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The Pros And Cons Of 'Social Bubbles'


Let's face it. All this social distancing can be isolating. All of a sudden, we aren't hosting parties or dinners or play dates. But as reopening economies and slowly easing back into society becomes a reality, some people are deciding to form, quote, "social bubbles" with friends and family as a kind of halfway measure between complete isolation and socializing normally. Gideon Lichfield wrote about how to socially isolate together for the MIT Technology Review, and he joins us now from Massachusetts. Welcome.

GIDEON LICHFIELD: Thank you very much. How are you doing?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm OK. What is a social bubble? You call it a pod.

LICHFIELD: People call it pod, a bubble, a quarantine. It's basically a group of people who have decided to treat each other as safe, meaning they're agreeing to be in normal contact together, not take any precautions with each other but take precautions with the outside world. So it's a pact, basically, that I made with a family who were friends of mine that we will essentially function as an extended family, even though we don't live together.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us how it happened.

LICHFIELD: Well, I was feeling pretty isolated because I live alone. And talking to friends on Zoom just doesn't cut it. So I was chatting with these friends. And I said well, how would you feel about being part of a pod? We talked about, what are the precautions that each of us is taking to prevent catching the virus one way or another? And they were already wearing a mask every time they went outside. I was not at that point. And they said, listen. We would want you to be wearing a mask when you go outside. And could you do that for a couple of weeks? So effectively, they were saying, let's start the quarantine period from zero.

We chatted and checked in again. And we discussed what kind of things we'd been doing, how we wash our groceries, what we do when we come in from outside, how we meet other people, if we're meeting anybody at all. And after that discussion, they said sure, OK, come on over. And so for the past week or so, I've been visiting them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This sounds like a very detailed discussion, almost like a marriage pact. What are the biggest challenges? I imagine trust is key. I mean, they have to trust you that you're telling them the truth.

LICHFIELD: It's a couple of things. It's being able to trust each other in the first place - is really important. Continuing to create trust through open communication is also super important because I think if you're talking to each other about everything you're doing and just being very transparent, that helps reinforce the trust. And trying to remember not to take anything personally is also, I think, really important but which I knew...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're rejected if you say...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Social bubble with me, and someone says uh-uh. Like, have that not be the end of your friendship.

LICHFIELD: Exactly. I mean, one way I think of it is that this is not actually like being friends if you're bubbling with someone. This is like starting a business together, and it's perfectly OK to be friends with somebody and not want to start a business with them. Everybody's entitled to whatever they need right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some communities struggle right now here in the United States with enforcing simple measures, like wearing masks or, you know, social distancing. Is a social bubble, you think, really worth it at this time when the stakes are so high? I mean, it is life or death.

LICHFIELD: I think it's a calculus for each person, right? So for me, my mental health is really important, and it was suffering. Again, these are people with whom I have a lot of trust and trust each other to take care of each other, to look out for each other because we know that it's a matter of life or death. Something important and, I think, obvious - but maybe they're saying is - when you are in a group of people, and you're in a bubble together, you have to assume that if one person gets the virus, all of them will. And that means that the group is only as safe as its least safe member.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The governments of New Zealand and Canada have given citizens guidelines on how to socially isolate together - you know, groups no larger than 10 people, for example, which is much larger than your group. Why hasn't this caught on in the U.S., especially when people are kind of already doing it?

LICHFIELD: There have been countries that have taken the isolation much more seriously than the U.S. has. Almost nowhere in the U.S. have we been told, well, you can't travel. You can't meet people. I think that in other countries where they've had much tighter restrictions, offering social bubbles as a kind of alternative to these otherwise very tight restrictions has made sense as a policy measure. Here in the U.S., there's lots to contrast it with.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Gideon Lichfield, who wrote about the rules for social bubbling for the MIT Technology Review. Thank you very much.

LICHFIELD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.