Article Thumbnail

The Pandemic Pods Choosing Friendship Over Public Health

People are clustering in exclusive groups to wait out the quarantine. It’s a disaster waiting to happen

It’s just after 8 p.m. on a mid-April night in L.A., and the party is in full swing. Wine is flowing, glasses are clinking and a small group of quarantined revelers are huddled over a board game, laughing and joking as if being marooned together in an indefinite coronavirus shelter-in-place order was the furthest thing from their minds. 

It seems fun and distantly familiar, but in the midst of a raging and seemingly uncontrollable pandemic, it also seems dangerous. They’re sitting awfully close to each other — don’t they know they’re less than six feet apart?

Alyssa, the 37-year-old host, is well-aware of the CDC’s social-distancing guidelines — she uses them every day at her job helping people experiencing homelessness apply for subsidized housing. It’s just that the way she sees it, those rules no longer apply to her and the people in the room. She and the other four people she’s with (as well as two who aren’t present) are part of a “pandemic pod,” a small, exclusive and self-selecting group who, despite the inherent and obvious risks of doing so, have chosen to forgo isolation in favor of quarantined togetherness. The seven of them have been quarantining together for weeks, so at this point, they believe, the whole “masks and six-foot distance” thing doesn’t make much sense. 

Every pod is unique in its makeup and culture, but Alyssa’s — consisting of friends, roommates and lovers living in four separate houses — is relatively lax. While their roster is set — it’s “no new friends” for now — they’re free to come and go as they please, socializing and spending time together so long as they wash their hands, Lysol whatever needs to be Lysoled and stay far away from everyone else if they’re feeling sick. It is, as Alyssa says over Zoom, “kind of like before except whoever you’re with is all you get.”

How many people are quarantining in these pods isn’t clear, but if their being mentioned on Martha Stewart’s website is any indication of their quiet creep into the mainstream, groups like Alyssa’s are hardly uncommon. Recently, the L.A. Times profiled a foursome of “quarantine buddies,” who, all single, made a pact to see no one but themselves, and last week, CityLab caught up with a woman in San Francisco who’s been moving from pod to pod because she was “overwhelmed” by the dinner parties and casual hangouts her original group were having. 

To the many of us who are solitarily confined or holed up with a partner whose poop habits have become the necessary and primary topic of conversation, these “buddies” live a life we could only dream of. The L.A. Times group exercises, eats and “huddles on the couch together strumming guitar” together, and when they’re not crouching on their sectional banging out what I can only assume is an ironic folk cover of “Free Bird,” they pose for photoshoots and — cue dead-eyed salivation — “hug.” Other pod members hike together, work on film or music projects and binge-watch their favorite shows, all in “intentional” groups where loneliness seems as distant and spectral as a vaccine.

Alyssa’s group is just as partial to “pre-virus” activities. They go on walks together, make dinner and watch movies, drinking wine and swapping vinyl on the record player like old times. A few of them are dating or having sex, so they’ll, you know, do that, too. 

It’s rare that the whole pod is together in one room — usually, it’s just two to three of them at any given time — but tonight is Daniel’s birthday, and they’re pulling out all the stops. It’s a real rager: Alyssa, Daniel, Matt, Ruby and Dave sit on a couch armed with glasses of wine and bowls of chips, singularly focused on the board game in front of them while Daniel’s dog Randy wags his tail expectantly like the group’s forgotten eighth member. 

The game they’re playing? Why, Pandemic, of course. 

None of them are particularly worried about catching the virus from each other. As Alyssa puts it, the five of them — plus the two not present — already either “live together or make out together.” If one of them has it, the logic goes, they “probably all do,” and that’s a risk they’re willing to take. In fact, she says, Vicki, the group’s only original dissenter (not present at the party), was far more concerned about being publicly shamed for being in a pod than she was about getting or transmitting coronavirus. 

Health-wise, it’s been good so far, though. While Alyssa’s pod isn’t militant about enforcing sanitation, limiting public exposure or adhering to the kind of explicit, group accountability that might soothe a worried epidemiologist, they trust each other implicitly and are “being as safe as [they] can.”

But while that all sounds idyllic — especially for the millions of people who’ve spent the last month crisis-bleaching their hair, organizing gummy bear concerts and having desperation orgies on Zoom — the safety and ethics of pandemic pods aren’t only questionable, but nearly inconceivable to the epidemiologists and other public health officials who have spent weeks attempting to educate the public about the utter necessity of social distancing and self-isolation. 

“My advice would be to not do this,” says McGill University epidemiologist and medical bioethicist Nicholas King. “Anyone considering this has to recognize that their own behavior has an impact on other people, especially the ones they’re closest to. They have an obligation not only to themselves, but to their friends, family and wider community to self-isolate as much as possible.” 

