Physical distancing within an intentional community
March 21, 2020 12:02 PM   Subscribe

Okay, I'm a bit frazzled so hopefully this makes sense. I'm trying to figure out how to communicate effectively with my intentional residential community about physical distancing (aka social distancing). We had a meeting yesterday and said we were all onboard with the basic concepts and the intention of flattening the curve. The sticking point (for me) is that multiple folks have romantic partners who live in other places.

And so far the social norm seems to be, oh, of course physical distancing doesn't apply to my sweetheart! I find this both understandable and human and deeply frustrating. This seems to be the norm among my friends as well. Also relevant is that we live in Portland, OR and there's a new "stay home, stay healthy" order from the Governor and very likely a more specific order coming from the city on Monday.

1) Does my stance of "stay at home unless absolutely necessary" means that date nights don't count as "necessary" make sense?

2) Is it reasonable to ask that folks no longer have their romantic partners come visit? Is it reasonable to ask that folks no longer go visit and spend the night with their romantic partners (many of whom also live in group houses)?

3) This isn't so much a question as a point of information--I've already communicated some of my discomfort about this and requested that if/when a "shelter in place" order is issued we all comply with it and that people's partners either stay away or shelter here with us.

4) How does this section of this email draft read:

I would identify the needs underlying my requests as safety, ethical alignment, and acting in integrity with our stated shared intention of flattening the curve. I’m open to hearing about other strategies and approaches for meeting those needs.

And I also have a strong desire for us as a collective to follow the directives coming from public health officials. I mean, I have a strong rebellious streak, and also it seems to me that these directives are coming from the best scientific knowledge we have right now, awareness of the really dire situations that have happened in other countries/other cities, and the urgent pleadings of hospitals, front line medical professionals, and folks with disabilities. The fact that mainstream politicians are asking us to do things that are so detrimental to the business interests of their wealthy donors really highlights the urgency of this whole situation, to me.

I also want to name what feels to me like the strong presence of partner privilege in our conversations thus far (see and if this is a new concept for you). It seems to me that there’s a double standard operating, a sense that physical distancing somehow doesn’t apply to romantic partners. I can understand the cultural and emotional reasons for this and I think that, in terms of public health, in terms of flattening the curve--we might say “in the cold, inhuman logic of the virus itself”--it really doesn’t matter if someone is your sweetie or not. I know that might sound harsh. To me, it’s an accurate reflection of the harsh situation we’re in.

Here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine if I said, “Hey, everyone, I’m going to have my friend spend the night a couple times a week and also I’m going to go stay at their group house in about that same rhythm. Oh, and we’re going to routinely engage in high-transmission risk activities and this is all my private business.” I’m pretty sure people would respond very differently to this then how we have been holding romantic partners.

I wanna acknowledge I have feelings about all this--in the circle last night, I realized, oh, I’m the only person here without a sexual partner, without a conventional romantic partner... I don’t want to dive too deeply into those feelings here, but I do want to add that within my request around shifting the norms around romantic partners is also an attempt to reach for justice and equity.

I know this might feel like a big sacrifice when we’ve all already changed so much so quickly. I’m wondering if we could maybe agree to {redacted}’s suggestion of not having any visitors over to for a week to give us all time to talk and feel and reflect about this? Or if that feels like too much, at least for three days?

Is there anything you would delete, add, or change in the above? (Feel free to make fun of my West Coast communication style if you're also including constructive feedback.)
posted by overglow to Human Relations (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would focus on the ask and not the justification. Your ask ("either your SO shelters with us or stays away") makes sense. But it will be hard for people. I'd drop all this "check your privilege" and "it's about equity" stuff. Maybe focus on science if you need more. But I think you could just leave it at "consistent with our stance on social distancing, I want to make the request that either your SO shelters with us or stays away. I know this will be difficult, but I think it's important, based on everything I've read. I'm personally very concerned about having new people, who have been exposed to other people, circulating here. It seems to risk undermining all our efforts. I'm happy to have further discussion about why I think it's important if necessary after everyone has had some time to think about the request."
posted by slidell at 12:23 PM on March 21, 2020 [31 favorites]

I am a person who does not live with their SO of 5 years just because we have chosen that path for our relationship. Most people - my pure guess - would be that at least 90% of people with a long term SO or spouse live them them.

That means most people have a SO that they could not "socially distance" themselves from - they live together.

Why should I be deprived of the support and love my of SO during this hard time just because I chosen not to structure my life with my SO "typically" while all others with a SO with a "normal" relationship get to have that? I social distance with all other persons. In fact my BFF of 25 years and I are having a video-chat visit tonight instead of a in person visit.

