The Friday before D.C. shut down, my wife and I had dinner with two other couples. The six of us were aware of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, so we took some halfhearted precautions to make our at-home dinner party slightly safer—no hugging, lots of hand-washing. But by the time we read the news the next morning, my wife and I already regretted our decision to go ahead with the meal, which suddenly seemed reckless. We began to hunker down in earnest.
We kept “hanging out” with those couples, on Zoom and Houseparty. Our regular virtual gatherings became a little tradition, the rare thing to look forward to while quarantined. For Passover, we even each cooked a course for six, and one person drove around picking up and delivering all the food so we could share in the same Seder feast. (We were careful with our packaging, and cooking for others is extremely safe!) Another time, we all ordered food from the same restaurant, then ate it on a Zoom call together. I insisted we pretend we were actually out to eat, menu perusal and all.
Eventually, once we’d all been quarantined in our homes for at least two weeks, we started making distanced contact. We went on a hike together and didn’t share snacks. We had a backyard hangout around a fire pit, with each couple seated 6 feet from the next. It was then that we started talking about taking things to the next level.
As it becomes clearer that the country’s pandemic-modified social configurations will need to hold for some time, people are starting to structure their lives in ways that are more sustainable for the long term. Single people are moving in together. I’ve heard of parents hiring quarantine au pairs to help out with kids who can’t go to camp or school. I know one family, long since decamped to a vacation home, that’s letting a colleague from a crowded group house move into its now-vacant primary residence. Me? I’ve formed a pod.
Quarantine pods, or bubbles, are the combination of two or a few isolated households, making one larger isolated unit. Essentially, it’s a slight expansion of one’s quarantined family. The members of each household agree to exclusively interact with the members of the other households in the pod. The idea is that if one pod member is somehow exposed to the coronavirus, the risk of contamination is limited to, ideally, fewer than 10 people. And if every pod person is staying isolated outside the pod, the chances of one of them bringing the virus into the pod are extremely slim—certainly no greater than they might be in a medium-size to large family. A study from sociologists at the University of Oxford and the University of Zurich found that a pod is more effective at limiting viral spread than any other means of constraining one’s social networks, including keeping to one’s own neighborhood. Forming a pod is the lowest-risk step beyond total social isolation, one that many countries and communities will likely adopt as an official recommendation as they make plans for the near-ish future. New Zealand already has, with instructions to “keep it exclusive … and keep it small.”
In my pod, we all did a lot of talking, thinking, and reading before deciding to join up. We shared articles and assessed one another’s level of concern about community spread: If we didn’t share the same outlook on the importance of isolating outside the pod, none of us would have wanted to participate. We discussed our daily habits: Because we all have jobs that allow us to work from home, we seldom make close contact with others. We looked at graphs that charted the probability of a gathering of a given size including a person with COVID-19, based on viral spread: In gatherings of fewer than 10 people, they’re vanishingly low, and we’d all be keeping close tabs on whether anyone in our pod was developing symptoms. None of us has any high-risk factors for coronavirus complications, and we were all willing to take on the marginal extra risk of expanding our respective family units from two people to six. If we wore masks when we left our homes and continued to minimize our interactions with people outside the pod, we concluded, the additional risk we’d pose to the rest of our communities was minimal too. Crucially, we didn’t have to take public transit to get to one another’s houses. And so our pod was born.
Forming our pod felt a little bit like dating. We were trying to feel out one another’s level of comfort with a potential exclusive relationship—a delicate dance rarely undertaken in platonic friendships. The whole process felt vaguely familiar, though. As queer people, we’re all accustomed to the heavy processing required around nonmonogamous relationships and nontraditional family-making; we felt well-equipped for earnest conversations about trust, harm reduction, and mutual tolerance for risk. It doesn’t hurt that we have a therapist, a doula, and two lawyers in the group.
Once we were all in agreement about the terms of our pod, we had our first dinner inside someone’s house. One podmate made us all cocktails. Another crafted pizzas to order. It wouldn’t have registered as a particularly spectacular meal in normal times, but for me, chatting and laughing around a table with friends after weeks of isolation was enormously healing, more gratifying than 100 Zoom calls. For minutes at a stretch, I forgot we were dining in the middle of a pandemic. My insides fully unclenched for what felt like the first time in weeks.
