how to explain a long-distance social distancing "bubble"
May 8, 2020 3:52 PM   Subscribe

Me and my partner have decided to form a shared social distancing "bubble" with another of our couple friends. I believe we are following safe protocols for this but wanted to get an honest outside opinion as to whether we could be managing this better/safer/etc.

Here is the situation: I am a musician, and my main music collaborator used to live about a half hour from me. Back in January, he and his girlfriend relocated about 90 minutes away, in a major city that has had a large amount of COVID-19 cases. Where I live hasn't been as bad, but we are all still being cautious.

Musician friend and I are collaborating on a music recording project to combat boredom because we are both unemployed and obviously live gigs are right out. We have been doing most of our planning remotely, via Zoom and phone calls, but every now and again we do have to meet in person as his recording studio is in his apartment and sometimes he and the girlfriend come up here to ease the stir-craziness. We believe we are being safe in our methodology but wanted to confirm.

When we embarked upon this project, we made a pact with each other and our partners that the only people we would allow into our homes is each other. The way this works is, when I have to drive to his place to record, I wash my hands, mask up, and drive down to see him. He lives in a neighborhood with ample street parking near his building. When I arrive, I mask up again, buzz into his apartment, take off my outerwear and shoes immediately and keep it on a hook outside their front door, take mask off and put in my purse leave purse in one spot on a table, hand wash and hand sanitize. He and girlfriend also hand wash and hand sanitize, and have been cleaning all doorknobs and buzzer buttons and handrails of the stairs with disinfectant wipes before I arrive. When we record, we disinfect all microphones, headphones, gear we touch including instruments with wipes before and after use. When I leave, I wipe down the table where my purse was, wash hands again, mask up, drive home. All clothing I wear is promptly laundered.

When he comes up to work with me his protocol is similar: wash hands, mask up, drive to my house, where I have been disinfecting doorknobs and other surfaces. When he arrives, he parks in our drive, his outerwear and shoes stays out on our patio, he washes hands again and hand sanitizes, we rehearse for a couple hours, then he washes hands again, masks up, drives home, masks up, goes into building, washes hands. All clothes he wore go immediately into the laundry. Any surface he touches in my house gets pre-and-post wiped down with disinfecting wipes. We don't record in my home there is no gear to disinfect other than his guitar.

His girlfriend works from home and keeps herself separate from us when we record in their home. My boyfriend lost his job due to COVID but busies himself with projects in his home office while we rehearse in our home. The four of us have mutually agreed that we are the only other folks we will allow in our homes and we follow this safety protocol to the T every time we travel to see each other.

So, question 1) are we being safe enough, or are we being dumb? None of us so far has gotten sick and we are comfortable with our routine. How could we improve our safety protocol? Neither of us stop at gas stations to and from each other; we gas up on our own time and hand sanitize after doing so.

Question 2) Musician friend and I are getting ready to record a video of us performing a duet in his apartment. Our mutual friends know we no longer live near each other, and my fear is that when they see evidence that we haven't been keeping six feet apart at all times in his apartment we will get scorned by our colleagues, or near the brunt of actual anger because they are not aware of our safety routine. How can we explain that we have been talking proactive steps to keep ourselves safe and have chosen to be a somewhat long distance social isolation bubble with each other when we release this video to avoid angry responses? Is it necessary? Musician buddy is ambivalent, but I am a worrier and don't want to inadvertently bring us bad publicity.

Please be gentle with me. We are doing our best and we so far have not gotten sick with this protocol. Our partners are also proactive in hand sanitizing and/or hand washing once one of us leaves the other place. Are we being stupid? Is there a way to explain this succinctly when we release our video to pre-empt any judgement?

Seriously please be gentle. My anxiety is on high alert just from reading the news each day and I really hope this community will refrain from a pile on because we are doing everything we can to keep ourselves and our partners safe.

Any advice would be much appreciated. Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (23 answers total)
The advice from the New Zealand government seems reasonable if you decide to do this, with the caveat that this advice is being given in a country with a very low incidence of the virus and it isn’t a good idea in New York City, for example.
posted by caek at 4:08 PM on May 8

I am not an epidemiologist but I have been very much on the “better safe than sorry” side of sheltering in place, and your protocol sounds safe enough to me. I didn’t see a mention of how frequently you meet except for “every now and again,” but obviously if you’re meeting every week or so, it’s much safer than every couple of days.