So for me regarding #1 No #2 No #3 N/A per your FYI and #4 There is nothing you could say in an email to persuade me otherwise,
posted by WinterSolstice at 12:32 PM on March 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Why should I be deprived of the support and love my of SO during this hard time just because I chosen not to structure my life with my SO "typically" while all others with a SO with a "normal" relationship get to have that?

Because people staying in with their SOs and only their SOs are (a) exposing themselves to only one person directly and (b) exposing themselves to their SO's other contacts, if any, by consent.

I've gotten pushback on here for saying that singling out a handful of activities as Verboten while people continue to engage in others of equal or higher risk doesn't make any sense, but if you're already restricting yourself to your house, then having random others come and go defeats the purpose, and without your consent.

But, OP, I agree with slidell: cut the "partner privilege" and personal feelings stuff. I agree with you and yet I was annoyed by all that phrasing. I'm guessing your group is younger and more touchy-feely than the usual Mefi crowd but I still suspect a number of people would be put off by it.
posted by praemunire at 12:39 PM on March 21, 2020 [35 favorites]

Why should I be deprived of the support and love my of SO during this hard time just because I chosen not to structure my life with my SO "typically" while all others with a SO with a "normal" relationship get to have that?

I'm someone in a long term LDR and we are absolutely social distancing through this. It sucks and I hate it but he lives with his adult son and the options are, as I see it 1) I move in with them 2) they move in with me 3) we basically admit that we "reset the clock" on social distancing every time any of the three of us does something mildly risky outside the house. And this becomes a lot more of an issue if there are people in ANY of these households who have to be working in public facing positions through this, it basically affects everyone in every house.

I appreciate that other people have different calculuses about that, this is mine. I found this washington post illustration convincing and useful. You may wind up deciding that this isn't a safe situation for you as you move through this. I am lucky in that many of the people in my community are doing basically the same thing, so the social pressure, if anything, is to minimize contact with anyone for any reason.

I think asking for a week off is reasonable, then maybe you can work through processing some of these feelings together if it's that type of place.
posted by jessamyn at 12:52 PM on March 21, 2020 [15 favorites]

Response by poster: Cool, thanks for the answers so far!

Because it seems relevant, both people who live here and some of the SO guests in question work in public facing essential jobs, mainly grocery stores. And all of the SO guests live in houses with multiple other people as well.
posted by overglow at 1:09 PM on March 21, 2020

Response by poster: Also, praemunire, we are hella touchy-feely but I hear what you're saying!
posted by overglow at 1:10 PM on March 21, 2020

Best answer: Your ask is appropriate in this awful situation; it sucks, but once a shelter in place order is in place, people should not be visiting other people’s houses short of dire emergency if other people live there too.

99% of the time I would say your explanation is waaaaay too much, but intentional community is a special beast and maybe that’s the right communication norm there. If you’re not absolutely sure, I’d maybe run it by one person who’s on your side, and/or cut it way down and say “I’m happy to talk more about my reasoning here if anyone would like to hear it.”

Ultimately, though, I would be forming a plan to protect yourself as best you can if you don’t win this one.
posted by Stacey at 2:22 PM on March 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

The note that folks are working in public facing jobs makes this very confusing to me. On the one hand, it's extra important to limit exposure. If people get sick, they both are more likely to spread it rapidly through their job. But also they are more likely to get sick precisely because of that contact.

But that also makes me think that the SO presence or absence isn't obviously the most important question in terms of distancing. There's so much exposure going on, one extra link in the chain isn't that much and if it's valuable for people's mental health, that might be an okay price to pay here. If you were in a situation where the SO being there or not was the difference between having links to the outside viral world or not, I'd be 100% on your side. But it sounds like the community has high external exposure no matter what you decide about SOs.

You might also consider a pivot of the situation -- SO contact is good but _all_ other contact is bad. Maybe this isn't viable. But all incremental contact is more exposure and it sounds like everyone is already in high risk scenarios. And if people want to prioritize SO contact maybe that's okay, but then be offset elsewhere.
posted by heresiarch at 2:41 PM on March 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Previous related AskMes that may be helpful to review:

living with someone who is being reckless about COVID (My partner is unconcerned about COVID)

COVID-19 gathering (Happy to look at articles backing up what is or isn't okay and why)

Social Distance Dilemma (how do I stand my ground)

I would never make fun of your communication style, but I do want to gently suggest that I don't think a refusal to follow desperately-issued public health guidance and an upcoming order is 'rebellious.' Especially in Oregon, which has the lowest per capita rate of hospital beds in the country, and is facing a considerable strain on hospitals if the spread of the virus is not dramatically slowed (Register-Guard), and while Younger Adults Make Up Big Portion of Coronavirus Hospitalizations in U.S. (NYT).

