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Hugs Replace Social Distancing Amid COVID Vaccine Expansion

Ruth Alcantara approached her grandmother. Then closer and closer.

She entered the six-foot buffer zone that had separated them for so long and wrapped her arms around the older woman.

“Hola, abuelita, the extrañe mucho,” she said, inches from her grandmother’s ear. Hi, Grandma, I missed you so much.

She felt a kiss on her forehead. Her throat tightened with emotion.

As more Americans are vaccinated against COVID-19, reunions between loved ones are becoming more frequent and, for many, hugs are the main event.

First routine, then prohibited and now precious, hugs have come to symbolize the next phase of the pandemic, our way out of the isolation of the past year. Simply put: hugs can’t be given from six feet away.

Alcantara, a student at Loyola Marymount University, and her grandmother live a 25-minute drive from each other in the San Fernando Valley and have seen each other every Saturday before the pandemic. But they weren’t in the same room since February 2020.

When Alcantara graduated from high school last spring, she stood on her grandmother’s porch in her cap and dress so the older woman, her only living grandparent, could see her through the window. . They tried to talk on the phone, but it’s difficult because of her grandmother’s poor hearing.

But on April 3, her grandmother’s 95th birthday, Alcantara had been fully vaccinated. They could kiss each other safely.

The embrace was long and familiar, said Alcantara. Her grandmother was sitting in her favorite chair like she always had, her sweater was so soft, like her clothes always have been. She didn’t look older.

“I felt like time hadn’t really moved, but I know a lot of time has passed,” said Alcantara, 19.

Ruth Alcantara and her grandmother on April 3, shortly after their first hug in 14 months.

(Ruth Alcantara)

Many newly vaccinated can remember their first hugs outside of their pod, dancing as they negotiated levels of comfort, awkward joy. Those who declared themselves non-huggers before 2020 say they have been transformed by a year of “contact deprivation”. Some friends go so far as to plan cuddly dates.

Most humans crave physical contact from friends and family and need it to keep their relationships close, experts say. Hugs are a way of saying hello, offering support, asking for love, sharing joy, and communicating emotions that don’t necessarily translate into words.

“There’s a lot more going on than ‘Just let me put my arms around you for a second or two,’ said Kory Floyd, a University of Arizona professor who studies how affection is. communicated in close relations. “At times like this, that message can be, ‘I really missed you.’


Before Alcantara’s visit this month, she feared her grandmother was depressed; his expression looked grim in recent photos. But that did not turn out to be true.

“I thought she looked so young. Her smile was so beautiful and I felt like I hadn’t seen her like that for so long, ”she said. “I was showing all the pictures of my friends later, I was like, ‘Look at my grandma! “”

Grandmother and granddaughter plan to resume their Saturday dates. There will be more hugs.

For most of the past year, health officials have warned people should stay six feet from anyone outside of their homes. But last month, as vaccinations accelerated, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was prudent for those vaccinated to be in close contact, without a mask, with a small number of patients. ‘other people.

It opened the door to hugs.

Floyd, a professor at the University of Arizona, said humans desire physical touch because they associate it with safety and security, because babies must be detained to survive. Studies have shown that touching can ease feelings of pain in adults, improve mood, reduce symptoms of dementia, and even improve the immune system’s response to infections.

Touching famine, on the other hand,

can trigger anxiety and depression, difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite and reduced resilience to deal with difficult situations, he said.

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“I can’t get through the computer screen when I’m zooming in with someone and putting my arms around them,” Floyd said. “When we are without the possibility of connection, and especially without the possibility of touching, we feel threatened in the world, whether we recognize it on a conscious level or not.”

For some, the pain of the past year has been so intense that the prospect of close contact with friends and family seems almost too good to be true.

Vix Jensen, 28, said that since booking her ticket to visit her parents and siblings in London next month, she had tried not to think about the trip for fear of being disappointed if it had to be canceled. But hope permeates its defense mechanisms.

“Every night I go to bed imagining arriving at the airport and being able to hug my family,” she said.

It is believed that the past year is the first time that millions of people have stopped touching each other for an extended period. Many have described a new type of desire known as “touch deprivation” or “skin hunger”.

Alison Stolpa, an actress who lives in East Hollywood, remembers every time she has had physical contact with someone in the past year. There was a hug with a friend last summer – he had just tested negative for the virus – and staff at her dentist’s office who brushed her while inspecting her teeth.

“I have friends who have been vaccinated and I’m like, ‘Can I ask them to hug me?’” Stolpa said. “I’m just dreaming about it.”

Until she was vaccinated, Stolpa was content with cuddling from her black cat, Blixa. He sometimes extends his paws outward while sitting in his lap, a gesture that, in these times of lack of touch, Stolpa has come to consider a hug.

Alison Stolpa with her cat Blixa.

Alison Stolpa with her cat Blixa.

(Alison Stolpa)

Certainly, not everyone wants to touch, even loved ones, whether it’s because of past trauma, skin conditions, or just their preferences. Researchers studying the benefits of hugs warn that it shouldn’t be used as a justification for touching people without their consent.

For non-cuddly people who want to feel more connected to others, being in the same room together could be just as nourishing, said Tristen Inagaki, professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Humans can pick up other signals, such as smell and heat, that signal they are close to others, even if they are not touching each other, she said.

In general, Americans feel comfortable standing about three feet from strangers and three feet from close friends, research shows. While some cultures enjoy a more personal space, none prefer six feet, even among strangers.

“The more you are able to be closer and closer to your friends and family, in theory, the better the social experience, the more connected you feel,” said Inagaki. “Just sitting in space with others is so heartwarming. Now I aspire to this.

“I would love to just be in a cafe with people sitting around me. This level of closeness would be wonderful, ”she said.


On Sunday afternoon, friends Madeline Brozen and Jessica Holzer met in a West Hollywood park to do something they had been waiting for months.

In the middle of a sea of ​​picnickers enjoying the spring day, the two 35-year-old women intertwined their arms and squeezed and cried out.

Holzer recently got engaged. Brozen exclaimed, “Congratulations!” as the embrace continued for several minutes. Their eyes narrowed as they smiled behind their masks.

Brozen, who works as a city planner at UCLA, said the past year has given him a new appreciation for the role physical contact plays in his relationships.

When a friend of hers recently told her that he had ended their relationship, Brozen felt unable to respond adequately.

“I just had to sit six feet apart and be like ‘it really sucks.’ You can’t really express so much about how you care about people with your words alone, ”she said. “It kind of made hanging out with friends almost like professional interactions, because there wasn’t that physical closeness.”

Michael Murphy, a professor at Texas Tech University who studies how social connections affect health, said receiving support just in words can sometimes make people feel worse because others don’t always say the right thing. thing. A sympathetic hand on the shoulder or a hug can get around this.

And physical contact also helps restore relationships that benefit people’s health, he said. Having diverse social connections – like being a neighbor, partner, friend, volunteer, daughter – is linked to improved well-being, perhaps this is why so many people, including Brozen and Holzer, were turned on not just by the hugs, but also by hugs. someone other than their partners.

“Hugs are such a powerful reminder that we belong, that we are taken care of, that we are loved,” Murphy said.

After the hello, Brozen and Holzer chatted, joked, and appreciated that their conversation could continue beyond the few minutes she had limited herself to during their short visits over the past year. They took off their masks and were able to see their entire faces for the first time in months.

When they packed their bags for their way home, they both reached out for a hug goodbye. It was even sweeter than the first.

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