Without that kind of isolation, King worries that people might be spreading the virus asymptomatically within their pods and small groups, a disease pathway researchers believe is responsible for the disproportionately high numbers of cases in both the U.S. and Italy. This is concerning, he says, because studies have found that asymptomatic people — who make up roughly 25 percent of coronavirus cases — are often the ones who spread it the most. And as associate chair and professor of health science at Ball State University Jagdish Khubchandani explained to HuffPo, infected people have shown to be contagious both during and after being asymptomatic. 

“The only people you should be seeing are those you can’t avoid — those living with you before this pandemic started and stable relationships like a significant other,” Khubchandani advised. “Even in those cases, it’s with all the precautions, hygiene and distancing as much as possible.”

So while King says he understands how difficult and unappealing an unabiding quarantine can be — he’s under his fourth week of near-solitude in Montreal — he urges anyone interested in starting or joining a pod to think twice about whether it’s worth the risk. “Any socializing that isn’t completely necessary only elongates the amount of time we all have to quarantine,” he says, explaining that home isolation with small groups of friends or family does nothing to prevent the spread of the virus (especially when symptoms are mild). “No one likes doing this — not even my introvert friends — but we’re all in this together and we can’t let the temporary discomfort of not seeing our friends or family overcome the collective action we need to be taking right now.”

Alyssa says her pod wasn’t the result of a fear of loneliness or a “discomfort” with isolation — it just sort of happened. “For a long time, it was really nebulous how many people you were supposed to be around,” she explains. “There was no clear answer. First it was groups of 50 or less. Then it was 10. So, looking around at the people I lived with and saw most often, I was like, ‘This is less than 10. Is this okay?’” 

Eventually, as the number of people who could congregate in groups dwindled and the CDC’s guidelines around social distancing became stricter, Alyssa and the other members of her pod decided — somewhat unofficially — that since they were already in each other’s spaces and weren’t seeing other people, things could just stay that way. “We never said it out loud, but the consensus was that by continuing to see each other, it wasn’t socially irresponsible — it was just personally irresponsible.” she says. “We’re in such a closed group and we rarely go anywhere other than the grocery store like, twice a month, that if one of us gets sick, we’re far more likely to spread it amongst ourselves than we are to other people.” 

King sees that line of thinking as nice and idealistic, but he’s entirely unconvinced that it’s possible to contain coronavirus within pods in a responsible or realistic way. For one, he says, it’s borderline impossible to avoid contact with other people. Almost everyone has to leave their house to exercise, go to the grocery store or escape the sort of Shining-level cabin fever that prolonged stay-cationing can cause, and even if they don’t, there’s a good chance that someone else in their pod will. The more people in a pod, he says, the greater the chance that somebody — multiple people, probably — will put themselves in an environment where the risk of exposure is higher than it is at home. 

Similarly, we know the virus can stay alive on surfaces like metal, plastic and cardboard for anywhere from hours to days. It wouldn’t be outlandish to envision a hellscape in which someone touches a doorknob or package that hasn’t been disinfected, contracts the virus and then transmits it to their “buddies” in the midst of a couch-based hug. 

Secondly, there’s no real way to know where the people in your pod have been. While some groups have opted to move in together, others, like Alyssa’s, are made up of people who live in different houses. A few have other roommates who aren’t in the pod, meaning their actual risk of exposure hinges on a person they neither know nor see. Thus, the amount of trust that pod members have to have in one another — and the other people they live and work with — has to be phenomenally high, a requirement King says can lead to some unnatural, if not downright awkward interactions. 

“Pods depend on an incredibly high level of trust,” he explains. “The more people you let into your pod, the more you have to expand that circle of trust. You have to think about the exclusivity of your pod and hold each other accountable because your health is in each other’s hands, which, if you think about it, isn’t the way social networks work. It’s rare that you’re only going to have five people who are friends with each other and nobody else, and for most people, the practicalities are going to get really difficult, really fast.”

Jess, a 31-year-old agency producer who decided to shack up with her in-laws and two of their Boomer neighbors, knows exactly what that’s like. Anticipating a stay-at-home order that would have isolated her and husband in their cramped apartment, they moved out of their home in Seattle in early March and into his parent’s guest room so they could all quarantine together as one big, happy-but-terrified family. “The idea was that we’d help each other with chores, cooking and maintaining some semblance of sanity,” she says. “We thought we could form a little mini-community and ride it out.” 