Staying at home “unless absolutely necessary” is one of the least of the protective actions that we can immediately take, especially considering the extraordinary sacrifice by first responders and health care workers (as well as grocery store and other essential service employees) right now. There are brave and selfless people putting their lives at risk to protect the community, and they will be at even greater risk if other people choose to continue behaving as if we are not experiencing an unprecedented public health disaster. Maybe appealing to a sense of community service might help with your advocacy, particularly in how compliance with the public health guidelines protects not just the community, but also those working to serve and protect the community.

It might also be helpful to review this: Coronavirus reality check: 7 myths about social distancing, busted (Marc Lipsitch and Joseph Allen, USA Today) (via Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: The latest on the coronavirus (ongoing news updates), via the MeFi Wiki Disaster & Recovery page, Medical/Pandemic section)
Remember, this is not about personal risk, which might be relatively low in small social gatherings. This is about population risk. Because of the lack of testing availability to date, we don’t know who has coronavirus. For now, we assume we all might, and we maintain social distancing and avoid indoor gatherings large and small so we are not the spark that generates another outbreak fire.
I think the possibility that it will become illegal on Monday to violate the 'stay home unless necessary' order emphasizes how serious this situation is, and unlike anything that has ever happened before. It is understandable that people want comfort and reassurance, and I am not sure how to best communicate under your particular circumstances, but I encourage you to stay true to yourself and your core values.
posted by katra at 3:01 PM on March 21, 2020 [15 favorites]

Best answer: There's so much exposure going on, one extra link in the chain isn't that much

Citation very much needed.

Personally, I think that we really need to start with the assumption that visits with partners that we don’t live with aren’t “essential” at the moment, as hard as that will be for everyone. In a few weeks we can reevaluate, but I’m not seeing any upside to anyone declaring that their relationship should be a special snowflake exception to the guidelines we’re trying to work with.

(Portlander who works in healthcare, fwiw)
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 3:07 PM on March 21, 2020 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Having visitors defeats the purpose of social distancing or self-isolation. The SOs would either need to come and live with you all, or self-isolate where they live. However getting more housemates will increase everyone's risk of exposure, especially if multiple housemates are working public facing jobs. But if the purpose of the social distancing is purely to reduce risk to other people and households, then them coming to live with you could be an option. It would at least keep exposure limited to the household as much as possible, and not let it spread out like a web.

I would keep it relatively simple at first: "If we want to practice social distancing to the greatest extent that we can, unfortunately that would mean no guests. There is no distinction between friends and lovers, because unfortunately viruses don't make this distinction either. I know this is tough, but it's a temporary sacrifice that needs to be made to try to flatten the curve."
posted by kinddieserzeit at 3:31 PM on March 21, 2020 [8 favorites]

I think you should probably assume that you and/or your housemates have this virus already even if you’re asymptomatic. I think people will choose partners over housemates. Keep yourself safe. You probably won’t convince them. Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:07 PM on March 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

Because it seems relevant, both people who live here and some of the SO guests in question work in public facing essential jobs, mainly grocery stores

This is extremely relevant, and changes the entire equation. Your idea of forbidding SO visits might make some sense if everyone in your household was actually isolated together as a group and working from home, but if some people are working at public-facing jobs, then you have to work much harder on your intra-household precautions.

Shifting focus a bit, if I were a housemate there I'd be much more careful about avoiding excessive contact with my housemates than I would be with my SO who works from home. And as others have said, mental health and personal support are very important if someone does get sick.
posted by Umami Dearest at 8:46 PM on March 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Social distancing is about reducing contacts, not eliminating contacts. It's not the case that to eliminate coronavirus, the graph of humanity's contacts needs to be disconnected into small subgraphs. Having many fewer less edges is sufficient.*

I think you are not going to succeed in getting your housemates to disconnect from who is probably the single most important contact in their lives, for the sake of somewhat reducing your risk and somewhat reducing the risk of some other people outside your household. Even if it would be in the collective best interest for them to do it, and even if it would be in your interest for them to do it, you don't get to dictate that. The government may get to dictate it, so perhaps on Monday the question will become obsolete.

I sympathize with feeling like they already had something you didn't have and now it's their turn to sacrifice it, but the fact is, it's only their turn to sacrifice it if that sacrifice is really necessary for the public good.

