Galena resident Nicole Zupich had planned to take an April 30 trip to Savannah, Georgia, with friends from college.

But amid the onset of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Zupich, 35, and the seven other members of Ohio Northern University's class of 2007 opted to cancel the trip.

The friends didn't let the virus keep them apart, though. They still met up -- online.

Zupich shared a link she found about a virtual happy hour on their group text message. On March 21, they met up on the Zoom video-conferencing platform and tried it for themselves.

"It was so fun," she said.

Everyone expected it to be a bit awkward, but conversation wasn't lacking, Zupich said. The group then planned another happy hour March 27.

The pandemic ended up bringing everyone together, Zupich said.

As social distancing to limit the spread of the coronavirus continues, virtual socializing -- happy hours, game nights, cooking dinner -- has become the way many are staying in touch with loved ones.

According to Syntero mental-health clinician Shelbey Mitchell Cogswell, that connection is essential for mental and physical health.

Social connection is linked to a longer life span, as well as happiness and mental health, Cogswell said.

Meeting with others online is about survival, she said. The face-to-face communication is different from talking on the phone or texting, because people rely on nonverbal cues.

Cogswell said she encourages her clients to not only have conversations with loved ones online but also to connect on a deeper level by doing things they would do in person -- play games, go on a walk or take a scavenger hunt.

"It's an opportunity for us to really get deeper with each other," she said.

Like Zupich, many central Ohioans have been doing just that.

Steven Michalovich, a 35-year-old Westerville resident, said he and his wife, Alexis, are used to socializing with friends. The idea of being stuck inside, he said, "is pretty rough."

The family began sheltering in place the week of March 13 and decided to hold a St. Patrick's Day trivia night the evening of March 17 with an immediate circle of friends, Michalovich said.

The couple came up with trivia questions on topics that included St. Patrick's Day, pop culture, March Madness and history. More than 20 people attended the online gathering, he said.

After that, the couple planned an online get-together almost every night, playing board games, attending happy hours and having children participate in scavenger hunts, Michalovich said.

Michalovich said his children -- Gianna, 5, Everett, 3, and Alessandra, 8 months, participate in video calls every day with friends and family.

The virtual meetups offer a way to see friends, have a little fun and talk through handling the pandemic, he said.

"You kind of have to laugh it off a little bit," Michalovich said.

Online games have become an option for Hilliard resident Trish Halterman, 41, who said she and some of her friends were accustomed to gathering and playing board games. Now they are trying online versions of their favorites.

Halterman said she and Liz Randolph, a friend from New York, also meet up online to prep dinner together and talk about their days over a glass of wine.

Even before the pandemic, Halterman was accustomed to "virtually baby-sitting" her 5-year-old niece, Makayla. The two read books to each other or did other activities to let Halterman's sister make dinner or get some alone time, Halterman said.

"While it's still screen time, it's productive screen time," she said.

Screen time has been the way Dublin resident Christina Alutto's children talk to their grandparents.

Alutto, 46, said she gave a spare tablet to her mother, Rosemary Alutto, with her children's contact information.

Alutto said her mother and her in-laws, Diane and Paul Gaydos, all live in Dublin and were used to seeing Amelia, 18, Anthony, 16, Andon, 16, Noah, 13, and Mason, 9. But because of social distancing, their interactions have moved online.

Alutto said Mason has used Apple's FaceTime video calls to talk to his grandparents.

"My mom loved it," she said.

Columbus resident Lynn Mickey, 63, said she is getting accustomed to video chatting. She and her family recently had a Zoom chat, with 15 people on the video call.

"It was like 'Hollywood Squares,'" Mickey said.

Mickey, the oldest of nine siblings, said her family is close-knit, so seeing her relatives' faces helped her know they are doing well.

"It's just a positive thing to do," she said.

ssole@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSarah