Coronavirus Is Forcing AA Meetings to Close, and People Are Worried About Relapse

“It’s one thing to be socially isolated, but it’s another thing to be socially isolated and trying to get sober."
March 17, 2020, 4:20pm
AA

Whenever Lara A. walks into an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting, it feels like coming home.

“I don’t have to be anywhere but where I’m at, I don’t have to be anything but me,” she said.

“I’m kind of getting emotional just thinking about it, but on the toughest days of my life, I walk into an AA meeting and it’s immediately like, ‘Fuck, I’m seen here, I’m held here, I’m loved here.’”

But now, because of the coronavirus, Lara's regular AA meeting and countless others across the country have been cancelled for the foreseeable future.

Lara, who asked that her full name not be used, had typically attended three or four meetings a week in the San Francisco Bay Area — maybe more, if she really felt the need. But as she made coffee and prepared to head out to a meeting on Saturday, Lara got the text she'd expected: The meeting wasn’t happening.

“I’m super bummed that this could be like the reality for the next several months, but I’m trying to just take things one day at a time,” she said.

As the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic came into focus over the past few days, national and local officials have rapidly implemented measures designed to cut off social contact to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. And AA groups across the country have also started taking action.

In New York, about 1,000 groups informed the Inter-Group Association of AA of New York over Friday and the weekend that they would no longer be meeting. As of Monday morning, the intergroup’s executive director Reagan Reed estimated that about a third of all AA meetings in the New York tri-state area had been cancelled to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

The loss of a life raft

With New York now an epicenter of the global outbreak with more than 1,000 confirmed cases, Reed supports putting the meetings on hold. But she still fears that without the life raft of a meeting, people could relapse.

“This is a time of crisis, and this is when we need AA meetings most,” said Reed, who’s been unable to attend a meeting since last Tuesday. Her regular meeting was canceled. “AA was started by one alcoholic sitting at a table and talking to another, and that’s been the cornerstone and foundation of our programs since it began in 1946. Not having the ability to attend a meeting, and be in a physical space where you can share with one another what you’re going through, is devastating to us.”

"Not having the ability to attend a meeting, and be in a physical space where you can share with one another what you’re going through, is devastating to us.”

New York is also one of several states — including California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Washington — where governors and mayors have ordered bars, restaurants, and wineries to shutter. Closing down places where people can buy liquor will likely help them to not only remain safe from the coronavirus but also stay sober. But members of Alcoholics Anonymous say that’s likely not enough.

Within an hour of her meeting’s cancellation, Lara had logged onto a virtual version using the video-conferencing program Zoom. It’s a solution that both Reed’s organization and the Alcoholics Anonymous Intergroup of San Francisco & Marin County have adopted; as of Monday, about 30 groups in the New York metropolitan area have set up new meetings through Zoom, though Reed plans to add more soon.

About 100 of the roughly 500 AA meetings in the San Francisco area have been cancelled, Maury Polk, executive director of Alcoholics Anonymous Intergroup of San Francisco & Marin County, said on Monday. California has seen almost 500 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, including six deaths. Seven counties in the Bay Area are now under a directive to “shelter in place,” meaning that people won’t be able to leave their homes “except for essential needs,” according to San Francisco Mayor London Breed.

“We were just maintaining a separate list of closures,” Polk said with a laugh. “Pretty soon, we got to realize that it would be better to list the open meetings rather than the closed ones.”

Moving to an online model isn’t a perfect substitute for in-person gatherings in a community center or church basement. Because someone’s personal information could be leaked online, Polk worries that the AA meetings won’t be “anonymous” as their name implies; finding a fix for that is Polk’s goal for the week. Plus, without meetings, Polk’s intergroup won’t have any source of collections, which can help foot the bill for a rental space or refreshments. (People who attend AA aren’t required to pay.)

'Let's put out the fire'

“We’re gonna see a reduction in our income, but that’s something we can deal with at a later date,” she said. “It’s like, ‘OK, we’re gonna have to think about that, but right now, let’s put out the fire.”

AA groups function more or less autonomously; the AA clearinghouse known as the General Service Office has refrained from issuing broad guidelines about whether meetings should be cancelled or how they should handle the coronavirus threat. However, the office says that some meetings have stopped offering coffee, and told attendees not to shake hands or hold hands. Others have started making contact lists in order to keep in touch by phone, email, and social media.

“Regardless of group decisions, each individual is responsible for their own health decisions,” the General Service Office added in a release.

Lara says her virtual meetings, combined with support she’s found on private Facebook groups, should be enough for her. She’s more worried about newcomers to Alcoholics Anonymous.

“It’s one thing to be socially isolated, but it’s another thing to be socially isolated and trying to get sober. That’s an unfathomable thing,” Lara said. If someone needs help staying sober, Reed and Lara advise them to reach out to someone else who’s in recovery, to stay in touch with people who understand what they’re going through.

“You just stay sober for this moment. You get to make that choice every moment to stay sober,” Polk said. “There’s not really anything that is worth drinking over, or that drinking is gonna make better.”

“It’s not very profound, but it’s what I got.”

Cover: Alcoholics Anonymous celebrates its 75th anniversary. (Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images)