I Celebrated My Birthday Alone During Coronavirus. It Really Wasn’t Lonely

As my 37th birthday approached in times of coronavirus, I faced a decision: Cancel the revelry in the interest of flattening the curve? Or proceed as if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic that’s bringing the world to its knees?

March Madness had already been canceled. So had St. Patrick’s Day parades across the globe. The Boston Marathon and Kentucky Derby were postponed.

But here in St. Petersburg, Florida, I was still waffling on whether plans for the 37th Annual Robin Hartill Awareness Day really needed to be canceled. 

Couldn’t I keep my plans to meet up with friends for margaritas if we sat 6 feet apart and avoided the communal chips and queso order?

But every day in the week leading up to my March 20 birthday brought the pandemic closer to home. Every day brought a tidal wave of business closings. Every closure meant more people would bear the financial burden of flattening the curve. 

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My mom worried when she dropped off my early birthday present — toilet paper and beer — that her position with the local school system could be on hold until August.

Finally, on March 19, I made the call I should have made days earlier: Face-to-face birthday celebrations would not proceed as scheduled. 

Looking back, I know I sound like a  #covidiot. But even back then — less than two weeks ago — the world was so different. When my company told us all to start working remotely the week before, we planned to do so for eight days. Now we’ve been told to prepare for eight weeks. 

I wasn’t sure if I should celebrate at all in such an awful time — or just do it alone.

I had the basics of an emergency birthday celebration kit on hand: A bottle of cheap vodka in my freezer. A box of strawberry Duncan Hines cake mix in my pantry. Two “3” candles buried in my drawer, presumably relics from the year I turned 33.

But the idea of drinking vodka and eating cake into the night on my beat-up couch sounded kind of lonely. I’m a single lady who lives alone after all, save for my dog, Kermit. So yeah, I wanted to celebrate with humans. Maybe we could all benefit from some levity and socializing, rather than dealing with our anxieties in isolation.

I Slacked my co-workers to invite them to my virtual coronabirthday happy hour, which would take place via Zoom. I also texted the friends I’d planned to celebrate with to invite them to a Google Hangout encore happy hour.

“Let’s be honest,” I wrote. “You probably don’t have anything better to do.

How I Prepped for My Pandemic Birthday Party

A woman toasts her own birthday with a mug of beer
Senior editor Robin Hartill poured herself a beer before celebrating her birthday with coworkers during a virtual happy hour. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

During a needed grocery run that evening, I splurged on a few non-essentials: BOGO six-packs of Goose Island IPAs, plus birthday hats and party blowers. The birthday stuff came out to $15.86.

At $15.86, this would be my cheapest birthday yet. Even cheaper than my 34th birthday, when I celebrated by scoring $114.47 worth of birthday deals. You have to spend money to make birthday freebies happen, so it’s not like I finished $114.47 in the black.

The next morning brought the normal flood of texts and Facebook messages that anyone who’s ever celebrated a birthday is familiar with. Only this year, they reflected the weirdness of the times.

“Happy pandemic birthday, Robin!” my friend Nancy wrote.

I started the day with my new normal, which is a bike ride and jog at sunrise, followed by a Zoom meeting.

I did get some work done that day, I swear, in between the texts and phone calls, virtual lunch with a co-worker and FaceTiming with my friend’s dog.

But I called it quits a little early. Hey, a coronabirthday girl is still a birthday girl, and I had a party to prep for, starting with my cake.

I had to beat the eggs extra hard into the mixture because they’d somehow frozen in my refrigerator. My pan was way too small. Hey, I’m a wordsmith, not a baker. I prayed that something edible would emerge from the oven 27 to 29 minutes later. 

While the cake baked, I put on makeup and did my hair for the first time in more than a week. I put on my party hat. Gosh darnit, I was going to look like someone celebrating a birthday and not someone hibernating in a work-from-home pandemic bunker.

And of course, no birthday celebration could be complete without calling the woman who made the 37th Annual Robin Hartill birthday celebration possible: my mom.

She told me the latest round of closures that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had ordered about 20 minutes earlier: The biggest news was that dine-in service at restaurants statewide had just been suspended. That meant countless Floridians were just now finding out they were unemployed.

But my mom also had personal news: Her job was safe for now. She would be going back to work on March 30.

Could there be a better coronabirthday present than that?

My Virtual Coronabirthday Happy Hour: ‘What Are We Supposed to Be Doing?’

My cake came out brown on top. I made a mess of the hot pink frosting. Then, there were the two “3” candles that seemed like false advertising.

Perfect? No. Good enough for a coronabirthday? Absolutely.

A couple people were already on the Zoom call when I joined my virtual happy hour. As people appeared one by one, we made awkward chit-chat.

“What are we supposed to be doing?” someone asked.

Hmmm. Legit question. I don’t know that any of us knew what you’re supposed to do at a virtual coronabirthday happy hour.

We toasted virtually. We talked about work-from-home life, having our dogs as co-workers and our weekend plans.

My co-worker Megan had been planning to fly to Spain the next day. Instead she was going to spend the weekend organizing her closet. Everyone else’s plans were about the same.

Another co-worker, Nick, mentioned that he’d found toilet paper at a neighborhood convenience store. Maybe I just missed it in the Zoom chatter, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t tell us the name.

At the end of the call, my co-workers sang “Happy Birthday.” I blew out my candles and looked out to the audience in my living room, i.e., my dog, Kermit. 

I had my second virtual happy hour via Google Hangout. Then I decided to splurge one more time before my birthday was over and order a pizza.

The driver arrived wearing gloves and a mask. I swung open the door to greet him. He was already sprinting back to his car.

I’m still getting used to this social distancing thing.

How to Celebrate While Social Distancing

A woman wearing a birthday hat hugs her dog
Robin hugs her dog, Kermit. “You still can continue to live your life and celebrate the happy moments,” Robin said. “It’s just a little different than we’ve ever done in our lifetimes.” Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

I’m not going to tell you that my coronabirthday was the best birthday ever. Sure, I had fun, but any celebration is a lot more fun when you have other humans in the room.

If you have a birthday celebration, don’t be a covidiot like I almost was. Sure, your birthday is a big deal to you, but the health of the people you care about matters so much more. Don’t ask others to break their social distancing so they can celebrate with you.

Also, make it clear to those you love that you aren’t asking for presents this year. With so many people struggling right now, tell your loved ones that the best gift they can give you is to save any money they would have spent to survive the months ahead.

But don’t feel guilty about celebrating your birthday or any other occasion even in the midst of a pandemic.

If someone you love is celebrating a birthday, don’t feel pressure to spend money. But don’t just send them a text. Pick up the phone and call to let them know you’re thinking about them on their birthday. Let’s make this the year we all stop writing “HBD” on one another’s Facebook walls.

We don’t know how long these times will last. A lot of us will have birthdays and anniversaries and milestones in that time. If the last month has taught us anything, it’s how quickly life can change. So let’s celebrate when we can, even if we’re quarantined at home.

Robin Hartill is a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder and the voice behind the Dear Penny personal finance advice column. When she blew out the candles on her cake, she made a wish that her 38th birthday will be less weird.