healthcare

'Little Bubbles': the Pandemic Coping Strategy That Refuses to Go Away

In place of adequate containment strategies, we have... designers trying to encase us in little pods during every activity.
18 June 2020, 7:15am
eating at restaurant during pandemic
Photo by Juni Kriswanto via Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

There’s a clear sense of desperation in the air—desperation to return to public life. Unfortunately, actual progress when it comes to treating COVID-19 has not quite caught up to that thirst: there’s still no COVID-19 vaccine, no “cure” or universal treatment regimen, no accurate antibody test, no sense of what the presence of COVID-19 antibodies actually means, and in the U.S., no robust contact tracing system to keep the virus contained.

Politicians across the U.S. have acted accordingly. Just kidding! All 50 states are slowly lifting business closures and social distancing requirements nationwide in the same patchwork fashion they were originally put in place, and new cases are on the rise.

Enter: the Bubble. The Bubble is less a literal globule than it is an idea that, if we simply install tons of thin, transparent barriers between ourselves and the germy world around us we can move through life again, just like we did pre-COVID. Whether bubbles are actually a sufficient solution remains unclear, but that hasn’t stopped designers and “futurists” everywhere from trying it in a 3D rendering, or sometimes even real life.

We first spotted the Bubble out to dinner. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, plastic or glass dividers for shared seating have also cropped up in response to the virus. At a restaurant in Paris, a designer debuted his “poetic” solution to eating in public: hanging plastic cones that partially encase customers to minimize the spread of COVID-carrying droplets. In Amsterdam, another eatery constructed little glass houses for customers to dine inside, according to a report from Insider.

The transparent containment concept has since crossed over to the U.S., first in the form of “hug curtains,” or the use of shower curtains as a barrier to prevent COVID transmission between two people who want physical contact. (For the record, health officials and one fire department in Ohio have called this practice into question, the former on the grounds of effectiveness and the latter on the potential fire hazard creation.)

The most practical format of the Bubble can be found in grocery stores and pharmacies in the form of makeshift sneeze guards that separate cashier from customer; a necessary attempt at protecting essential workers with something. These Bubbles emphasize function over form—they’re not sleek, but they’re also not pretending to be an art object. They simply do as much as possible to keep essential workers away from the particulate-shedding masses.

Most recently, the Bubble has hit the gym. According to a report last week, in Redondo Beach, California, one workout facility has opted to offer its clients an enclosed pod to get ripped in. Each unit in Inspire South Bay Fitness comes with its own set of dumbbells and other equipment for those who want to pump without pumping themselves full of COVID-19. But, due to the fact that these pods have been constructed out of shower curtains and PVC piping, some of the same concerns “hug curtains” raised could very well apply.

Where next, O Bubble? The sky is literally the limit—an Italian designer released a pair of airplane seat prototypes that both invoke the Bubble, one as a shield that completely surrounds each individual passenger, with rearranged seats to further minimize contact, and one as a snap-on, transparent divider to add a protective layer to the existing setup.

The Bubble is more of a goofy visual than a viable option for a reopened world. The fact that individual business owners have to resort to this kind of measure to stay afloat in a shaky economy is transparently sad. The bubbles are bad, but the worst bubble of all is the one where people don’t realize these jerry-rigged solutions are the result of a catastrophic containment failure on the part of the U.S. government.

Until that gets resolved, it’s probably best to keep up the at-home workouts and steer clear of public dining until we’ve got some more… realistic fixes.

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