At the start of the pandemic, you and your family hunkered down and made do with video calls and physically distanced “get-togethers” with friends. Now, three surges later, your entire household is desperate for some in-person interaction.
But how safe is it to merge your social bubble with another family’s?
“A pandemic pod or social bubble is essentially a circle of trust,” explains Dr. Paul Pottinger, director of the Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine Clinic at UW Medical Center – Montlake. “So you have to ask yourself, ‘Does everyone play by the same rules? Do you trust the people in your circle?’”
Consider this your how-to guide for safely forming your family’s pandemic pod.
Focus on quality, not just quantity
While Washington’s COVID-19 guidelines currently say you can meet with up to five people outside your household per week — outdoors, of course — the truth is it’s not just about how many people you’re meeting with but also how seriously those people are taking the pandemic precautions.
“The number of five is arbitrary,” Pottinger says. “It just takes one person to spread COVID-19 to others.”
So what does that mean for your family? Instead of choosing your pandemic podmates based on playdate preferences, focus on selecting those who you know are rigorous about wearing masks, staying physically distanced from others and avoiding high-risk situations.
Quarantine before you come together
Let’s say your family and another family have decided to merge social bubbles. Before you do any in-person interacting, make sure every person quarantines — meaning avoids close contact with all others outside their household — for 14 days and shows no symptoms of COVID-19.
And while it may be tempting to just ask folks to produce a negative COVID-19 test result in lieu of a quarantine period, Pottinger notes that’s not completely reliable.
“Testing can be helpful, but I’m worried that testing may provide a false sense of security,” he says. “There’s a window between when you first become infected and when you produce a positive result. Think of a COVID-19 test like a pregnancy test: You may be pregnant but it may be too early to tell on a test, and a pregnancy test isn’t going to prevent you from becoming pregnant in the first place.”
After that initial quarantine period, both families should continue to avoid close-contact situations with others not in your pod.
Lay out ground rules with your podmates
Another step to take before you officially combine pods? Hold a group video chat or share a document where all members of your pod squad can list out and agree to social bubble rules.
For example, pledge to always wear masks when out in public, to avoid in-person socializing with others and to immediately inform your podmates if anyone in your family is experiencing symptoms. You should also give others in your pod a courtesy heads-up if you anticipate having to break your agreement.
“It requires an explicit, mindful, intentional discussion,” Pottinger says. “Ideally you’re looking at each other online and saying out loud to each other that you promise to behave properly, with the understanding that if you don’t, you’re potentially infecting the people that you’re looking at.”
Don’t let your guard down
Once your family has effectively merged bubbles with another, feel free to enjoy the social interaction — but don’t assume everyone is safe.
Your family and the others in your pod still need to wear masks if you’re within six feet of each other (yes, even outside). This is especially true if you’re spending time inside once safety guidelines allow for indoor gatherings.
Why you may ask?
“We’re all tired and are looking to cut corners,” Pottinger notes. “The problem is the virus doesn’t care. We get no credit for good behavior. We have to keep it up. The price of safety is vigilance and stamina.”
Keep communication open and honest
If there’s ever a time to put aside that notorious Pacific Northwesterner politeness, a once-in-a-century pandemic is it.
Don’t be shy about communicating your concerns to your podmates. For example, if you found out someone ignored your agreed-upon rules, feel free to pop that social bubble. After all, by breaking the rules, they may have put you and your family at risk.
And if someone who’s not in your pod requests a casual playdate or if a friend wants to visit, be upfront with them. Tell them your social bubble is already maxed out and that you’re not comfortable expanding it at this point. Instead, suggest a virtual meetup.
“Just say that you’re concerned about everyone’s health, not that you’re suspicious of anyone’s behavior,” Pottinger says. “The most important, respectful thing is to be honest.”