Getting Close in COVID-19 Era: An approach to real talk about riding out the storm

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

As the novel coronavirus started to spread and the politicization of it as a public health even became more evident and polarizing, I started to wonder about what the idea of ‘living your own life’ would mean to people. I also wonder this with my day to day life, as now more than ever I’ve been pushed to truly live my own life and go after what I want. My biggest concern is that it could be interpreted as being reckless and without care of community in a monolithic obsession with the self.

This is so far from my intention that I thought I would touch on this a bit more, and also give a little bit more of a window into what my current thinking and approach is in my personal life.

A few things to note. I very much trust the science on things like how the virus is shed and how immunity might work. I do not have a politicized perspective on the origin or causes of initial spread or anything like that. I do believe heavily in the case data (which is only as good as our testing capacity) that in the United States shows heavy inequality in whose affected (mostly black and brown people still forced to work, take public transit, buy food day to day, and otherwise have a higher exposure risk due to racist policies).

I also believe that, depending on where you are, it is true that exposure risk differs greatly. Where I live, there are on average about 24 reported cases a day. This has been true with some slight variation for about the past month, but as people are getting more comfortable with ‘reopening,’ that infection rate is fluctuating. Myself and many people I know or would like to see are strict or moderately strict in their socializing behaviors, often going into closed spaces like groceries closer to once or twice a month and otherwise have little to no contact or close proximity with the outside world. As things re-open, with people returning to their local bars or vacationing and creating what only needs a single asymptomatic person to cause a super-spreader event, it would seem that the most responsible people are condemned to potentially years of solitude while the least responsible keep everything unsafe for everyone.

I am not interested in taking advantage of everyone who’s sacrificing in order to have a good time. But I also don’t believe it’s sustainable to maintain the level of rigor needed without the care and attention of other people. Whether that is sexual or platonic, prolonged isolation is extremely damaging and risky in other ways. We can’t forget that depression, anxiety, stress, and all other medical concerns still exist and will come up while a vaccine is found to be effective, safe, and can be distributed broadly enough to curb the disease. In case you’ve missed that loneliness is in fact a big health risk factor:

…a 2019 study led by Kassandra Alcaraz, PhD, MPH, a public health researcher with the American Cancer Society, analyzed data from more than 580,000 adults and found that social isolation increases the risk of premature death from every cause for every race (American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 188, No. 1, 2019).

“Our research really shows that the magnitude of risk presented by social isolation is very similar in magnitude to that of obesity, smoking, lack of access to care and physical inactivity,” she says.

This raised the question for me , if I want to stay healthy and keep my immediate community healthy, how can I safely ‘extend’ my household to maintain sufficient distance to curb potential virus spread, but to create enough connection to prevent isolation and loneliness from leaving its own path of destruction?

Some important thinking around this happened as part of a larger conversation about consent and boundaries with a new partner. For example, I noticed I felt differently about being close with someone who didn’t live in my same apartment in the outside world than inside my home because of the precedent I want to think about in terms of social role modeling.

In the remainder of this piece, I’ll lay out variables I considered with some links to interesting articles you may or may not have already seen, and then I’ll share a little bit about a tool I’ve made for myself and already shared with a few friends and community members as a support for opening a dialogue, being thoughtful about your movements, and possibly planning for extended household meetups with good advanced planning, open communication, and high transparency.

But first, some science that influenced my thinking

I’m not a scientist, so I will simply paraphrase the key takeaways I held in mind while thinking.

You can read a good summary here – this had been updated as of May 23rd when I read it. In a few other instances I’ll add other links that informed my thinking.

If these bullets have exhausted you, this is why the biggest recommendation is just to stay away from people. It’s a simpler message. However, if you’re willing to be thoughtful and consistently engage in conversations about risk and consent in combination with social distancing, another world might be possible.

Thinking about who this is possible with

I realized right away that one of the biggest conditions was to think about who I know who was the most open, proactive communication. Who would be most likely to overshare or offer more information than is maybe necessary, just in order to be sure they were thorough? Who would be most likely to initiate a conversation about our current behaviors even if I’m slacking?

Another hard realization was that the somewhat soft boundary that I had for people changing plans at the last minute was going to create problems in trying to coordinate with other people. The schedule I’ve started piecing together is a tight fit of people’s lifestyles, the level of risk they’re comfortable with, the level of risk I’m comfortable with, and the wiggle room I want to preserve for myself when I inevitably feel like not having to manage moments so tightly.

It would be irresponsible to not point out, at this juncture, that paying this much attention to caring about people (and myself) is a big body of work, and to feel good about it, I’m needing to stay very much in tune with my own desire to keep doing the work to keep those I care about safe and connect with them in the way that will be most responsible for the complex system I’m a part of. I’m prioritizing trying this with highly open communicators who are generally reliable in keeping dates and with whom I already have or am eager to further develop emotional connection to. I am bracing myself for the fact that this may well change as the months go on.

Finally, I’m taking into account the individual or household’s own distancing habits and the level of exposure risk they consent to. I’m not lowering my standards for anyone, but in working with the scheduler I found there were some people or interactions that were fine for some people, but less fine for others. A good example might be seeing someone the day after going grocery shopping. For one person, it’s ideal that I am self-isolating for two weeks prior to seeing them after spending time in a closed space with lots of people. For another person, this might be less of an issue.

A final caveat

I recognize that, looking at COVID-19 infection risk on its own, it’s obviously riskier to extend my household than to stay in isolation as a household of one. I reserve the right to change my mind about how any of this approach does or doesn’t work for me in the coming months, because everything is wild and things are changing every day.

If you are interested in thinking more closely about this, you can take a peek at the template I’ve made here. The second sheet, “Definitions and Language” is where I set up my own personal point of reference so I can rate the risk level of my days. This is all very iterative – I’m asking for feedback from the people I’m interested in trying to hang out with to see if the behaviors match the scenarios appropriately, or if they think I’m way off. All of this helps generate consent and agreement, which is the core requirement for any of this to make sense.

A screenshot of an spreadsheet tracking daily social distancing behaviors.

Wishing you light, love and happiness!