Covid, the community, and feeling welcome

3 babushka dolls wearing face masks standing apart
Covid-19 and the community

As well as killing the hug, the coronavirus has stolen something else from us—the welcome. When entering a place or meeting, instead of a warm greeting, you’re more likely to encounter a generous splash of hand sanitiser. Social distancing may be effective and necessary, but in a community context, feeling welcome means something too. So how do we balance feeling welcome with being safe?

Covid-19 and hospitality don’t mix

The coronavirus and hospitality don’t mix well, which is a shame, because showing hospitality and fostering a feeling of welcome is an essential part of nurturing community relationships. It brings people in, makes them feel comfortable and willing to share and contribute; ultimately, it says “thanks for coming, you’re in the right place.”

Welcome sign covered in covid-19 sing like wash your hands
Covid-19 has stolen the feeling of welcome

Our Covid-19 reality has stripped away things we rely on to create a sense of welcome. Instead of getting invitations, we get cancellations and messages of “don’t come here unless you have to.” If we do gather together, our entry spaces have signs telling us to stand apart and wash our hands. Consider the rooms where we meet. We now sit apart in awkward configurations—the opposite of intimate and connected. Where we would usually share food, there’s an empty space—“bring a plate” is dead (or at least in hibernation). 

So what can we do when hand washing instructions obscure our welcome mat? There’s no question social distancing requirements are here to stay (for now), so we need to get creative and also intentional about the way we welcome people in a community setting. Here’s one approach for restoring a feeling of welcome in your community. 

Remember that feeling welcome matters

The first step is easy. We need to remember (or recognise for the first time) that feeling welcome is valued by people. It’s not a nice to have; it’s central to fostering a feeling of belonging and sense of community.

 Identify the gaps

Now that we’ve changed our practices and processes to be “Covid-safe” we can take a step back and reflect on the unintentional impact of these changes. What do our changes mean in terms of how we greet and interact with our community members? Has our entry space turned into a place that shouts, “you’re not wanted here!” Beyond giving social distancing instructions, what do our signs and new procedures say to people? What bits of welcome have fallen away?

Darra State School front gate
Darra State School welcomes students back after the Covid-19 lockdown and homeschooling period.

Get intentional 

Even in our current socially distanced world, we can still emphasise making people feel welcome.

Here are some examples of small but intentional gestures.

  • If we’ve filled our entry space with Covid-19 signage, can we create a welcome sign of the same intensity? 
  • Can we get intentional about the way we configure a meeting room (beyond making sure we’re 1.5m apart) to make it feel less awkward?
  • If hand sanitiser sits on the table instead of a plate-to-share, Covid-19 will occupy part of our mind as we talk. Can we replace it with something else symbolic (that isn’t a potential source of infection)?
  • When we kick off our community gatherings, can we take a moment to acknowledge the annoying but necessary social distancing practices and reaffirm how much we value the presence of those in the room?

None of this is perfect, but it’s something.

Final thoughts

We don’t know how long social distancing restrictions will affect how we interact with each other, but the term “foreseeable future” feels pretty apt. While we can’t diminish the need for social distancing, we can recognise that small and intentional gestures of welcome mean something. We can still make our community members feel welcome even when the signs at the front door say otherwise. 

We just need to get intentional—and a little creative.