*See this recent popular paper which is the best attempt I am aware of at realistic infection simulations in the US and UK under a variety of interventions. Their results show that a combination of interventions including home quarantine upon diagnosis and 75% reduced contacts outside home and work across the whole population should be sufficient to bring R below 1, and that total lockdown is not necessary.
posted by value of information at 10:39 PM on March 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks again for these answers!

Quick update: I sent a much shorter, simpler email asking for a week break from visitors here to give us time to talk and reflect. So far the response has been positive.

I am definitely going to reflect for myself on potentially shifting how I engage with my housemates given all this, so thanks for those of you who offered feedback around that.

I'm also realizing that the public health orders are given based on some assumptions--that people either live alone or in small family units--that don't exactly map on to to my living situation, which is part of what my situation confusing and complex.

I also want to say that the idea that it's okay to go to essential services work but not okay to have visitors over isn't my idea or based on my own rationale or thinking--it's what the "stay home, stay healthy" order says.

Finally, no offense value of information, but I'm going to take the word of public health officials who are saying "stay at home unless absolutely necessary" over your word.
posted by overglow at 8:36 AM on March 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

:I think you are not going to succeed in getting your housemates to disconnect from who is probably the single most important contact in their lives, for the sake of somewhat reducing your risk and somewhat reducing the risk of some other people outside your household. Even if it would be in the collective best interest for them to do it, and even if it would be in your interest for them to do it, you don't get to dictate that. The government may get to dictate it, so perhaps on Monday the question will become obsolete."

I have to agree with this. I am telling people who live apart from their SO's that they NEED TO SHELTER IN PLACE WITH THEM for the duration if they want to see them for the next 18 months. You need to decide that immediately. Your ability to move back and forth between your respective homes is HIGHLY LIKELY TO BE TAKEN AWAY any day now. So frankly, it'd be better if those people with SO's made that decision and just had their person move in for the duration. If their person is officially living there for the duration*, then you don't have that in-and-out issue, those two are happier because they're not pining for each other for the next year and a half, etc.

* I don't know what to say about anyone's landlord's opinion of this, though. I'm sure mine would object, but at this point, what are they gonna be able to do about it to stop you?
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:08 AM on March 22, 2020

I don't know if I'd frame it in terms of SO/partner relationships, at least not primarily. More along the lines of making a decision of where you want to quarantine and staying there, with the understanding that for many this will be a complicated decision about priorities.

Not everyone has an SO but someone with, say, a vulnerable relative and a platonic roommate needs to make the same kind of decision: Stay home with the roommate or temporarily move in with the relative, one or the other.
posted by bunderful at 10:46 AM on March 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

This seems like a relevant perspective to consider: Hold the line (Jonathan Smith, Medium, Mar. 20, 2020)
Infectious disease epidemiologist focusing the dynamics of disease transmission. PhD en route at Emory, Lecturer at Yale, and contracted at the CDC.
You should perceive your entire family to function as a single individual unit; if one person puts themselves at risk, everyone in the unit is at risk. Seemingly small social chains get large and complex with alarming speed. If your son visits his girlfriend, and you later sneak over for coffee with a neighbor, your neighbor is now connected to the infected office worker that your son’s girlfriend’s mother shook hands with. This sounds silly, it’s not. This is not a joke or a hypothetical. We as epidemiologists see it borne out in the data time and time again and no one listens. Conversely, any break in that chain breaks disease transmission along that chain.

In contrast to hand-washing and other personal measures, social distancing measures are not about individuals, they are about societies working in unison. These measures also take a long time to see the results. It is hard (even for me) to conceptualize how ‘one quick little get together’ can undermine the entire framework of a public health intervention, but it does. I promise you it does. I promise. I promise. I promise. You can’t cheat it. People are already itching to cheat on the social distancing precautions just a “little”- a playdate, a haircut, or picking up a needless item at the store, etc. From a transmission dynamics standpoint, this very quickly recreates a highly connected social network that undermines all of the work the community has done so far.

[...] My goal in writing this is to prevent communities from getting ‘sucker-punched’ by what the epidemiological community knows will happen in the coming weeks. It will be easy to be drawn to the idea that what we are doing isn’t working and become paralyzed by fear, or to ‘cheat’ a little bit in the coming weeks. By knowing what to expect, and knowing the importance of maintaining these measures, my hope is to encourage continued community spirit, strategizing, and action to persevere in this time of uncertainty.
posted by katra at 7:13 PM on March 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

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