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North Bay residents howl into the night to release stress, support first responders during coronavirus shutdown

The ticking clock hits 8 p.m., and in Petaluma the howling begins.

In Noelle Mullen's backyard, she and her three daughters let loose on a recent night, sending their cries into the dark and empty streets of Sonoma County's second-largest city.

The howling, a phenomenon that has spread across American households and social media, is a way for the Mullens to reach out to their neighborhood, which like much of the world, has been told to stay home to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The evening ritual follows the singing in virus-stricken Italy and applause for health care workers and first responders that caught on across the U.S. under the banner of “Solidarity At 8.”

“It's a nice, simple, doable community builder,” said Mullen, a video producer. She noted that while she likes the idea of clapping, it “doesn't give you the same relief.”

“There's something primal about howling,” she said.

The ritual has grown popular at a time when many other social bonds have frayed amid social distancing and shelter-at-home orders. It has cropped up in city and suburban blocks across the country, becoming a true fad in mid-March, with early adopters in parts of the North Bay, including Mill Valley.

In some households, it has more enthusiastic followers than others.

Mullen's husband, local political consultant Dan Mullen, so far has not been an eager participant, his wife noted. Their three daughters, however, are more than willing to carry the chorus.

Willow, 11, is probably the loudest of the trio, while 8-year-old Tatum's howls are more “elegant.” Fallon, Tatum's twin, is more of a wild card.

“I do it because I feel like I'm giving other people hope and showing other people are there for them,” Willow said. “And that we will get through this.”

Howling is happening in more rural areas, too, including in Joey Brodnik's neck of the woods in Lakeport. He's noticed that local police and fire vehicles have started to sound their sirens around 8 p.m. as more and more people in earshot join in the howling, which Brodnik touted as a way to relieve stress while supporting first responders.

“It's really taken off out here,” he said Thursday. “The last four nights, it'll make your hair stand up.”

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, confessed on social media that he and his wife, Erika, an elementary school principal, have joined in the ritual.

“Wouldn't have called it - 5 weeks ago - that we would be standing on our back porch howling at the top of our lungs with our neighbors,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Social scientists have taken notice.

Dr. Robert Faris, a professor of sociology at UC Davis, said that the trend might be more telling for his field if it is sustained far into the shutdown and lives on outside of social media.

Howling “certainly would have been more sociologically interesting if it were spontaneous,” he said.

“The simplest explanation that I can think of is that people are bored out of their minds and feeling disconnected, and this is a way to relieve both.”

Noelle Mullen said she heard about howling via Facebook through friends in Marin County. Same goes for Tara Weilbacher, of Petaluma.

“My kids are doing it because it's fun,” Weilbacher said, “but I love the idea of honoring our first responders.”

The ritual hasn't replaced check-ins with neighbors, but even in those physically distant conversations, howling comes up as a topic of conversation, Weilbacher said. Neighbors can now recognize each other's howls.

“We're surrounded by howlers,” she said.

That's not been the case for Shannon Howard-Bisordi, the matriarch of another family of Petaluma howlers.

“For the first few nights, we were the only ones in our area,” Howard-Bisordi said.

In addition to putting up Christmas decorations well out of season and hanging up artwork her two kids have created, howling from the porch has been a way to relieve stress and keep up spirits, albeit a relatively lonely one so far.

“Maybe in a week or two, the whole town will be doing it,” Howard-Bisordi said.

Her kids go to Corona Creek Elementary in east Petaluma, and she's been hoping other families whose children go to school with her children will join the ritual to reconnect amid canceled classes.

“I think it's important right now to build a sense of community,” she said.

Faris, the sociologist, noted that the ambiguity of human howling “has some allure” in its own right, beyond stress relief and solidarity.

For kids particularly, a regular 8 p.m. event could give them something to look forward to in a world where normal rules and structure are tough to find, he said. Still, he sounded a more clinical note, predicting that once the novelty fades amid the prolonged shutdown, so too will the howls.

“If you come back to me in May and say there are still people howling,” he said, “I'll be surprised.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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