But while things went smoothly the first couple of days, the ever-changing news about the virus and the rapidly expanding revelations about how it spread made her in-laws — and their neighbor friends — a little antsy. Almost immediately, the group decided to lay down some ground rules about what should and shouldn’t be done in order to protect the well-being of all, and soon after, Jess found herself in what felt like “coronavirus North Korea.”

“All comings and goings have to be approved by the group,” she says. “Guests do, too. If I go for a walk around the block, I have like three separate people asking me if I washed my hands. The other day, I wanted to go back to my house to pick up my clothes, and I was told I wouldn’t be welcome back if I left. I appreciate how responsible they’re being, but man, it really sucks to be under lock and key.” All the suspicion and micro-management has started to lead to some major resentments, too, and she’s found herself longing for a lonelier time. “It’s just not natural to be put in a situation like this,” she says. “Everything I do feels 10 times more life-or-death than it normally would because suddenly, I’m responsible for all these other people and they’re responsible for me.” Next pandemic, she hopes to quarantine alone. 

But beyond the obvious risk of transmission within small groups and the awkwardness of hawking over your friend’s whereabouts and hand-washing habits, King says he’s worried that pod-based quarantines will have a quieter, more insidious effect, one that no one seems to be acknowledging just yet: class-based isolation. 

While many people have the privilege of working from home, millions of others don’t. Nurses, doctors, delivery drivers, grocery store employees and other essential workers have to interact with large groups of potentially infected people on a regular basis, and King worries that trendiness and apparent acceptability of pods might lead these groups to stratify based not only on race, religion and socioeconomic status, but on their potential for exposure, as well. “If one of us is friends with a bus driver, we might say, ‘Well, that’s too much of a risk,’” he says. “Even though those are generally the people we rely on the most and who are under the most stress right now, we’re afraid of those who have the greatest amount of exposure, and I can see how that could become a real problem.”

That’s already happening to some degree, especially in the medical field. In Atlanta, one woman tweeted about her sorrowful separation from her physician husband; she moved him into the garage for fear he’d infect her and her family. Elsewhere, groups of physicians and nurses are shacking up together in Airbnbs to avoid putting their loved ones at risk. 

That’s not been Alyssa’s experience, though. At her day job as a housing navigator, she spends the majority of her time around people who don’t necessarily have the privilege of self-isolation or perfect sanitation. But while she keeps a six-foot distance between her and her clients, wears a mask and washes her hands religiously, she’s aware her job does place her in somewhat of a high-risk bracket. 

Yet, it’s never come up in her pod, nor does she expect it to. Her friends, roommates and partners knew what she did for work well before the pandemic hit, and they trust that she’s keeping herself safe. Strangely, she says, she feels more nervous about her roommate, who is a personal trainer, bringing clients over to work out in her yard than she does about her own work. “It’s funny,” she says. “There was a minute where I was silently judging him for just doing his job, but at the same time, he’s just doing his job. I can’t tell him to stop — then I’d be paying all the rent!” 

At the end of the day, says King, it’s all about calculating the benefits and risks of socializing, weighing the pros and cons not only for yourself, but for the community in which you live. The benefits, of course, are clear: “Human beings are social animals,” he says. “We need sociality. It’s good for our mental health to be around other people, and we know that the long-term implications of prolonged isolation are generally quite bad. Pods are one way to mitigate against that.”

They’re also a way to protect the more vulnerable members of society. Those with mental illnesses like severe anxiety or depression, as well as anyone suffering from sexual abuse or domestic violence in their homes, may fare far better around others than they would alone, something that the recent uptick in domestic violence reports and quarantine-fueled suicides has made disturbingly clear.  

In cases like these, the positives of pods far outweigh the risks. “You’ve got to do something about that,” says King. “No one’s going to tell you not to call 911 if you’re having a heart attack just because hospitals are overwhelmed — you’ve got to get yourself help.” And if “help” is congregating with a small group of friends, so be it. 

But few people relative to the general population are in such dire straits. For the vast majority of us who are simply inconvenienced by solitude or just moderately forlorn about the prospect of long-term quarantine, King stresses that pods are far more of a drawback than they are a benefit, an unfortunate reality that’s likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. “I’d say for the next two to four, possibly even eight weeks, the risks outweigh the potential benefits,” he says. “Maybe as the curve gets flattened more and we start having a little relaxation of the lockdown, the risks will no longer outweigh the benefits, but we’re not there yet.” 

Reliable and accessible antibody testing that can tell people whether they’ve been exposed would help speed the process along, as would a better understanding of how the virus is transmitted and how effective protective measures like masks actually are, but in the meantime, pandemic pods, like good fades, in-person sex parties and dating any less than a two-way street apart should be a distant, beautiful, quarantine dream.