In the past week, I’ve listened to a lot of smart, thoughtful adults tell the story of a roommate (or live-in partner!!!) who appears to have a complete lack of interest in preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus. These stories often end with some variation of, “Am I overreacting? I don’t want to be dramatic…”
You know what’s dramatic? A global pandemic. I know it can be hard to be honest about your needs, but if there were ever a time to set boundaries for the sake of your physical and mental health (and public health!), now… is… the time?
Trying to avoid a worst-case scenario (by considering the concept of not dying) isn’t “overreacting.” You don’t need a “good” reason (like being immunocompromised or uninsured) to be scared of COVID-19, or to be “allowed” to tell your housemate, "No, your friend who went to a warehouse party last night cannot work from our apartment today because they are ‘lonely.’ Also, wash your hands after you go pee, what the hell!!!!"
Everyone has good reason to worry and to change their lifestyle in the name of public and personal health, and you are absolutely allowed to say something to a person you live with who's downplaying or ignoring that. Even if you were perceived as overreacting—well, fine! If your roommate thinks less of you because you set a firm boundary, that’s a Them Problem, and one that you can handle. (On the other hand, the consequences of not saying anything could be exhausting, terrifying, expensive, and possibly deadly—so, fairly difficult to handle.)
If you’re living with someone who refuses to take the expert recommendations for “flattening the curve” seriously and you don’t know what to do, here are some tips to consider.
Have a house meeting about expectations and plans for the coming weeks.
If you haven’t specifically hashed out health and safety preparations/expectations with your housemate(s), now is the time. Like, tonight. Copy and paste this text to them: “Hey, are you free tonight? I’d like to sit down and talk through the latest coronavirus news and get on the same page about what we should be doing at home about it.”
Before you meet, familiarize yourself with what doctors are saying, read up on the importance of staying home, know how bad ‘mild’ symptoms can be, and take a minute to read the new research that indicates that people without symptoms might be causing a substantial number of new infections. You should go into the conversation fully prepared to explain the logic behind what you’re asking them to do.
When you're done researching, figure out exactly how your house rules about hygiene need to change right now. Does your housemate need to start washing their hands more? Start regularly sanitizing surfaces? Cancel a game night they planned for this weekend? (The CDC has some suggestions and a checklist that might be helpful.)
If your housemate is resistant to changing their behavior or taking precautions, make a good faith effort to understand why.
The reasoning among COVID-19 skeptics varies from person to person, although it's all ill-conceived. If this is your roommate, ask what their thinking is: Is the fact that they’re young and healthy making them believe they’ll only get a “mild” infection? Are they just not following the news? Do they keep insisting this coronavirus is no worse than the flu? Are they insistent that they need to go to the gym every morning for the sake of their mental health? Are they “too busy” to clean the apartment? Figuring this out will help you talk to them from a place of empathy, and allow you to tailor your argument accordingly.
But remember that this person is being unreasonable, so you might not actually be able to reason with them. If you can’t get through to them, accept that—it’s time to figure out how you can be pragmatic and protect yourself, regardless of what reality they are living in.
If you can’t change their mind, proceed as though someone in your shared living space is sick with a cold or the flu.
In normal circumstances where you were worried about catching something, you’d likely try to avoid sharing germs. How you need to clean right now follows a lot of the same logic. Doing this probably means you’re going to have to clean/disinfect some of your housemate’s stuff instead of expecting them to do it themselves. Is this fair? No. Does it matter? Not right now. (It might matter when it’s time to renew your lease, though!)
There’s no need to follow your housemate around with a bottle of Lysol—the CDC recommends waiting “as long as practical” after a sick person has used a shared space before cleaning it. Just make sure you do it before you use the space.
In terms of COVID-19 specifically, the CDC has guidelines for cleaning that you should bookmark. A few highlights:
- If you have disposable gloves, put them on before you clean. (If not, wash your hands thoroughly before and after, and try to avoid getting cleaning products on your skin.) Use a household cleaner to remove dirt, crumbs, etc. on the surfaces, then use a disinfectant (like a bleach solution) to kill the germs. (The CDC has a lot more info on what qualifies as a “disinfectant.”) Hit all the high-touch surfaces in common areas—doorknobs; light switches; sink fixtures; and the handles of your microwave, fridge, dishwasher, and oven. Ideally, you’d do this after each use; since your housemate isn’t doing this (or is doing it extremely rarely), go ahead and do it at that ‘ideally’ rate, even if it’s annoying.
