When the pandemic first hit, advice on socializing was reduced to one simple directive: Don’t.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate to “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” kept us from having to make complex social calculations: Whom should we see? What precautions should we take? What if we don’t agree about what’s safe?
A lot has changed since March. Even as COVID-19 case counts rose, we went from fearful to fatigued. It’s clear this public health crisis will continue for the foreseeable future, so we’re trying to figure out how to safely maintain the relationships that make our lives meaningful.
That puzzle — who, where and under what conditions — can be just as mentally taxing as isolation.
“It’s so complicated,” said Brandy Livingston, 47, mother of Amanda, 11, and Jack, 9.
Get-togethers that would have been simple for Livingston to organize before the pandemic became intricate social challenges. For their daughter’s birthday party, Livingston and her husband, John, hosted a drive-by lemonade stand with bottled drinks in front of their Camas home in order to limit person-to-person contact.
“It got backed up and people started getting out of their cars,” Livingston said. “One or two of my friends were uncomfortable with it. One friend was like, ‘Where are the masks?’ which I totally understand.”
Livingston nearly gave up on socializing altogether when she posted what she thought was a benign article related to pandemic safety on her Facebook page and ignited a political firestorm.
“It got so many comments by people that I know, going back and forth and calling each other names,” said Livingston. “It just makes you want to not engage.”
Social situations are causing “a fair amount of stress” right now, said Dr. George Keepers, professor and chairman of the department of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University.
Clark County has been stuck since June in the second phase of the state’s reopening plan, which limits individuals from gathering with more than five people outside their households per week. Gov. Inslee in July issued a statewide mandate requiring mask-wearing in public. These public health decrees on social distancing can create awkward feelings in close relationships.
“It’s normal and natural for people to want to associate with each other, for friends to get together, for church groups to get together,” Keepers said. “For people who don’t recognize the danger or who don’t recognize safe social-distancing practices, it may be putting a lot of social pressure on those who do.”
Livingston definitely feels the pressure from her children, even her normally germ-averse daughter.
“They think I’m terrible for not letting them play with their friends indoors,” Livingston said, “but they don’t socially distance themselves, even outdoors.”
Jen Mears, 47, mother of Ethan, 19, Megan, 17, and Qorban, 15, appreciates how easily her teens stay connected online, but she also knows how much they need “real” time with friends. She and her husband, Trey, weigh the risks of in-person socializing against their kids’ emotional well-being.
“It’s hard to balance it right now, because if they don’t get out of the house, there are bad effects,” Mears said. “We’re just trying to balance getting out of the house and being safe at the same time.”
In late spring, Mears developed a fever and exhaustion that lasted for two and a half months, although she twice tested negative for COVID-19.
When her doctor cautioned that the tests might be false negatives, she confined herself to one room for several weeks while Trey took time off work to run the household. She still feels some lingering symptoms, but isn’t sure, now, how to calculate the risks of social interaction — to herself or to others. In public, she’s careful to wear a mask, use hand sanitizer and keep her distance, but if she’s socially distancing outdoors with friends, the question of whether to wear a mask seems more nuanced.
“If they wanted to wear a mask, I would. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t,” Mears said. “That opinion might change if cases go up and people closer to us get sick. I never tested positive, so I don’t know. … Honestly, I think everyone is just trying to keep their chins up as best they can.”
We’re hard-wired to do whatever the group wants to do, and there are “potential adverse social consequences for not complying with the requests of a group,” Keepers said.
What’s acceptable and encouraged in the professional setting of a hospital — doctors and staff reminding each other to wash their hands and follow safety guidelines — is harder to adopt in social settings, he said. When we’re among strangers in a public space like a grocery store, it’s easy to keep our distance and be conscientious about mask-wearing, but when we’re with people we trust, we relax and tend to move closer together as we talk.
“We naturally gravitate toward each other and want to be close to each other,” Keepers said. “We experience moving away and backing off from people as an unfriendly act. It really goes against the grain.”
The challenge of socializing during the pandemic is how to keep our relationships intact while saying or doing something that might feel offensive. Asking others to cover their faces or back away from you seems rude, so we let the moment pass. Returning to normal — getting kids back to school in person and reopening businesses — may depend on our ability to rethink, for a time, how we show love.
“It’s a matter of understanding the science but it’s also making the shift to, ‘How do I express caring for this person, my friend, my family member and colleague?'” Keepers said. “The way we do that now is quite different from how we used to do that.”
Politely reminding people to wear masks or keep their distance is good in the right context because peer pressure is a key factor in changing behaviors, Keepers said, especially when requests are backed up by government and business leaders.
In smaller groups or one-on-one situations with friends, Keepers encouraged individuals to take the lead and speak up. Arguments, however, can be counterproductive, he said. If friends or family members decline to do as you’ve asked, don’t waste energy trying to persuade them. Put on your own mask, back away or simply leave, Keepers said.
“It is rare — almost vanishingly rare — that you are going to convince someone else through a public argument to change their mind,” Keepers said. “It is your personal responsibly to keep yourself safe first.”
Anand Tawker, a 55-year-old Orchards resident who teaches graduate business classes at Willamette University, has been musing on the cruel irony of a global crisis caused by a disease that spreads through our desire to come together during times of crisis.
“This is the time when people feel isolated, feel bereft, when people want the comfort of their friends,” Tawker said. “The very thing you need is the thing you’re told to keep away from.”
Tawker said he’s found comfort in the clear guidelines laid out in Elaine Swann and Malaka Gharib’s pocket guide to COVID-19 etiquette, available from npr.org.
Tawker has drastically cut back on socializing, and when he does, there’s a lot of preliminary discussion. Tawker tries to communicate his own values about the subject and doesn’t assume that his friends share his values, or are observing the same social distancing protocols that he is.
“I take it upon myself to bring it up as to what kind of norms we want to follow, and how we each feel about it, and we do it in such a way that is caring and empathetic about the other person,” Tawker said. “It paves the way for the other person to talk about it without being uncomfortable.”