Gemutlichkeit In The Time of COVID-19

The word quarantine comes from the Venetian phrase quaranta giorni — 40 Days. In the 14th century, ships from outside Venetian territory would anchor in port for 40 days before docking (CDC 2012). As the plague spread, quaranta giorni became common practise. 

The logic of 40 Days was more commercial than social. Its purpose was to guarantee that ports remained plague-free and supply chains unimpaired. The protection of labourers and communities from infection was a secondary concern.

In more recent history, popular ideas about a quarantine’s calculus have become altruistic. The overt aim is to ‘flatten the curve’ and allow the sick to be treated with competence and compassion. However, the global response to COVID-19 shows that the commercial logic of quarantine remains, with reducing the virus’s severity being a fêted strategy to heal an ailing economy.

There is no question that economy and society are related. The problem is that a quarantine for the betterment of commerce also comes at a severe social cost. More specifically, in the time of COVID-19 people were told to sacrifice common things for the economy’s benefit. 

In a pandemic, there is no alternative. Social distance can be the difference between life and death. But people need more than a promise that, with or without them, the economy will work again. Otherwise, selflessness only ends in the true costs being borne by society’s vulnerable.

COVID-19 drastically changed everyday life. People socially distanced themselves from their friends, coworkers and neighbours. Public places were avoided. New routines were developed for standing in queues. Simply put, social living may never be the same and the built environment will have to change to make space for new forms of everyday life.     

Humans Are Social

Viruses thrive on sociability. They only want to multiply, and they need people to do their handiwork. For a virus, sociability is a vector. For humans, being convivial is a fatal weakness because our desire for contact is also what carries the infection. Therefore, short of a vaccine or other therapies, people have to endure what Hannah Arendt (1968) called “negative solidarity” (p. 84) so that the contagion is in the offing.

Social distance has its limits. Even the most remote human settlement is not immune. At some point, contact is made and the contagion spreads.

Again, there is no alternative: To be human is to be social, and to be social is to be a vector. However, when it is time for the world to come back to life, people will have to forgo the formalities of social distance and take a step toward each other.

Signs of Life 

In the days after Wuhan was quarantined, there were videos of people talking to each other and telling jokes from high-rise windows.

When Italy and Spain went into their 40 Days, videos appeared of people singing and dancing on their balconies. Others featured rooftop DJs taking requests shouted from across the street. Another showed apartment dwellers at their windows following a fitness instructor’s routine.

As Germany began its lockdown, neighbours posted notes on each others’ doors with offers of help and contact details. There were books and toilet paper rolls left in common areas. And in some places, homemade placards with the phrase “Solidarity = Social Distancing” began to appear.

(Source: Notes of Berlin)

The images and notes from China and Europe showed people who previously lived parallel lives. Most of them had probably never met or shared many interests. But from behind closed doors, people found ways to be social. They didn’t demand an immediate return to their jobs or campaign for bread and roses. Instead, humbled by the situation at hand, they tried to create a sense of belonging.

According to Arendt (1968), negative solidarity is “based on the fear of global destruction” (p. 84). She also says that this helpless situation can be overcome if people accept “present reality … [and] assume responsibility for all public affairs within our reach” (p. 84). So it is through acceptance of a mutual condition that people will find calm and joy inneighborship” (p. 85).


A common joke about Germans is ‘they have a word for it — and it’s a very long one’. Fittingly, there’s a German word for the sense of sociability, contentment and good cheer: Gemütlichkeit. It is usually associated with public gatherings like Oktoberfest — which were restricted in the time of COVID-19. By definition, however, it is not limited to packed venues. Rather, Gemütlichkeit can also be neighborship and a mutual atmosphere of acceptance, calmness and comfort.

Gemütlichkeit is convivial and casual. Life need not be taken too seriously. Nor should the gratification of being together be postponed. As such, even when the situation at hand requires social distance, people find comfort in knowing someone is nearby.

The images and notes of people making the best of social distance show that Gemütlichkeit is real. They kept calm and remained social. And their acts of ‘far but close’ neighborship helped them build and maintain a convivial sense of solidarity — that we’re in it together.

