Life

The Great Pandemic Pod Experiment

For many people, pods brought more drama than comfort.

Four people illustrated crammed tightly into a bubble
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

In the year since the COVID-19 pandemic razed the fundamental structures of contemporary public life, an entirely new set of social arrangements has sprouted in their place. Adults have moved in with their parents, and vice versa. Neighbors whose kids once attended school together have turned their living rooms into day care centers and home-schooling hubs. Roommates who once existed in a peaceful state of mutual noninterest have had to become intimately involved in one another’s lives. Casual hookup partners have had to draft strict exclusivity agreements.

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Perhaps the most novel social structure to emerge in the past year is the pandemic pod. An expansion of one’s household to include one or a few others in a group that can socialize in person without masking or distancing precautions, a pod has no direct analogue in nonpandemic life. It took some time for the concept to catch on. Early in the pandemic, in many circles, any socializing with people outside of one’s household was considered reckless. But late last spring, as we started to grapple with how long the virus and its corresponding lockdowns would stick around, some epidemiologists and esteemed journalists (plus me) encouraged people to form pods, or bubbles, as a harm reduction strategy. The idea was to allow for safer socialization while limiting each participant’s pool of potential contacts.

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While the initial response to pods was mixed—I got plenty of pushback when I wrote about forming my own pod in May—several months later, with months of lockdown likely still to go, pods are a far more accepted part of pandemic life. Some local governments, including California’s Alameda County, have even provided pod guidelines as part of an official government response to the pandemic. Universities have helped pairs of roommates link up into pods to foment a safer social scene. Sports clubs have created systems of “squash pods” to limit potential outbreaks among players. Jewish congregations have scheduled sukkah time slots by pod, and one retreat center offered rentals for one POD, or People of your Own Designation, at a time. And yet, we have simultaneously started to realize that as much as pods are a useful tool in the pandemic, they come with their own issues. In a piece that inspired heated debate in November, Farhad Manjoo tried to figure out how big his bubble, which included various “pods,” really was. Even though he felt he only had close contact with his wife and kids, he was still connected to somewhere around 100 people. While the reaction to the piece mostly focused on Manjoo’s decision to maintain his Thanksgiving travel plans after his big-bubble reckoning, to me, his realization underscored something different: Maintaining a pod—an actual, tightknit, exclusive pod—is a much harder social endeavor than any of us initially appreciated. It demands a level of exclusivity, communication, and commitment that is unfamiliar to the average platonic relationship, with the specter of illness or death hanging over every potential breach of trust.

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My own pod started out simple. There were six of us, all close friends, who were able to work from home during the pandemic. Sure, we grocery shopped and attended doctors’ appointments, but we also cut our own hair and steered clear of public transportation. When any of us hung out with people outside our pod, we did so outdoors and at a distance. We rarely had to negotiate with one another about the risks we were taking because, for the most part, we weren’t taking any risks. The simplicity and ease of our pod life was essential to its appeal. Compared with social interactions that involved asking non-pod friends whether they were comfortable with the distance between our picnic blankets, our pod was friction-free, like an alternate universe in which the pandemic didn’t exist.

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There was also a welcome warmth to the recognition that our friendships had leveled up. It felt a little bit like middle school, when pairs or triads would declare themselves best friends—a label that, like the label of podmate, comes with expectations of loyalty, and priority. When our podmates needed a sitter for their handful of a dog for two full weeks, they knew whom to call. When my wife and I moved to a new place, there was no question whom we’d ask to help us spackle and paint.

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But as the pandemic wore on, we took occasional steps outside our bubble, which made things more complicated. One couple had a group of friends from out of town stay with them the weekend before Thanksgiving. That visit happened to fall on my birthday, which meant I couldn’t celebrate with two of the four friends to whom I’d limited my indoor social life. One podmate planned a birthday getaway of her own, a weekend in a cabin with the pod and one other friend. But that friend’s partner is an essential worker, and she couldn’t quarantine before a pre-trip COVID test. The rest of the pod wasn’t comfortable with that, so the four of us stayed home. Eventually, we settled into a routine: of negotiating these kinds of breaches, of deciding who was comfortable with what, of quarantining and testing, or just waiting, before we came back together. There were some weeks when this dance was more stressful than others, and some tiresome text chains about the specifics of, say, a barbershop’s PPE and ventilation system. In the weeks when some of my podmates were quarantining and the others were busy with work or family stuff, my tether to normal life began to fray. Sometimes, the podmates who weren’t breaking the bubble in any given week silently questioned the choices of the ones who did. But our collective loneliness and pandemic dread in those off weeks made me and my podmates more committed to keeping our little hub working as well as it could.

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Not every pod has survived to the pandemic anniversary. In December, shortly after the uproar over Manjoo’s piece, I put out a call on Twitter for people whose pods had disintegrated, blown up, or become embroiled in some kind of drama. I wanted to know if others were feeling the same pressures of long-term confinement that were making life in my pod feel harder than it had been at first. In phone conversations with me, some people who responded to my tweet told stories that echoed familiar disputes from pre-pandemic life, like disagreements between parents over teaching methods. Of course, the pandemic made this kind of disagreement more complicated: Before, these parents might have argued in a PTA meeting; now, as part of a hastily put-together learning pod for their kids, they were responsible for hiring and managing a teacher, essentially a principal-by-committee. Other people I spoke to detailed conflicts that felt entirely new, like the dissolution of a group house whose residents clashed over COVID safety protocols. How fraught did these pod relationships get? Let me put it this way: Almost everyone I spoke to insisted on using a pseudonym (which I’ve used in the anecdotes to come), and I’m only conveying the barest outlines of their stories because none would allow me to contact their estranged podmates to confirm the details.