- Open the window(s) in common areas as often as you can; this will help keep fresh air circulating (and give you a break from the bleach fumes).
- Make sure all trash cans—including the small one in the bathroom—have a liner/trash bag in them.
- Stop sharing personal household items immediately. That includes dishes, drinkware, eating utensils, towels, and bedding. Do a small load of dishes—if you have a dishwasher, run it on the "sanitize" setting; if you're doing them by hand, wear gloves—and then move a few plates, bowls, forks, etc. to a clean spot in your room and use those exclusively.
Stay in your room.
The CDC says that people with COVID-19 should stay in a specific, isolated room as much as possible, and use their own separate bathroom if they can. Unfortunately, if your roommate is unwilling to cancel their comedy show, they probably aren’t going to stay off the couch. That means you’re going to have to be the one to isolate within your home.
Is this fair? No. Does that matter? Not right now!!!
You probably can’t avoid common areas like the kitchen and bathroom entirely, so follow the CDC recommendations for cleaning those areas—again, as though a sick person is using them—before you make breakfast or take a bath. For your own peace of mind, you may want to limit your presence in the common areas to times when your housemate isn’t there. Yes, you probably want to know if they are licking the remote control so you can hit it with a bleach wipe… but it’s best to just assume they are licking the remote control at this point and wipe it down accordingly.
Put your foot down about visitors.
If your roommate is already exhibiting really bad judgement, the last thing you need is dealing with their guests. Do their friends want to work from “home” at your place? Does their partner who refuses to stop going to the gym want to move in for the next three weeks? The answer is no.
If your housemate disagrees? Hash it out! Ultimately, you may not be able to stop them from letting people in your space, but you should at least feel free to stand a little firmer than you normally would. You don’t have to drop the subject at the first sign of conflict, and it’s OK to shame them or tell their guest, "I think it’s pretty fucked up that you came over.”
Don’t hesitate to take a strong stance if they are palpably not well.
I’m not saying you should sharply blow a whistle three times every time your roommate coughs… but if they have symptoms that are aligned with COVID-19, you should address that directly. (The obligation and urgency is even higher if the person has not been social distancing, or if they have a connection to someone who has tested positive.) You could say something like:
“Hey, I’m worried about your health and think you need to start taking this more seriously. Can you take your temperature and call your doctor to see if you should get tested ASAP, please? I’m also happy to call for you if you give me the number.”
If you’ve been unable to convince them to call a doctor, or they’ve been told by a health care professional that they aren’t eligible to get tested, you might go this route:
“I think we should proceed as though you're infected. To start, you should stop hanging out in the living room or using the kitchen for the foreseeable future. From there, we can do [all the other things the CDC suggests if someone is sick]. You should also give me the contact info for your doctor and [your parents, sibling, best friend, boss], just in case.”
If they simply refuse to call their doctor about their symptoms or change their behavior in any way, try something like:
“It’s not ‘no big deal’—coughing and breathing all over the apartment is completely unacceptable, disgusting, and, at this point, dangerous. What exactly is your hesitation here?”
Because, look: Maybe they don’t have health insurance, or are terrified of the reality of the situation, or don’t want to admit they got sick after days of insisting they weren’t going to get sick. The only way to find out is to ask directly, and insist they engage with you.
What you shouldn’t do is continue to operate from a place of prioritizing your housemate’s comfort over your own. Your comfort, health, and safety—and the public’s—are non-negotiable right now. It’s OK to have a strong reaction, to not just keep the peace. Tests remain extremely limited, hospitals are totally unprepared for an influx of patients, and the nation’s leading authority on infectious diseases has told Congress, “Things will get worse.”
It's time to stop pretending that proceeding germily through life without taking any precautions—or being egregiously apathetic—is totally cool and fine. Things aren't totally cool and fine. They will be even less totally cool and fine if those close to you continue to act put-upon by the idea that they should care for others, including you.
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Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter.