A guide to negotiating a covid “bubble” with other people

This weekend I’m going to break my isolation for the first time in two months. Aside from occasional socially distanced bike rides and walks in the park with a handful of trusted friends, I haven’t spent time with anyone, much less touched anyone beyond a hasty (and sleeved) elbow bump. But now I’ve agreed with some friends nearby to become part of their “pod,” “quaranteam,” or “bubble.”

Effectively we’ll become an extended family, free to visit each other’s homes, share meals, and—yes!—hug. I’ve even been promised tickle fights. I live alone, but I’m a very social person, and the mere thought of being able to sit next to someone on a couch feels like finding water after days wandering in a desert.

In some places, “double-bubbling” is becoming official policy: households are being encouraged to buddy up for the sake of variety and mental health. But negotiating to become part of someone else’s intimate circle in the midst of a pandemic is fraught with dangers both medical (what if you inadvertently infect one another?) and social. (What if you have a falling out? Whom do you pick? What if they don’t pick you?)

My bubblemates and I have all been pretty strict in our precautions up to now, but everyone does things a little differently, and I’ve commented to other friends that agreeing to bubble up (or is it bubble down?) with people is like negotiating an open relationship: What’s allowed? What isn’t? What do we need to communicate about? How do we resolve disagreements? Here are some suggested guidelines for how to have the conversation, based on nothing more than my own experience and that of friends and colleagues.

1. Agree to have no hard feelings

Before you even start the conversation, agree that you will remain friends whatever happens. You are about to put your friendship to a test it might never have otherwise experienced. You are taking responsibility for each other’s lives. You will see some of each other’s foibles and frailties up close. Even if you end up deciding not to pod together, just talking about it may reveal things you never expected to learn.

Similarly, no matter how well you plan, it may just not work. Agree that either side can decide to pull out at any point without hard feelings. Perhaps you weren’t meant to be family; it doesn’t mean you can’t be friends.

By the same token, don’t be resentful if you’re not someone else’s choice to join a bubble. The pandemic forces us into binary choices: you can probably join only one quaranteam at a time. And what you’re going into isn’t a friendship, but a partnership. You can be great friends with someone you would never even contemplate starting a business with. This is like that.

2. Think about the risk

If you were living alone and you start bubbling with three other people, all of whom take the same precautions as you, your chances of catching the coronavirus will be potentially four times as high as they were—and so too will your chances of infecting someone you pass in the street or in the store. Four times a very small risk is still very small, but all the same: with a great bubble comes great responsibility.

3. Talk about why you want to bubble up

It might seem obvious: you just want more company! But what if you and your friends have different expectations? I discussed joining a couple I know at a house in the countryside for part of the summer, and learned that for them the point is less about being with other people than about getting out of the city. If we had mutual friends staying nearby, I’d be inclined to let those friends come over for dinner, while my housemates might not. So start out by discussing your underlying motives for teaming up. You may be able to ward off potential areas of friction.

4. Agree to all follow the same rules, whatever they are

I wasn’t wearing masks when I walked in the street or rode my bike, but my friends asked me to start doing so two weeks before we saw each other. (A couple of days later the city I live in mandated it anyway.) Chances are you’ll have to make some concessions; accept them gladly. Any reluctance on your part will breed suspicion that you’re going to flout the rules behind their backs.

5. Talk through your daily routines

Whatever your precautions against coronavirus, you take them for granted by now. You may be astonished to hear what other people do, or don’t do. Do you clean your groceries? With soap, or with disinfectant, or with neither? Packaged food too? Do you take your shoes off when you come into the house? Do you separate “inside” and “outside” clothes? Do you disinfect your phone if you’ve been using it outside? Your house keys? Door handles? If you’re in a place that doesn’t require masks, do you wear one anyway? What about gloves? What about when you exercise outside? Do you get takeout food from restaurants? What about deliveries?

Give each other as complete a picture as possible of what you do. And be honest. It’s the easiest thing in the world to skate over something because you think they might not like it or it’s too small to mention. Just remember that distrust is always worse than disagreement. If you know each other’s habits you can always discuss them and find a compromise, but if you or they are caught hiding something, the whole relationship can break down.

6. Accept that none of you is being rational

We all know the basic precautions: hygiene, masks, and social distancing. Yet despite an outpouring of scientific papers about such things as how long the virus survives on surfaces or how well masks work, we know precious little about how specific behaviors affect risk. How much safer are you if you separate indoor and outdoor clothes? How much likelier are you to catch the virus from someone who runs past you breathing heavily than someone who walks past breathing normally? Has anyone ever actually caught it from their phone? Nobody knows. Besides, there’s so much information and it changes so fast that neither you nor your intended bubblemates can possibly keep up.

So accept that we’re all just guessing. You can always try to rationalize the precautions you take, but in reality your choices are being skewed by what you last read or saw on TV, your own personal phobias, your appetite for risk, and just how badly you want to see another person.

The way to handle this in conversation is to avoid challenging each other on points of fact. When you discover that your friends dunk their vegetables in dish soap while you just wipe them down, or that they never wear masks when they go running and you do, don’t ask them to justify their choices. That risks putting them on the defensive and kicking off an unwinnable debate.

Instead, ask things like “When did you start doing that?” or “How would you feel if I wanted us to do this?” This moves you from a position of judging and evaluating one another to seeking to empathize and understand where each of you is coming from. You may learn unexpected things about what each person is particularly afraid of. That sets you up better to reach compromises you’re all comfortable with.

7. Agree on what you’ll communicate about, and then over-communicate

My quaranteamies and I, for instance, agreed to tell each other each time we’re meeting another friend for a socially distanced walk, and to discuss it before we add anyone new to the list of friends we see. Err on the side of more information, not less, about any change in your routine. If you read about something that worries you—a new report about coronavirus transmission, say—talk about how it made you feel, even if you’re not sure it means you should change any of your behavior. The conversation that ensues will determine whether you do. Over-communicating creates a virtuous circle of trust that you’re looking out for each other’s well-being.

8. Maybe don’t post about it on social media

If you’re having a wonderful time in your bubble, cooking elaborate meals and playing games and giving each other back rubs, consider not flaunting it, especially to friends who may not be so lucky (or who might judge you for not being a perfect hermit). Each time I look at Instagram, the mere sight of friends of mine laughing and hugging triggers a kind of social delirium tremens.

9. Give yourselves a trial period

Agree to try your bubble for two weeks, say, and then decide whether to continue—again, with no hard feelings if either of you wants to stop. The stakes are high enough already; there’s no need to make them even higher by betting a friendship on the outcome.

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