Doctors Explain How to Safely Create a Pandemic Pod With Friends This Winter
Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a trend pop up on my Instagram feed: friends coming together, mid-pandemic, for extended gatherings in specific locations. The situations differ, of course—a group of college pals camping out at someone’s family home in the Berkshires, a gathering of industry colleagues renting a house upstate, age-old camp friends reconvening on the shores of Maine. As I’ve scrolled through these photos, I began to wonder: What did it take to safely make this happen? And how is everyone doing this?
The term for this phenomenon has come to be known lovingly as the “quarancommune” or "COVID communes," which means when a group of friends takes measures to merge quarantine “bubbles” for a period of time, under one roof. As the cold weather approaches and our outdoor social distance hangouts begin to wane, the quarancommune just may be our ticket out of extreme social isolation this winter. “Not only does loneliness make us vulnerable to both physical and mental illness, but it also saps the zest out of life,” explains Dr. Marisa Franco, a psychologist specializing in friendship. “Research on the amplification effect, for example, finds that when we're around others, our emotions—whether positive or negative—are heightened. Without people, we tend to feel blah.”
We definitely want to take measures to avoid feeling “blah” for the next few months (in a safe manner, of course). Plus, the overwhelming joy and feeling of humanness we can receive by safely reuniting with friends during this time cannot be overstated. This Instagram post by activist Sarah Sophie Flicker, who did a quarancommune with her friends, sums it up best. In her caption, she writes, “I’ll never take for granted being in a room full of people laughing.”
But before you run into your BFF's arms and start your own quarancommune, it’s important to remember that it's not as simple as booking a vacation rental and jetting off. Here’s everything you need to know—from a psychologist, a medical expert, and millennials who’ve done it.
Choose your crew wisely.
In most instances, being around people 24/7 can cause some friction. Now, think of adding the heightened anxiety of the pandemic to the situation. You want to be sure you’re choosing a group you feel in alignment with. “The risks that any one individual takes puts the entire group at risk,” says public health expert and chronic disease specialist Dr. Tania Dempsey, emphasizing the importance of being on the same page about safety precautions. Additionally, you may want to pick pals with similar energies, interests, and emotional responses to you. Since we’re already a bit on edge, all it takes is a tiny moment of passive aggression or differing opinions for resentment to fester or a blowup to occur.
Michele, a woman in her mid-twenties currently quarantining with her camp friends in Maine, says, “Friendship dynamics and histories are very alive and well here. I joke that everyone brings ‘ten masks and all their baggage’ to the pod. So if you form a pod seeking human connection and friendship, just know you are going to get all of it: the good bits and the messy, raw bits. But that's kinda the beauty of it, too.”
Figuring out safety protocols, travel plans, and lodging requires a bit more prep these days. “Each bubble should self-quarantine for 14 days before merging with another bubble,” says Dr. Dempsey. “In addition, everyone should have a SARS-CoV-2 PCR test within a three-day window of joining together.” She also adds the important clarification that rapid antigen tests won’t suffice here because of the high false-negative rate.
On the lodging front, Janell Hickman-Kirby, a freelance beauty editor who spent time with her group chat upstate this summer, advises, “Select your dates sooner rather than later. Houses are getting booked for the season.” And if you’re staying in an Airbnb or other home rental, Dr. Dempsey suggests asking about the host’s cleaning protocol prior to arrival. “According to new research, the virus appears to be airborne and can linger in the air. The risk would be lower if the previous renters leave a day or more ahead of your arrival. And consider bringing along portable air purifiers that can help filter the air and ionize viral particles,” she shares.
Claire, a twentysomething woman who recently gave up her N.Y.C. apartment because of remote working conditions, has been in a traveling pod with four of her work friends—starting off in an Airbnb in Arizona before moving on to another outside Joshua Tree. She cites certain logistical challenges that required extra planning, like going to the doctor or making sure to get an absentee ballot before the election. Additionally, cost is a big factor. She adds, “If I was still paying N.Y.C. rent, I definitely wouldn’t be able to do this.”
Communication is everything.
