Virtual parties bloom amid coronavirous lockdown

COVID-19 lockdown or not, Amaya Howard plans to unwind after a hard day of work by sharing a few glasses of wine with friends.

COVID-19 lockdown or not, Amaya Howard plans to unwind after a hard day of work by sharing a few glasses of wine with friends.

But with bars closed across the United States, they have started meeting online via Houseparty — one of several group video apps doing a roaring trade during the pandemic.

“The idea came about of doing a happy hour — we get on the app and just drink wine and talk,” she said. “Mostly it’s about a lot of randomness, but occasionally someone will say, ‘I just can’t believe how crazy what’s going on is.’”

She is not alone. Downloads of similar apps — where each person who logs into a group chat appears in their own “window” on the screen of a phone, tablet or computer — have gone through the roof.

Just this month downloads of Houseparty, which was highly popular with teens a couple of years ago, have surged tenfold to 210,000 per day, according to Apptopia.

Others such as Zoom, used mainly for remote working, and Google Hangouts, Skype and Rave have also seen upticks.

For Esmee Lavalette, a Dutch film student in Los Angeles, the lockdown has presented a chance to hang out with friends back in the Netherlands — although the time difference has forced some daytime drinking.

“They always have a weekly drinks nights, but now since everything’s canceled, they decided to do it on Houseparty,” she said. “And now for the first time in like a year and a half, I can join them. So I was drunk at like 2pm.”

The call ended when the night grew too late in Europe — and Lavalette returned to her homework.

Even drinks for her graduation, which was set to take place this week, are now being shifted to cyberspace.

“I still have a lot of beer leftover so that’s what I’m gonna drink,” Lavalette said. “And some vodka.”

In addition to a chance to catch up and blow off some steam, users say the apps are good for their mental health during these anxious times.

Rachel Chadwick, a local government worker in Leeds, England, has struggled with anxiety and depression.

“I’m quite extroverted, so obviously this self-isolating is really difficult for me,” she said.

Chadwick and her friends usually meet for a “girls night” once a month, which is now taking place on the app.

The Houseparty app also features built-in games, such as trivia, drawing, wordplay and other group activities.

These games are a draw for Fiama Liaudat, a Spanish teacher from Argentina living in North Carolina.

She and her fellow teachers situated across the state would typically explore bars together, or meet at someone’s home to play board games before the virus.

“For us, the app means we can continue, but on our phones,” she said.

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