, even if that village is constructed of megapixels. You can still see your friends, even if it’s during FaceTime Happy Hour, Netflix Party or Skype playdates. You can still visit your doctor with a telemedicine appointment. You can still strike up conversations with friendly strangers using the QuarantineChat app.

The uncertainty surrounding the crisis causes us to wonder how it may permanently rewire the way we interact. Have we entered a new phase in the advancement — or decline — of civilization? To hermit or hermitting is a recently coined verb. Cable TV made us couch potatoes. Internet enslavement could make us screen leeches.

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Against all odds, yoga instructor Jenny Sanchez has switched classes from her Santuario Miami studio to a live stream on Zoom. Her students — and anyone seeking coronavirus stress relief — need yoga more than ever.

‘Teaching to nobody’

“It’s a challenge because you’re teaching to nobody, and the whole reason I teach is because I love being with people and feeling the energy of the room,” Sanchez said. “I can’t stand next to them and say ‘Bring your knees in, sit back on your heels, drop your right hip.’

“We’re teaching people to go inward, so they can listen more closely to their intuition, and when problems crop up — like this major one — they can apply what they’ve been practicing. The more you can stop, breathe or just concentrate on five basic poses, the more you can nourish your body.”

Sanchez sees a silver lining.

“Now that we’re stuck on our screens, people will understand how important it is to pay attention to people in person. I hate seeing people out to dinner or walking their dogs while staring at their phones,” she said. “I hope we have a new appreciation for each other once we crawl out of our caves with beards and long hair.”

Coronavirus has upended education and may accelerate trends toward online learning. Universities were already adding online degree programs to boost revenue, and strapped students may see less need to return to expensive dorm life on campus. The pandemic is forcing an experiment on how remote instruction works.

Or doesn’t work, in the opinion of FIU physics professor James Webb, director of the Stocker AstroScience Center and performer of astronomy songs. Teaching his Descriptive Astronomy and Extragalactic Astrophysics classes on Zoom is tricky.

‘I like discussions’

“I like introducing the universe to students and looking at their faces to see if they understand,” Webb said. “I like discussions.”

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His undergraduates will miss out on the class demonstration he uses to explain general relativity and, even worse, the FIU observatory is closed.

“You don’t really get astronomy unless you can see the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, the craters on the moon, Venus and Mars through a telescope with your own eyes,” he said. “PowerPoint slides just aren’t as awesome.”

Webb typically opens class playing guitar and singing one of his own astronomy tunes, like “Reaching For the Stars” or “The Black Hole Song.” It’s much more effective in person than on YouTube.

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Children constantly being told to reduce screen time are now going to school online, which is tough on them, their teachers and their parents, said Dr. Nicole Marvides, child and adolescent psychiatrist and assistant professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Yet her 3-year-old daughter enjoys circle time with her classmates every morning. Kids can do homebound scavenger hunts and coloring projects on Google Hangouts.

“Schools are making Facebook pages with pictures and stories so kids can stay connected,” she said. “On the flip side, we don’t want kids aimlessly watching even more YouTube videos and scrolling through all this bad news. I tell my patients to set screen time limits and only check emails two or three times per day.”

Elderly disadvantage

Elderly people may be at the biggest disadvantage during the coronavirus crisis, not only because they are the most physically vulnerable but because they have limited facility with or access to the internet, said Dr. Philip Harvey, professor of psychiatry at UM.

“Older people, which are a large segment of our population in Florida, are much more likely to be isolated than younger people because they don’t have computers or don’t know how to use them,” Harvey said. “Plus no one is allowed to visit them. I advise calling your mother, calling your grandfather.”

A shift toward more online doctors’ appointments, rehab group sessions and teletherapy will be one of the most beneficial repercussions of the pandemic, Harvey said. His wife was able to talk to her gastroenterologist online last week and show him where she was feeling abdominal pain rather than go sit in a waiting room.

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“It expands the reach to areas where there are no psychiatrists or specialists,” he said. “But in certain cases you need to observe the whole patient. You can’t necessarily tell on a low-resolution camera if he is exhausted or well-groomed or hear the subtle voice intonation that indicates he is depressed.”

Traumatic times

Two UM physicians are focusing on the positive effects of online flexibility during traumatic times.

“We have this digital connective tissue we didn’t have for past generations,” said Dr. Lujain Alhajji, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science. “To fill the void, people are building support networks among co-workers, friends or relatives to fend off anxiety and maintain wellness.”

A study of community resilience following the 9/11 terrorist attacks identified factors that strengthened mental health, said Dr. Zelde Espinel, assistant professor at UM’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Online social networking and available tools can buffer despair and instill a sense of hope,” she said.

Celebrities and entertainers are staying connected to fans by offering uplifting messages, concerts and readings online.

Singer Miley Cyrus has been an enthusiastic host on Instagram Live, sharing inspirational stories and singing with Demi Lovato as millions of fans tune in. Country star Keith Urban and wife Nicole Kidman performed a show from home on the platform. Cardi B, Justin Bieber, John Legend, Lizzo, Bruce Springsteen and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard have also entertained large audiences.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has been tweeting using the hashtag #SongsOfComfort and dedicated a performance from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 to healthcare workers.

Broadway stars Laura Benanti and Lin-Manuel Miranda urged student thespians whose high school musicals were canceled to send them performance videos using the hashtag #SunshineSongs.

Sending love

“I want to be your audience!” Benanti tweeted. “Sending all my love and black market toilet paper.”

Rolling Stone magazine has partnered with IGTV to present “In My Room,” and its first two guest artists were Angelique Kidjo singing “Gimme Shelter” from home in Paris and Brian Wilson performing from home in California.

