There’s a whole lotta talk about “social distancing” right now, but I’m not sure if that means “don’t make out with strangers at clubs” or “don’t even glance at another human walking across the street from your third-floor apartment window.” Like, okay, maybe no hand shakes right now, but can I leave my house at all?
This week, we’ll be exploring the different scenarios why you might want or need to enter the public during the coronavirus pandemic, and determining an essential aspect for your consideration: Will doing this make me an asshole?
In today’s segment — whether having your friends or family over right now makes you an asshole.
My boyfriend and I are both treating each other like the “Jonathan Frakes Asks You Things” meme from Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction while we self-quarantine in our shared apartment.
Soon enough, we’re going to run out of things to talk to each other about. Neither of us are very good at texting, and our moms are sick of us calling at this point. But we’ve got some pals across town who live together and are diligently self-quarantining, just as we are. Couldn’t we, y’know, self-quarantine for a few hours together at either of our apartments?
In a perfect coronavirus world, yes. But that’s not where most of us are at.
“People are social beings and we live in a society where, to some degree, we need to interact with each other,” says Risa Wong, an oncology fellow at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “Even the most aggressive models of social distancing (actually, now there is a movement to call it ‘physical distancing’ to emphasize that we should still maintain social connection somehow) only imagine a 75 percent reduction in contact at best; 100 percent is just impossible.”
In order for hanging with the pals to be truly safe, we’d all need to have literally never gone in public (not even the grocery store) for nearly a month. Though the incubation period for COVID-19 seems to be between four days to two weeks, Wong says there are reports of people remaining infectious for up to four weeks.
Obviously, that’s really hard to do — and so, you’re not an asshole if you struggle to imagine doing that. “It’s not practical to try to achieve that level, so we just have to make benefit/risk assessments and do the best we can,” says Wong. “Personally, I would do whatever I could to maintain social contact and connection through non-physical means like texting, FaceTiming, social media and so on. This can get creative: Google Chrome just added an extension that lets you stream movies with your friends from afar (via Netflix) and you can pause/play in sync. I watched Outbreak with my friends this way last weekend.”
If that fails, though, there’s still hope. “If I was someone who was really going stir crazy and those methods weren’t cutting it for my mental health, maybe if I had a good friend who I knew had been on point with physical distancing and I had been the same for a couple weeks, I might hang out with them at home or outdoors on occasion to help me get through,” says Wong.
You’ve still gotta stay on top of your social distancing, though, even if you have a friend accompanying you. “I’d definitely avoid larger group gatherings (regardless of who was in the group) or going out to a space where other people congregate, and I’d think twice about hanging out with people who weren’t practicing physical distancing themselves,” says Wong.
Since most of us are only about a week into this whole self-quarantine thing, we should still give it some more time before we start meeting back up with our friends, as many of us could still experience symptoms or potentially be infectious. And while we’ve so far thought that young people were less susceptible to severe symptoms, recent data is showing that people under 60 may be more at risk than previously thought. Right now, then, we still need to focus on flattening the curve and ensuring that fewer people become ill at one time.
“We know that the closer we can get to 100 percent (physical distancing), the better it will be for society’s ability to manage this pandemic,” says Wong. “So we each have a responsibility to do our part as best we can. On the other hand, even the experts don’t expect us to do better than 75 percent — we’re human. The most important thing is just to limit the back and forth, and to avoid larger groups as much as possible.”
In other words, it’s sort of okay to meet up with a friend, so long as you’ve both been quarantining, avoiding public places and feel healthy. As the weeks go on, it should only become more okay. But seriously, keep it small — the more people exposed to each other, the more potential the virus has to grow.
For some people, of course, that’s not a very satisfying solution. As my colleague Andrew Fiouzi explains, he had to convince his family not to hold a large gathering for Persian New Year on March 19th. “A lot of people wanted to have the usual 40-plus gathering,” he says. “Especially the older folks.” As a compromise, his extended family will be celebrating in fractured, smaller groups.” Protecting the health of the elders in his family is the priority, but for the elders themselves, spending time with family is an even greater one. “Persian elders expect to see their grandkids on a fairly regular basis,” he says. “It’s built into the culture, so telling them that they can’t is basically killing them, but in a different way.”
Hopefully, it’s some consolation that the quarantine isn’t forever. In fact, the better we are about doing it now, the less we’ll be impacted by it later. Your grandma might think you’re an asshole for not spending time with her, but I promise it’s for her own good.