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Pods composed of existing circles of family members and close friends, like mine, may have enough mutual investment to prepare them for the ups and downs of pod life. But solid relationships from pre-pandemic life have been stressed by the novel demands of dealing with an unfamiliar threat. One person, whom I’ll call Claudia, told me that her group of friends had formed a learning pod for their kids when schools closed in their town. It wasn’t until in-person classes resumed some months later that they realized their reasons for forming a pod didn’t match up. At that point, one member said she’d like to split her kid’s time between in-person classes and the learning pod. Claudia, who was wary of the potential added viral exposure, balked at the idea of expanding their circle so much. And then the podmate told Claudia, “Oh, I wasn’t thinking about the pod as a way to control our COVID exposure.” Claudia was shocked. “I was like, WHAT?” she told me. “She just needed her kid to have school.”

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Another person I spoke to, Jasmine, was betrayed by a close friend and occasional sexual partner, who originally agreed to depart from the pair’s usual practice of nonmonogamy to join Jasmine and her roommates in an exclusive pod. A few months in, Jasmine learned that her friend and lover had secretly slept with someone else, exposing Jasmine and her housemates to a whole other house full of people without so much as a heads-up. Jasmine was shattered, in large part because she’d been under the impression that, unlike so many others, she and her friend had already practiced all the communication and boundary-setting skills necessary for a successful pod life. “We have navigated so much weird shit before,” she said. “I was like, ‘Why would you lie to me about this?’ ”

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Brittany, of Pennsylvania, ended up leaving her church community when its leaders’ blasé response to the pandemic—and their tendency toward Plandemic-inflected conspiracy theories—confirmed misgivings she’d already had about their vision of Christianity. She continued to pod with friends she’d made through the church, but they stopped speaking to her after she said she wasn’t comfortable hanging out after they’d been exposed to several other people. “Clearly, it wasn’t a real friendship if they’re cutting ties with me over not being willing to meet up in person during a pandemic,” Brittany said. But she’s still wounded by the apparent ease with which those friends removed her from their lives. The logistics of the pandemic might have accelerated a growing-apart that was already underway, but their different takes on pandemic safety helped Brittany see her friends and her faith community more clearly too.

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If negotiating pod life can be stressful among friends, it can be grueling for those who weren’t exactly emergency-contact-level close before the pandemic. Members of pods that coalesced around schooling or child care were often driven more by desperation than desire, and people who live with roommates didn’t get a choice in their first-tier pods at all. One woman told me her housemate refused to wear a mask in the house after an out-of-state getaway that involved a round-trip plane ride. “I felt like I was saying, ‘You have to do this basic thing to protect us, or else you are a delinquent.’ Like I was suddenly a mom with a teenager,” the woman said. She and her husband, who’d lived in the house for years, were so exasperated by what they saw as their roommate’s unreasonable dereliction of safety measures that they ended up moving out. Intrahouse issues cut in both directions: Another woman, in a different city, told me she moved out of rented room in a beautiful home after her housemate began “shaming” her for going on a date with a guy she met on Hinge.

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Some pods, such as schooling groups, will disband when normal life returns and renders them unnecessary. Other pods, the ones that simply laid new rules and exclusivity clauses atop existing kinship networks, may revert back to a relaxed state of normalcy. But many relationships will bear lingering cracks from the weight of the pandemic. Not all of them were built to withstand the pressure. A transgression that might have caused hurt-but-reparable feelings in 2019 took on the tenor of a life-threatening betrayal in 2020. The pandemic will subside, but memories of the conflicts it produced—the breaches of trust, the over- and underreactions to crisis, the disparate worldviews that came to light—will remain.

We’ve learned that social sacrifice is not as simple as “are you willing to forgo spring break to keep Grandma alive?” That all-or-nothing approach to pandemic safety made sense at first, but as the months dragged on, the sacrifices built up, and we realized, over and over again, that shame-enforced norms in any one social circle did nothing to prevent widespread suffering and death in the others. The questions we were forced to ask ourselves became a lot more difficult to answer. In a pod, those questions are often less about our responsibilities to the world and how to conduct ourselves when a virus engulfs the planet, and more about our commitment to one another: Are you willing to be patient and understanding when someone’s risk tolerance is higher than yours? Can you keep from feeling judged when the imbalance is flipped? The decisions are practical, but the fallout has often cut deeper. The pandemic has long had an emotional edge, due to both the tragedy it’s wrought and the strangeness of every person you know going through slightly different versions of the same thing at the same time—and reacting differently, in ways that directly affect those closest to us. An oft-cited pandemic truism is that everyone who is even a smidge more cautious than you looks paranoid, and everyone a smidge less cautious than you looks reckless. When allowed to take root, these sorts of appraisals can be poisonous to a relationship, especially when any one podmate’s perceived paranoia or recklessness necessarily affects the lives of the rest.

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For many of the people I spoke to, pods weren’t just a disposable tool for muddling through a temporary crisis. They were an expression of what, and whom, they hold dear in their lives—a way to wring some joy and intimacy out of a lonely, alienating year. So when those people’s podmates let them down, it wasn’t just pandemic life that got harder. The post-pandemic life they looked forward to resuming got a little dimmer too. But pandemic conflicts with our nearest and dearest can teach us valuable lessons, if we let them. Forthright communication, empathy without judgment, setting and respecting boundaries, seeing our loved ones as they are rather than how we’d like them to be—these are skills and habits a population rarely gets the chance to practice in concert. And pods that have persevered through the tough parts could come out stronger on the other side. “When you go through stuff with people that’s not great, but then you are still friends, it’s basically moving you to family level, where you’re going to be with these people through thick and thin,” said Claudia, whose friend group­–turned–schooling pod is still standing. She and her friends may not have to weather another pandemic together, but if worst came to worst, they could.

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