As for question 2, why don’t you and your collaborator make a brief PSA about long distance bubbles, using the information in caek’s link and your own description of your protocol? Release it at least a week before your video duet so that people who respond with an angry knee-jerk have time to realize you’re being just as safe as anyone and chill out.
posted by ejs at 4:20 PM on May 8 [3 favorites]

I am also not an epidemiologist :) That said FWIW I think you are somewhat over-emphasizing cleanliness/safety during your time together, and under-emphasizing it outside of your time together.

The handwashing and masking and sanitizing you describe is all good, and will help you be safer with each other than you otherwise would be. But since you and your collaborator have in effect merged your two household bubbles, the most important question is what level of exposure you have when you're not together. Because that's what you're bringing into each other's houses.

It's good that you're not having other people inside your respective homes. But are any of the four of you going out to buy things, visiting with anyone else, or otherwise interacting with the world outside your homes? That's where the risk lies. If you (all four) were literally never leaving your homes except to visit each other, then as long as nobody picked up COVID on the journey itself, you would all be pretty safe. (Except for the tiny risk of bringing it into the house via something delivered to you.) But each time any one of you goes to a grocery store or picks up takeout or walks the dog, that person risks infection. And of course, as we know, it's entirely possible for people to be asymptomatic and contagious for a long period, without knowing they have the virus.

So: if it were me, I would feel safest doing this if I trusted 100% that the other household was equivalently careful to mine when we were not together.

Also, if there is a stay-at-home order in effect for either household, then I personally would not release the video, because I think you're right it would expose you to criticism. The criticism wouldn't necessarily be that you're behaving unsafely, but rather that you are substituting your judgment for the judgment of public safety officials, which, if everybody did it, would lead to bad outcomes. I don't think there's any explanation you could give that would prevent that.
posted by Susan PG at 4:59 PM on May 8 [59 favorites]

I just read this article today: ‘Social bubbles’ allow you to see friends as coronavirus lockdowns ease — but they might not work (CNBC, May 6, 2020, "“Imagine that a person has a 5% chance of getting infected in a given period,” [William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health] said. “If each person is counted as being at independent risk, that means that a cluster of 10 contacts has a 50% chance of experiencing a case in that period.”"). What you haven't mentioned is whether your activities are in violation of local stay-at-home orders, i.e. how easy will it be for people to find reasons to be disappointed or unhappy that you chose to freeload on the sacrifices of others that are otherwise designed to reduce risk for essential and emergency services, so you could enjoy in-person artistic collaboration.

Your description of safety precautions seem to emphasize the risks of contact transmission, admits to not maintaining six feet of distance, and seems to not really reckon with the airborne risks of transmission, e.g. Infected but Feeling Fine: The Unwitting Coronavirus Spreaders (NYT, Mar 30, 2020, "Sixty members of a choir in Mount Vernon, Wash., north of Seattle, gathered on March 10 for a practice session for over two and a half hours. None of them felt ill, and they made no contact with one another. But by this weekend, dozens of the members had fallen ill, and two had died.")

I don't think you are stupid, because these are really hard times, and people are making all kinds of decisions with the best information they have. But I think your worry about not being able to pre-empt negative judgement, especially if your activities are in violation of local stay-at-home orders and public health guidance, is reasonable based on what you describe.
posted by katra at 5:08 PM on May 8 [12 favorites]

You can be comfortable with the precautions you've taken, focused solely on contact transmission, but your audience isn't obligated to share your beliefs. Especially while we don't fully understand how the virus is transmitted and why it's having such varying impacts across the world.

Under my community's stay-at-home order, what you've been doing is illegal. If you are under similar orders and I saw your video, I'd be irate. If you aren't, I'd still unfollow you because of it all.
posted by JackBurden at 5:25 PM on May 8 [18 favorites]

I think what you're doing sounds OK... but only if all 4 of you are equally careful in all your interactions with the outside world.

