'Grey's Anatomy': Kelly McCreary and Anthony Hill Tease Maggie and Winston's Season 17 Romance (Exclusive)

Grey's Anatomy
Kelsey McNeal/ABC

Ahead of the season 17 premiere, the actors dish on portraying a new relationship virtually and the effects of COVID on Grey Sloan.

It's a whole new world on season 17 of Grey's Anatomy, which picks up several weeks into the pandemic. Like many medical professionals and first responders on the front lines, the new season of ABC's long-running medical drama puts the coronavirus front and center, as the doctors of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital begin to navigate the uncertainty surrounding the early days of the pandemic

"We are starting the story of the season basically about a month into the pandemic. So it's still relatively early on when there is a lot unknown, and there is a lot of urgency and there's a lot of stress and work to be done in the hospital, and trying to grapple with all of the newness and danger of the disease," Kelly McCreary, who plays Maggie Pierce, tells ET.

Because last season ended early due to the nationwide shutdown, Grey's is utilizing flashbacks to fill in the blanks. 

"At the same time, we are flashing back to where we left off last season to fill in some of the gaps to get us into the new moment," McCreary adds. "None of the storylines have been dropped off. They will all be resolved. You will get all of the answers to your favorite cliffhangers from last season."

One of the biggest questions to come out of season 16 was Maggie's potential new love, fellow doctor Winston Ndugu (played by Anthony Hill), who she bumped into at a medical conference. With Hill newly promoted to series regular, Maggie and Winston's romance is about to heat up -- even amid a pandemic.

"The romance is, right from the start, a long-distance romance due to COVID-19 and the protocols that are in place around the world, especially for doctors," Hill tells ET. "Maggie and Winston are having a relationship that's playing out virtually. A lot of people are dealing with this -- a lot of people around the world -- not just [in the] medical world, like I said, but the dating world. Single, couples all alike are on their screens and on their phones and on FaceTime and having dates in this way and getting to know each other in a different way. That's where we find [Maggie and Winston], getting to know each other virtually."

"So many things have changed and so much light has been shed on so many things that have been in the shadows for so long," he adds later. "Being able to play out a virtual relationship as we get to know each other, I'm happy about because I think that's an aspect of the pandemic that hasn't been talked about very much, to be completely honest. Zooms and meetings have been talked about, but the dating world and getting to know somebody romantically, that's tough. It's a tough hurdle, and I think that it needs to be highlighted a little bit."

"I totally agree with that, and I think that one [of the] many challenges that we've all been facing during this time is a need for connection, you know?" McCreary chimes in. "And that is because there is so much confusion and fear and people feel terribly vulnerable right now, and no one really wants to be alone when they are feeling that way. And so what you get to see with Maggie and Winston is how much their moments together are like a refuge. They're healing, even though they can't be together, because that's what we're all going through right now. We're like, 'Oh my god, I just want to talk to somebody and if seeing your face on a screen is as close as I can get, I'll take it.'"

When filming on season 17 began in September, Grey's star Ellen Pompeo dedicated it to health care workers. Soon after, ABC released a special promo honoring essential workers.

"It's very meaningful to me that we are telling these stories, the stories of COVID frontline workers. And even some of the patients, because a lot of these patients are just becoming numbers and we're forgetting that they're people who have families, who, their exposure to this virus was not necessarily something under their control and something that they could prevent because they were essential workers," McCreary says. "It's our job as artists to shed light on the parts, the stories of humanity that go untold. And as we write the history of this moment, we don't want to let this be a big number. We want to know that these are people and that people treated them, people tried to help them. People left their own families at home and stayed in hospitals or crashed on gurneys overnight in order to help them. They're actual people, so it's incredibly meaningful that we get to pretend to be those people this season."

In the latest trailer promoting the three-hour crossover premiere Grey's-Station 19 event, it hinted at a "shocking, jaw-dropping" ending. McCreary and Hill played coy when asked to divulge any details about that particular moment.

"My reaction was exactly what the narrator said in the promo, seriously," Hill hinted. "I was like, 'Wow,' and that's all I'll say about it. It's something [big]."

"I think I was like, 'Wow, I can't believe we're going there and I'm so glad we are,'" McCreary agrees. "That was my reaction."

Grey's Anatomy returns with a two-hour premiere Thursday, Nov. 12 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC, after the premiere of Station 19. For more on the three-hour crossover premiere event, watch the video below.