Since then, we’ve been doing all the things everyone else is doing in quarantine, but together: grilling, working on puzzles, worrying about the future, baking cakes, riding our bikes while wearing masks, drinking heavily. When I had a day off work and my wife didn’t, I didn’t have to spend it alone. Four more people in my quarantine family means four more people who can pick up a missing ingredient at the grocery store, saving me an unnecessary trip. It means my wife doesn’t have to be the sole bearer of my occasional spirals into coronavirus anxiety. It means four more reasons to stop wallowing and try out an elaborate new recipe or think up a creative substitute for canceled summer events. I feel like I’m just listing all the reasons it’s nice to have friends—I’m sure I don’t have to explain them all to you. But it’s hard to overstate the psychic relief I’ve gotten from relying on a bigger day-to-day support system and having a life—however constrained it may still be—outside the walls of my apartment. Instead of thinking back on this time in my life as a loss, I’m starting to imagine remembering it as a time when we showed up for one another and our friendships deepened. The stability of a commitment to mutual care and combining resources is a lovely thing to have in ordinary times. In crisis times, when the future is terrifyingly uncertain, it feels like a lifeline.
Also, it means I now have access to a backyard! CNN’s guide to creating a quarantine pod suggests picking podmates with complementary skills and possessions. I didn’t deliberately choose mine based on the things they have that I don’t (outdoor space, home improvement skills, professional baking experience, a dog), but it is not lost on me that my summer would be looking a hell of a lot bleaker if I were confined to one home, which is also my workplace, instead of three. I don’t know how long it will be before public gathering places start to open back up, or when I’ll feel safe returning to some semblance of Before Times life. But I know that if I didn’t have the sustenance and social outlet this small community provides, I’d be a lot more eager to get things back to normal. With my pod in place, I feel plenty ready for the long haul.
That’s one of the best arguments for public health officials to guide people through the process of creating a pod: It’s a harm reduction strategy. People who are desperate for human contact after a lengthy period of total isolation may be more likely to jump right into high-risk behaviors—or break their quarantine—than those who’ve been having those needs met in a low-risk way. In an Atlantic piece about “quarantine fatigue,” Harvard Medical School professor Julia Marcus likened all-or-nothing demands for isolation to abstinence-only sex education—which, she wrote, “is not just ineffective, but [has] been associated with worse health outcomes, in part because it deprives people of an understanding of how to reduce their risk if they do choose to have sex.” Instead, she envisions quarantine communications that recognize the varying risk levels of social activities (pod dinners = low, indoor concerts = high) and advise people on how to mitigate those risks. Smart quarantine guidance should also take mental health into account. Abstinence-only quarantine may be acutely detrimental for people with depression and anxiety, for whom the negligible extra risk of a quarantine pod may be more than worth the benefit of dependable social support and a vision for the near-term future that isn’t an empty, lonely void.
Back in March, my colleague Rebecca Onion wrote that the experience of isolation would indelibly prove that the nuclear family unit does not provide nearly enough social support for a workable lifestyle. For those familiar with the concept of chosen family, this lesson was an obvious one—and since March, most of us have seen Onion’s prediction borne out many times over. But when two of the hosts of Slate’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting podcast discussed their decision to form exclusive pods to share the load of child care and give the kids playmates in months to come, they got several angry responses from listeners who considered the idea beyond the pale: unsafe, selfish, maybe even unpatriotic.
This tells me that there’s been so much abstinence-only quarantine messaging—understandably!—that some people, lacking reliable information about a brand-new virus, feel unable to gauge the relative risks of various kinds of social interactions. For them, everything is black or white, safe or dangerous, slowing the pandemic or accelerating it. But this binary framework of risk doesn’t adequately represent reality. It flattens out important nuances, which will make it more difficult for people to make educated risk-mitigating decisions when society begins to reopen. All-or-nothing isolation isn’t the only way to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, and it’s not sustainable for everyone, either. For me, a quarantine bubble isn’t just a way to meet my immediate social needs. It’s my plan for keeping my risk of contracting and spreading the virus as low as possible, for as long as possible. At a time when public officials are struggling to produce unified plans for what may be several waves of lockdowns of unknown length and frequency, it feels safer to have my own.
For more on social bubbles, listen to the latest episode of Outward.