Michigan Minds: Exploring How the Pandemic has Impacted Third Places

April 15, 2021

ANN ARBOR – In this episode of Michigan Minds, Jessica Finlay, postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Social Research, discusses the importance that third places have in society and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted establishments and communities.

Finlay studies social environments and how where people live affects their health and wellbeing as they age. She is also the co-investigator of the COVID-19 Coping Study, which is a mixed method study of older adults across the US to understand how the pandemic is affecting the health and wellbeing of aging Americans.

Finlay joined Michigan Minds in March 2020 to discuss the impact that the pandemic was having on social infrastructure sites often called “third places,” where people gather, connect, and socialize outside of the home and workplace. Just a few weeks into the public health guidelines that closed some of these types of businesses, Finlay explained the pivotal role these places have in peoples’ lives. One year later, closures have continued and changed social infrastructure in some communities.

“We’re seeing continuing trends of temporary closures due to public health and safety measures, as well as permanent closures of these places and institutions given the economic recession. Industries that have been particularly hard hit over the past year include leisure, hospitality, and travel, and that really trickles down to local impacts where we’re seeing third places closing or operating at very limited capacities — places like restaurants, coffee shops, bars, community centers, gyms, and libraries,” she says.

“We’re also seeing a continuing widespread shift to online services and amenities — a different way of using social infrastructure, where it’s more online given the very necessary public health measures in place to help curtail the spread of COVID-19. This can be everything from online religious services to exercise classes, grocery stores, and other retail,” Finlay says, adding that the shift to virtual engagement doesn’t always fully replace the in-person contact.

“This really is impacting how people are living their everyday lives and their mental health and social wellbeing.”

She explains that in the COVID-19 Coping Study, they asked participants how the pandemic has impacted their communities and many responses mentioned feelings of sadness and isolation, but some also brought up the new ways they have found to bond with others throughout the pandemic.

“People really miss the sense of community that we have in these places. It’s really been keenly felt, I think, over the past year and continues to be so, but it’s also not just a story of losses. There’s also resilience. We’re hearing a lot of stories of people bonding together, how many come together to take on causes and support each other. Some wrote to us saying that their worlds actually opened up because there’s so much more infrastructure now online to engage and receive support and be part of a community through online forums,” she says.

Third places are essential to the social fabric of our communities, Finlay says, so it’s important to continue thinking about ways to engage in these spaces safely. Even with the hopefulness of spring weather and vaccinations rolling out, she encourages everyone to continue to reach out and connect with those who may be struggling or feeling isolated.

“We know that there’s not an equitable rollout of vaccines. We know that there are not equal impacts on communities. The pandemic has really been exposing and exasperating some of these structural inequalities that we have in our society. Take the time to think about those who might still be struggling even as we have a sense of progress moving forward. Check in with others to see how we might continue to support them in the months and years to come. It’s important to continue prioritizing self care, mental health, and social connection, even as we hopefully return to more of a kind of post COVID-19 era.”

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