In a New York Times op-ed published Wednesday, writer Reyhan Harmanci details the "chaos" that ensued when her husband's cousin got results from a coronavirus test she’d taken days before hanging out maskless in Harmanci’s yard: positive. (Harmanci had not known she had been tested.) Harmanci spent the next several days trying to figure out who all of the other people she'd recently spent time with could possibly have been infected by the cousin—a long list of family members, friends, and babysitters who cycled through her upstate backyard or otherwise socialized with her closely.
Harmanci characterizes the fact that she has to inform her guests, family, and friends of their potential exposure to COVID-19 as unfair, since the government has failed to provide enough contact tracing and testing. (This is largely true, but, as someone pointed out on Twitter, the county where Harmanci’s bustling backyard is located does have official contact tracers.) As she did this, Harmanci’s child, suddenly ill with common kid-sickness symptoms that overlap with those of COVID-19, continued to see Harmanci’s aging parents, who had been in close contact with her for days as they stayed at Harmanci's house for a vacation, and her family did not quarantine.
In addition to pointing a finger at the systems that should be blamed for putting us in these positions, Harmanci uses the op-ed to abdicate the responsibility she has not only to herself but also to those she loves and those she doesn’t know. It's amazing that it bears repeating at this stage of the pandemic, but: It’s still not safe to extensively hang out with many different people who don't live with you, including family members, maskless, especially if those people have recently traveled. And, if you choose to anyway, you should be having a very in-depth conversation about recent behavior with whomever you see first.
Despite that everyone knows better as the pandemic rages on indefinitely, bending the rules to see, or even stay with, family and friends without masks (or while being otherwise lax about safety) is still very common across the country. In late July, the Washington Post reported that people who’d been going out to restaurants, bars, and jobs were infecting older, vulnerable family members they lived with at home. On Tuesday, Block Club Chicago published a report showing that gatherings among, specifically, close friends and family are driving up cases of coronavirus.
“I know that you feel safe when you are among friends that you know,” said Allison Arwady, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Public Health. “It’s easy to let your guard down, to not wear masks, to not social distance… As people are letting down their guard, they are out potentially contracting COVID and then bringing it back into households.”
For a lot of people, wearing a mask and social distancing when around strangers in public is now a force of habit, and not a terribly difficult choice.
Still, some find it easier to view interactions at home, around friends and family they don’t live with, as inherently safer—to let their guards down and choose to believe that everyone closest to them, emotionally speaking, is doing just fine.
In the past month alone, though:
- A dad in Florida was hospitalized with coronavirus after getting infected by his 21-year-old son
- A woman in California was placed on a ventilator with coronavirus, likely after getting infected at a small family gathering in Georgia
- A dad in Texas died of COVID-19 after celebrating Father’s Day with family members (at least six of whom became infected, as well) at a restaurant
- Eight of the 11 attendees at a “mostly outside” maskless family gathering in Alabama—at which two doctors were present—ended up testing positive for COVID-19
It’s understandable to want to trust family and friends and cave for a hug or a few hours mask-free. But all these little risks have the potential to spur much larger outbreaks, especially as schools begin to reopen all over the country.
As bioethicist Kelly Hills told VICE in mid-July, we often assume our friends are like us, that “what I think is risky is what they think is risky, and what they think is common sense is what I think is common sense. It just doesn’t work like that,” she said. Harmanci believed the people she knew were "doing the right thing," as she likely also believed of herself (even though she employed two different babysitters, had another friend over for lunch, went to the drive-in with a friend’s family, and still let her high-risk parents stay in her home with her symptomatic baby).
The op-ed bemoans the lack of infrastructure and rules from elected leaders. While it’s true that the U.S. is failing at contact tracing, quarantining, and sending clear, strong messages, Harmanci is either copping to a stunning level of ignorance here, or is lying to herself about her own responsibility. She and her family didn’t attempt to get tested or utilize the state’s contact tracing program. At one point after the baby gets sick, the grandmother takes the other child out for a walk around the neighborhood. “Should we be strictly quarantining now, no outside activities at all? What is paranoid and what is reasonable behavior?” Harmanci asks, as if the answer to those questions are still unknown.
Throughout the op-ed, Harmanci demonstrates a clear understanding of what's necessary to protect others. By inviting family over, potentially exposing networks of people to this virus, she’s simply choosing not to follow them. It would be a lot more honest to admit that the "chaos" of this particular experience began the moment Harmanci decided that seeing “plenty of people,” by her own admission, was acceptable at all, despite everything we know about how the pandemic spreads. Though as of her writing, no one else in her circle is sick, not everyone will be so lucky.
The kindest thing you can do for family members, friends, and loved ones who are keen on hanging out with inadequate regard for a global pandemic—the real "right thing"—is to tell them it isn’t safe to get together yet. (Yes, still.) Harmanci could’ve told any of the people who wanted to pass through her backyard or stay in her home "no." Not out of rudeness, but out of necessity and, ultimately, out of love and respect. The feeling of hugging your grandma or having dinner with your cousin isn’t worth getting them, yourself, or other people sick. There's no need to sow further chaos for one another than what we're already living through every day.
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