A few of my friends have been breaking social distancing rules. They tell me that they visited their moms over Mother’s Day, or have been going back and forth from the cottage, despite the advice against it. When they bring it up, I get angry, so I try to change the subject. What I really want to say is “you’re being selfish.” Now that it’s time to choose bubbles of people to hang out with safely, I’m not sure that I want to spend time with them. Their behaviour during the pandemic has made me feel like I don’t really like them anymore. Should I break up with my friends? How do I tell them I don’t want them to be part of my bubble both out of health reasons and because I'm pissed off? - Jessica
As new cases of coronavirus slow down, some provinces are sending people back to work and school and making it easier to socialize while maintaining physical distance.
But the re-opening of society is also raising awkward questions about who to invite into our “bubbles,” especially when we have friends whose approaches to handling the pandemic differ from our own.
While some of us have been thinking about our “bubble” as anyone we’re seeing in person, Craig Janes, director of the University of Waterloo’s school of public health and health systems, said we don’t have to include friends we’re seeing from a physical distance into that equation.
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We can still see those friends, he said, as long as we’re maintaining two metres of distance, hanging out outside, washing our hands, and, if necessary, wearing masks.
“Don't get close together in an enclosed space and just do all the normal things we would do to protect ourselves anyway,” he said, noting “otherwise you’re in this position where you’re having to worry about what other people are doing when they’re not around you.”
Janes said a “bubble” should really be limited to people we live with and select people we extend our households to—people with whom we’d be comfortable being inside and breaching physical distancing. Parents with a kid might consider adding another family to their bubble, so the kids can play together, or grandparents, if they’re healthy.
“Under those circumstances, of course, you really would want to ask those questions and make sure everybody is following guidelines and remaining safe,” Janes said. But in general, “you really don't want to be in a position where you’re having to interrogate and be a policeman for your friends’ activities.”
Lorian Hardcastle, an assistant professor specializing in health law and policy at the University of Calgary, said it comes down to how much risk people are willing to take on.
From an epidemiological perspective, she said there’s a very low risk of transmission if people are socializing outdoors, two metres apart from their friends.
But the risk increases when people do things like pass each other drinks, sit on the same lawn chair as one another, pet the same dog, or go inside someone's house to use the bathroom. While those activities are still relatively low risk, it’s still more risk, she said, especially if someone has kids, is an essential worker, or is taking care of older parents.
“I think people are reasonably rational to be leery of even those distanced hangouts because we slip up,” she said.
She said there are a few ways people can handle the issue. One is to only visit with people you’re sure have been strictly isolating and let your other friends know that you’re limiting contact to a select few people right now. If you’re more comfortable, she said you could still see people you think have been more casual about the rules, but only outdoors and while being vigilant about distancing.
Even if you’re going to limit your interactions to your most rule-adherent friends, it’s probably best not to tell the others that you won't hang out with them because you think they're irresponsible.
Taslim Alani-Verjee, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist, said it’s better to say something along the lines of, “I really miss hanging out with you and I can’t wait until we can physically start hanging out. But I’m trying to be really careful about how I’m exposing myself and my family to COVID-19 and I know you’ve been a little more social than I would have been, so I don’t feel comfortable having our bubbles merge.”
“I definitely wouldn’t list out the ways in which they've violated my expectations in their social distancing patterns,” Alani-Verjee said.
She said it’s better to be honest that you are seeing some people, because if the person finds out anyway, they’ll be even more hurt.
If you feel angry about how your friend has been behaving, she said you can ask them about it, but try to approach it from a place of empathy as opposed to judgment.
For example, if your friend saw their mom for Mother’s Day, you can say that while it must have been nice to hang out, you're wondering why they didn’t choose to connect in a physically distant way.
If you don’t want to talk about it, you can also let your friend know that it’s upsetting for you to hear about them breaking the rules and that you’d rather not discuss it anymore.
Alani-Verjee said some people may be looser with the rules because they struggle with connecting digitally, or because of mixed messages—Ontario Premier Doug Ford even copped to seeing his daughters on Mother’s Day. She said the fatigue from being in quarantine is also testing people’s resolve.
“Being able to do this for an indefinite period of time weekly seems impossible for most of us.”
She also pointed out that a lot of us are bending the rules in some form, but we still don’t like it when our friends bend the rules in a different way. Some people might think that seeing their parents is understandable, but hanging out with friends isn’t.
“From an outsider's perspective those are really the same kinds of interactions,” she said. “But for some reason our mind tells us that moms are OK because it’s family, friends are not OK because we shouldn't value friends as much.”
As for breaking up with a friend over their COVID-19-related behaviour, Alani-Verjee said she would hold off making any big decisions right now. Take time to evaluate the relationship before doing anything rash, especially while we are all stressed out.
“Creating further isolation and further anxiety is probably not the best way to go out responding and being a friend to these folks,” she said.
Verdict: If you think your friends have been lax about physical distancing, stay outdoors and apart when you hang out, or tell them that you’re limiting who you’re seeing for now. But try to approach the conversation with empathy rather than judgment. Hold off on ending a friendship before you’ve given it some real thought.