The night San Francisco went into lockdown, Ilana Minkoff sang.
Taking a cue from the Italian response to quarantine, Minkoff, a local realtor, hoped just to get her Cole Valley neighborhood to give thanks to essential workers and fill the streets with music for just one song each evening. She started a Facebook group for the project. "I really thought we'd get to 10 members and that would be a milestone," she says.
Within four days, 20,000 people had joined.
Three weeks later, the Quarantine Sing-along group has grown to almost 52,000 members. Each night, they vote for a song (or add their own suggestion) to a list of possibilities Minkoff posts around 9pm. The next day, around 12pm, she releases a short-list of the top selections for a final vote and reveals the winner at 3pm-ish. At exactly 7pm each night, she takes the winning song live on Facebook while walking through the neighborhood. From open windows and stoops, a chorus of voices joins in.
It's not just like this in Cole Valley. All over the Bay Area and in all 50 states, isolated coronavirus-weary people sing along to songs like "You've Got a Friend in Me" from Toy Story and "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. There are international members, too, from as far afield as Kenya and New Zealand. Some people post videos of their take, others sing along privately. "We have this five minutes of joy. We all kind of join together in this unity even if we're alone in our homes. You know that you're not alone in that moment and to me, I think that's the essence of what we are."
"Joining in the nightly song is thrilling," says Shannon Bolt, one of the group's administrators. "Afterwards, I feel very rejuvenated and optimistic...watching everyone's videos and reactions gives me a sense of deep connection with complete strangers from around the country."
The group hasn't just caught the eye of isolated music lovers, it attracted the attention of head Facebook honcho, Mark Zuckerberg himself. Within days, Minkoff was on a conference call with the company. They even connected her with a publishing specialist to help navigate copyright issues.
"He deployed a team of people at Facebook to help me," she explains. "They've never experienced anything from a community standpoint like this. There are a bunch of groups that exploded out of the gate and we're one of them. We are like the fastest group that's ever grown on Facebook."
While the sing-a-long is beloved by its members, the group is about more than just singing. At 7pm each night, the group takes a moment to show gratitude, first for something in their own lives, then for the frontline and essential workers that are keeping the city, and the world, afloat.
You don't have to sing well to join the Quarantine Sing-a-long. You don't even have to be human. Members have posted videos of chirping birds, "singing" dogs, and harmonizing puppets. Quarantined in Sebastopol, Marilyn Read and her roommate recently posted a tribute to musician Bill Withers, who passed away last week, as they sang and played along on guitar and ukulele. The group now has a blanket policy that on a day a famous musician dies, members can either sing (and post) the song of the day or anything from the artist's catalog. "The focus of the group is to thank healthcare and other essential workers, plus in the process we are all helping each other by being connected with music and humor. The song "Lean on Me" seemed apropos," says Read.
Maybe the Quarantine Sing-a-long can't save the world from coronavirus but, says Minkoff, for five minutes each day, it can help all of us to be grounded, be present, and be grateful. "Even though this can be lonely, this can be challenging, you're not alone. If I can throw a little sparkle into the wind and touch a few lives [with this group], I feel like that's the biggest honor."