Even more than in *precedented* times, strong communication and radical honesty are essential practices for the overall happiness of the group. And because we’ve gone so long without in-person peer interaction, merging bubbles may actually be overwhelming at first. “There's evidence that shows when we're lonely, we begin to feel uncomfortable around people and become more socially anxious,” says Dr. Franco. “There's a researcher named Harry Harlow who deprived monkeys of social interaction, and when he reunited them with other monkeys, they were weird, attacking or withdrawing from the other monkeys.”
Claire explains experiencing a similar phenomenon. “I was overjoyed to finally see my friends,” she says, “but I definitely still needed alone time. We’re good at giving each other space.” To address this head on, Dr. Franco says to “anticipate an initial adjustment phase to the new bubble and have a long discussion before merging about needs and expectations.”
On the health front, Michele says, “We've set ground rules on how much exposure people are comfortable with. We continue to check in, especially as we monitor the number of cases in our area, to make sure everyone feels safe and supported.” And for Janell’s crew, they discussed activities like eating out or visiting wineries but decided that “cooking amazing meals at home would be the safest (and most fun),” Janell adds. “I wasn't too worried about any of my friends because I knew they were following the same protocols that I was.”
In most cases, this isn’t a vacation.
Since you’re likely going through the quarantine and COVID-19 testing processes, you want to make sure your stay is long enough to be worth the hassle. Different state mandates should be kept in mind, especially if travel is involved to get to your quarancommune destination. “Some states require a 14-day quarantine when you arrive from another state (depending on the state you came from). Other states require PCR testing prior to arriving in the state and then testing again after being in the state for several days,” notes Dr. Dempsey. She adds that individuals should quarantine or get tested again following travel and before joining the new bubble.
In most cases, this will mean a working trip. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that remote work conditions are allowing for these types of extended getaways to happen.
Claire shares, “Without taking much time off, we’re getting to inhabit all these amazing places we wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.” For Michele and her childhood camp friends, it’s been fun reconnecting as adults and getting a glimpse into each other’s work lives. “There are moments I can hear all of us on serious Zoom calls around the house, and I have to keep myself from laughing.” However, on a practical note, she adds, “Have conversations with each other about what work life is like for you. Your friends are your friends, not necessarily your coworkers, so you have to let them know about ‘work you’ and what you need in order to do your job.”
Dr. Franco suggests bringing up that potentially tricky conversation ahead of merging bubbles. “It's important to display a willingness to fulfill your friend's needs as well, since the more you convey your flexibility, the more likely your friend will give you theirs,” she says.
Don’t forget to plan a little fun.
Though you may be working, it’s important to get some fun times in, too. Plan activities that you might not normally do in your day-to-day life. Claire’s crew safely visited the Grand Canyon and several other national parks. Michele’s group has been enjoying recreating 2020 versions of camp activities (making friendship bracelets, tie-dyeing masks, sitting by the fire, making s’mores). They’ve also been ending their evenings with movies. “We set up a big projector, agreed on a list, wrote them on slips of paper, and pull them out of a hat when it's time to watch,” shares Michele. During Janell’s quarancommune experience, after a pitcher of margaritas, her pals got into TikTok. Janell also describes the food as a highlight. “My friends are great cooks, so every meal was delicious. We even had a special menu created by @JustAddHotSauce_ for the occasion. We also had an epic dance party/karaoke sing-off.”
And remember, use this time to lean on each other.
“Seeing our friends only virtually inhibits some of the intimacies of friendship,” explains Dr. Franco. “Also, there's evidence that we project the fatigue that Zoom foists upon us onto people we're interacting with, with one study finding that delays in calls lead to the perception of others on the call as less friendly.” Without in-person connection, that kind of widespread, technology-invoked miscommunication can have a huge impact on our mental health these days.
The most important part of the quarancommune experience is being able to hold each other close through the storm. While so many are separated from loved ones right now, going through the safety protocols in order to be in a community with friends is especially exceptional.
Michele’s crew was sitting down for a lively dinner on a Friday eve when they received news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s passing. “As young women, this news felt devastating and historic,” she shares. “That night, we lit a candle for RBG and tried our best to honor her life and process the world seemingly crumbling around us this year. As difficult as this year has been, I am starting to believe there's some universe thing happening that brought us all together under the same roof again.”