Over the past few weeks, we’ve been inundated with messages to stay home and stay the hell away from other people as much as possible.
The City of Toronto is even handing out $1,000 fines for people who are spotted within 2 metres of each other in a park or public square if they don’t live in the same household. Numerous jurisdictions across North America have similar rules.
While it sounds easy enough to understand, reality is a lot more complicated. For example: what happens if you and your significant other don’t live together? Should you forgo IRL hangouts until this is all over, which could be months? Or is it better to move in together?
Your friends, especially those who are married or shacked up, may be quick to judge you as being selfish for wanting to travel back and forth between your place and your partner’s. Strictly speaking, it is a form of non-essential travel. But isolating solo for an extended period of time is difficult mentally and emotionally, especially when you have someone in your life whose support you’re craving. And there are lots of reasons you may not want to jump into moving in together. Your places may not be big enough, you may not have work stations for both parties, or you may simply not be ready to make such a big commitment. Plus, logistically, this is a bad time to be moving stuff around and a hard time to get help doing it.
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Dr. Greta Bauer, an epidemiology professor at Western university, said there’s no clear yes or no answer, but it depends on the circumstances. She said even couples who cohabitate are going to end up living apart during the pandemic in certain scenarios, like if one person comes back from travelling and has to isolate, or if one or both parties are healthcare workers who are exposed to the virus.
“For some people yes, that might make sense to move in together temporarily even if they’re maintaining two separate residences because they’re not going to have the transportation risks,” she said.
Bauer said if two people are self-isolating alone, meaning they don’t have roommates, and live close enough to each other that they can commute without running into other people (e.g. walking), they can become “one bubble.”
A bubble or pod is a small group of people (generally family or folks who live together) who share airspace during the pandemic.
“If you live around the block from each other and you’re working from home then it’s not unreasonable to go back and forth between both those residences,” Bauer said.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief medical health officer, tweeted that people in a self-isolation bubble must make sure no one outside comes into it.
Bauer expanded on that idea, saying that the risks one person in the bubble takes can extend to everyone else in their bubble.
That means if one person in the bubble is seeing people outside of the bubble, or making frequent trips to the grocery store, or going on public transit, they’re exposing everyone in their bubble to additional risks.
“If somebody becomes infected and there’s secondary spread it will only be to the people within their bubble,” Bauer explained. “The flip side of that is… for each of us those tend to be the people we care about most.”
Dr. Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, said if you and your partner have truly been sheltering in place for at least two weeks and you can get to each other's home without coming into contact with another person, the risk involved is quite low.
But he said we don’t live in an ideal world, and people have to leave their homes to get food, medication, or work. Not everyone is practising meticulous hygiene.
The problem with granting exceptions is that everyone will try to find a loophole that applies to them, he said. It goes from wanting to see your partner who has been sheltering in place to wanting to hang out with friends who have been sheltering in place.
“Someone is going to break the chain and not be as good as they think they are and all of a sudden now you’ve got all these potential contacts and exposures that you wouldn't have if you weren’t doing this,” Carroll said. “People make mistakes all the time.”
Outdoors, it’s a bit different, he said. But he recommended staying 20 feet (six metres) away from other people and wearing a mask. He acknowledged that’s a lot more difficult to manage in cities than in the suburbs.
Bauer said because we’re following these rules for the long-haul, we need to rethink what that means for our relationships.
“We’re prioritizing trying to save lives with them, we are saving lives with them. We also need to think about mental health and other aspects of health as well and it can be especially difficult for people who are isolating alone whereas other people are in couples or they’re in families,” she said.
“What we do need to think about is: everybody who is isolating together is potentially putting those other people at risk if they’re at any risk.”
The verdict: If you’re both diligent about sheltering in place, and you both work from home, don’t have roommates, and can walk or drive back and forth between each other’s places, you are probably fine to see your partner. If it makes sense, you can also consider moving in together temporarily. But be mindful of the risks you’re bringing into the bubble—if there are too many variables, it’s best to stay apart.