In most European countries, the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic (spring 2020) led to the imposition of physical distancing rules, resulting in a drastic and sudden reduction of real-life social interactions. Even people not directly affected by the virus itself were impacted in their physical and/or mental health, as well as in their financial security, by governmental lockdown measures. We investigated whether the combination of these events had changed people’s appraisal of social scenes by testing 241 participants recruited mainly in Italy, Austria, and Germany in an online, preregistered study conducted about 50 days after the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe. Images depicting individuals alone, in small groups (up to four people), and in large groups (more than seven people) were rated in terms of valence, arousal, and perceived physical distance. Pre-pandemic normative ratings were obtained from a validated database (OASIS). Several self-report measures were also taken, and condensed into four factors through factor analysis. All images were rated as more arousing compared to the pre-pandemic period, and the greater the decrease in real-life physical interactions reported by participants, the higher the ratings of arousal. As expected, only images depicting large gatherings of people were rated less positively during, compared to before, the pandemic. These ratings of valence were, however, moderated by a factor that included participants’ number of days in isolation, relationship closeness, and perceived COVID-19 threat. Higher scores on this factor were associated with more positive ratings of images of individuals alone and in small groups, suggesting an increased appreciation of safer social situations, such as intimate and small-group contacts. The same factor was inversely related to the perceived physical distance between individuals in images of small and large groups, suggesting an impact of lockdown measures and contagion-related worries on the representation of interpersonal space. These findings point to rapid and compelling psychological and social consequences of the lockdown measures imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic on the perception of social groups. Further studies should assess the long-term impact of such events as typical everyday life is restored.