Lots of intimate gigs can ease melancholy daily at Global Citizen’s #AtHomeTogether, Isol-Aid, Quaran-Stream, Couch Party, Homechella, Lockdown Livetream and Penned Up.

New York’s Lincoln Center At Home opened a portal with pop-up classes, a trove of videos, and live-streams from “empty halls and living rooms.”

In South Florida, the show goes on with gusto despite shuttered stages. What virtual performances may lack in acoustics they make up for in price. You can’t beat free.

No more outdoor Wallcasts this season, but the New World Symphony is performing on Facebook. UM’s Frost School of Music has Friday night rebroadcasts of concerts. Local nightclubs and musicians are welcoming audiences to virtual piano bars, tango lessons and jam sessions. Area Stage has virtual acting classes.

Coral Gables Art Cinema converted to a “Drive-In” theater showing curated movies on its website, which won’t “replicate the experience of watching a movie on the big screen surrounded by a crowd of movie lovers” but will provide “solace in trying times,” the website says.

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Museum options

Museums and attractions offer virtual exhibition tours, blogs and science experiments. Zoo Miami is closed, but its Meercam is filming those adorable meerkats. The Dade Heritage Trust created a digital tour of 12 downtown Miami sites. The O, Miami Poetry Festival canceled events, “but you know as well as we do how powerful shared language can be in uncertain times, and we are committed to providing space for that language, even if that space is only virtual.” Everglades National Park has set up a webcam feed, and Big Cypress National Preserve has an online photo gallery.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, recognizing “the new normal” and “the importance of outdoor living,” launched #MyFairchild, a resource for how to grow tomatoes and sweet potatoes, kids crafts, meet-our-scientists streams and “mindful moments” — videos of garden scenes, like a waterfall in the rainforest section.

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The least satisfying flight of fancy is virtual travel. It’s a poor substitute as borders close, airlines slash service and travelers are grounded. But for those feeling restless or saddened by canceled trips, there are outlets for traveling the world without having to wedge into airplane seats.

Travel Zoo compiled a bucket list of 20 can’t-miss digital experiences. Paris may be on lockdown, but the Louvre is open for online tours. Visit Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, China’s Great Wall, India’s Taj Mahal, Peru’s Machu Picchu, London’s Buckingham Palace. Take an interactive 3,000-foot climb up El Capitan at Yosemite National Park. Scream from the front seat of California’s GhostRider Wooden Roller Coaster. Go on safari. Dive our disappearing reefs. There are countless virtual vacations to sweep you away. You can even do Napa Valley wine tasting from home.

Suffering from live sports withdrawal symptoms? So far, the most successful replication has been NASCAR’s iRacing platform, a video game simulation in which pro drivers race around a digital track from their homes. But fans loved watching Denny Hamlin beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. down the stretch at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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Given that most sports require team play, physical contact and dense gatherings of fans, there’s not much on offer as a virtual version of competition. Spain’s La Liga soccer clubs held an Esports FIFA tournament with the top gamer on each team controlling the action. Marco Asensio led Real Madrid to the title.

The American sports scene has largely been reduced to replays of classic games on sports TV, such as the re-broadcasts of two World Series Game 7s on what should have been baseball’s Opening Day. Steph Curry can’t play basketball, but he did interview Dr. Anthony Fauci on Instagram.

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“Boredom is your imagination calling to you,” says Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” and “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.”

Turkle, who has been studying digital culture for 30 years, sees a creative, resourceful, communal spirit on social media knitting together the great divides caused by home confinement.

People are rallying to help those in need and using the internet to do it. Neighbors checking on the elderly via Next Door; virtual trivia nights to raise money for unemployed bartenders, and a Miami prayer group has switched its gathering spot “from rooftops to laptops,” and Chef Jose Andres posting videos on how to wash hands or make his mom’s lentil stew.

As with other upheavals throughout history, such as the Great Depression, World War II, the rise of HIV/AIDS, 9/11 and the Great Recession, the coronavirus pandemic will bring a lasting reorientation of everyday life in the United States, which has surpassed China in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Virtual routines

The convenience and comfort of virtual routines could make us forget how to go offline. What if we become addicted to the passive ease of clicking and nesting-in-place?

Jobs will change as employers resistant to telecommuting wake up and realize productivity increases and expenses decrease when employees don’t have to waste time and destroy the environment driving into a useless office or flying to a meeting more efficiently conducted via teleconference.

As more tasks are performed online, an already decimated labor force could see a radical rearrangement toward the Amazon business model, where deliveries to stay-at-homebodies dominate the consumer economy.

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“Coronavirus could hasten the replacement of humans by computers,” Harvey said.

The entertainment industry, rocked by iTunes and Netflix, could be rocked again: Why pay $12 at the movie theater (plus $7 for popcorn), $75 for a theater ticket or $120 for a rock concert — while surrounded by possible host carriers of the next coronavirus?

Intractable partisan politics during the pandemic have heightened calls for a virtual U.S. Congress, enabling leaders to spend more time in their communities listening to constituents than inside the Beltway listening to lobbyists.

Coronavirus, the scourge that pulled us apart, might just have a rebound effect, and bring us back together when it’s conquered. What did Barbra Streisand sing? People who need people are the luckiest people in the world. Starved for actual face-to-face chats, we’ll fling aside the damned keyboard, repair the fissures in American society, re-embrace globalization and break out in block-long conga lines.

“Our yearning for social connection and physical touch is what makes us human,” Alhajji said. “When a mom hugs her baby, hormones are released.”

Free from quarantine, blinking in the sun, humans might just choose to unplug, and trade virtual life for the real thing.

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This story was originally published March 28, 2020 9:00 AM.

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