There is an element of Gemütlichkeit that exists outside of commerce. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber (2002) notes that the economy thrives on the denial of self and community (p. 95). Examples of this were present in early public awareness campaigns to promote social distancing. In them, there were embedded promises that a working economy would be the reward for people’s pious sacrifice. As Britain’s Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said of the virus, “We have never faced an economic fight like this one, but we are well prepared. We will do whatever takes.” (2020, 17 March). Meanwhile, Gemütlichkeit, which makes no claim to asceticism, simply asks people to find neighborship.

Again, there is no alternative. Social distance is needed to hold back the vectors of contagion. But there is no reason that people must endure their 40 Days without knowing that togetherness and cries of joy will be waiting when it is all over.

We Get It

When the images of people finding neighborship in China and Europe went viral, a new set of memes appeared on social media. The creators were usually North American. Their message was a version of, “WE GET IT! You have balconies.” The memes were in jest; the point was that Gemütlichkeit and social distance will not be as enjoyable in North America.

Small cultural and historical differences between Europe and North America have influenced divergent designs for social life. In a lot of Europe’s working class neighbourhoods, households are designed to spill into the street. Hence balconies face other balconies. This more open relationship between public and private spaces is a vestige of what Ferdinand Tönnies (1957) called Gemeinschaft, which are communities based on informal personal interactions that precede economy (p. 34).

Meanwhile, North American designs exaggerate distance and privacy by setting homes back from the street. They also do not feature balconies or windows that throw themselves open to the world. And these designs for a pastoral form of capitalism denies neighborship or any sense of sociality. The irony is that their built environment, as ideal as it may be for quarantine, is cold, impersonal and incapable of allowing for Gemütlichkeit. 

Planning for Society

After COVID-19, at least for a while, being with other people will be a luxury. Previously, sitting next to a stranger was taken for granted. Now it is a risk.

There is a possibility that social distance will be created by decreasing the size of public spaces — e.g. restaurants, cinemas, event sites, and even public transport. The drop in people per square metre could be 75%, which is so sparse that the company of others may be a frill. There is another possibility that liberal ideas about the division between public and private may be undone. What then remains is an expanded social space that does not have a lot of precedents. 

The modern world was designed for commerce. Bedroom communities were built into supply chains that were meant to get people and goods to places of business. Therefore, design will have to break new ground.

In order to maintain togetherness, the future will have to be designed for Gemütlichkeit and neighborship. For example, travel to far-off places may become unaffordable. In turn, local venues might have to adapt their programming so people can find calm and comfort closer to home. Some places, such as cafes, could become even more spaced-out, laid-back and salon-like. Similarly, cinemas and restaurants may occupy sprawling outdoor spaces where people can take life in at their leisure. If so, a model for this adaptation already exists in Vienna, where people spend entire days at wine bars in the vineyards that surround the city.

(Source: Stadt Wien)

Some of the biggest social changes, especially in North America, are going to be in the home. New designs will have to allow for two opposing trends. The first is the shut-in economy, where people may never leave the house. The other will have to make sure that isolation is not a way of life. And it will be a challenge to balance the two.

In North America, changes in home design should include front porches that create a social transition between public and private. Likewise, towns can make larger social spaces within neighbourhoods by periodically closing roads so as to make way for cultural programming. Or in Europe, conviviality can be promoted by creating more green spaces that allow neighborship to spill out of the household.

Again, there is no alternative. But quarantines are only a meanwhile strategy, and something like normality will return. The question is whether the future will have more or less neighborship. As Camus (1960) says in The Plague, “It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency” (125).

Jim Morrow, University of Alberta


Arendt, Hannah. (1968). Men in Dark Times. Harcourt Brace & Company.

Camus, Albert. (1960) The Plague. Penguin.

Centers for Disease Control. (2012, 10 January). History of Quarantine.

Stewart, Heather. (2020, 17 March). ‘Whatever it takes’: chancellor announces £350bn aid for UK businesses. The Guardian.

Tönnies, Ferdinand. (1957). Community and Society. Harper Torchbooks.

Weber, Max. (2002). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Penguin.