Is there any reason your video has to feature the 2 of you together?
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 6:20 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

I am not an epidemiologist, but my friend is and this is an article he was quoted in. No judgment on my part, we all do what we need to, but my feelings are more along the line of Susan PGs. We're all being asked to do a lot. Everyone's got to figure out how much they can do, but I wouldn't release that video.
posted by jessamyn at 6:46 PM on May 8 [13 favorites]

I don't know that a bubble is the best way to picture this, rather a chain. Have you gotten groceries or takeout food this week? You just connected your possible chain of transmission to at least one cashier. Then you visit your friend. If your friend goes to another store, your chain now goes to that cashier too. And so on. The only safe way to "bubble" is if you are also doing all external shopping etc for a merged household. It's not about keeping your bubble safe, it's about keeping your chain from getting longer and longer.
posted by nakedmolerats at 7:28 PM on May 8 [11 favorites]

Well here are my thoughts. The reason we are all physical distancing is to try to slow or halt the reproductive rate of transmission. Here's one video about that. Here's another video about that.

What you've done is taken two households that normally would only infect one more person at home, to one where if one person gets it, 3 people potentially get it (especially if you are making music together that involves singing because that's a lot of air sharing with big deep breaths.) So you've raised your potential R1 rate to R3.

Now my household is 5 people already, so I understand some things are required. My business is shut down. I'm not able to do the things I normally do to write, and I have some locations I really need to get to to research. But I'm not doing those things because a) it's the law in my area and b) it's currently the best public health recommendation possible.

If you're in an area where the law is different and other businesses are allowed to be running or bubbles are allowed to expand, then that's one thing and I think you can explain that. I don't think everyone will agree with you and I think it might hurt your brand and your relationships.

But if you're in an area where you are violating the law then I think you are really in the wrong and you should just stop. I mean basically, what you've written here is "I was bored so I ignored the law to record something and now I want to release and profit from it." Every yoga teacher or therapist or real estate agent might like to work with "just one person, safely," but where I am, it's violating emergency orders.

I mean look, there are very few perfect people in the world and along the path to lockdown I certainly made decisions I'm not thrilled about in hindsight. So that doesn't make you a bad person. But I personally would not publicly release the footage of that, unless you're in an area where your actions were legal, just perhaps not ideal. And even then I think you will lose some respect and maybe some audience.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:40 PM on May 8 [17 favorites]

I think that in addition to the issues noticed above, the risks are different when he's visiting you in your house, vs. you visiting him in an apartment. You don't know the risk factors of the other people in his building. You don't know if they would be comfortable with the precautions you're taking in their shared space. You don't know how much stress your visits are adding to their life given that they don't know who is in their building for non-essential reasons or what exposure you've had. In your shoes I would not feel it was ethical of me to keep making those visits.

If none of you are leaving your homes for any reason other than this, I might feel okay about the reverse trip, where he's putting only you at risk. Assuming it's not against local rules for social distancing.

I think you should expect blowback for the video and not release it unless doing so is important enough to you to weather that blowback. The internet is not going to pause to read your careful under-the-video description of your safety protocols and the exact regulations where you each live and why you couldn't do your duet in your separate homes.
posted by Stacey at 7:42 PM on May 8 [5 favorites]

You are sharing a room, unmasked, breathing and talking together? How is this safe? I understand the impulse but all that fuss to clean your hands and avoid outside shoes and stuff...but you still breathe together? Presumably share a bathroom? I don't understand how you're thinking it's enough. You all still go to different grocery stores, different places outside, etc.

I wouldn't do this. It feels risky to yourself and others.
posted by tiny frying pan at 7:59 PM on May 8 [17 favorites]

My gentle answer is that I don't think there is a way to justify this or avoid angry responses, and I would not record or release this video. The fact that you're concerned about explaining how you're keeping yourselves safe is really at the heart of it, as it misses the point so much - the issue is with risks you're exposing others to by failing to follow social distancing.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:35 PM on May 8 [13 favorites]

I live alone. I have not touched another human in 56 days. I anticipate making it to 100 days easily. I also lost my job, and my entire (deeply beloved) industry ceased to exist overnight. It's AWFUL. I would love nothing more than to hug someone.

If you posted this video and I only vaguely knew/followed you, I'd unfollow you immediately, and furthermore, I'd bring it up in the future any time you or your work came up in conversation. If you were my friend, I'd very strongly reconsider that friendship.

You seem more concerned about the optics than the safety of your actions, but you're on the wrong side in both respects here.
posted by mollymayhem at 8:38 PM on May 8 [29 favorites]

There's probably no way to preempt judgment, but for what it's worth, I wouldn't judge you. This is never going to end, and honestly it's barely even going to get better in the foreseeable future. It's going to be a bumpy road as we try to figure out how to be human in the new world.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:09 PM on May 8 [7 favorites]

I don't understand why you are each wearing a mask on the way but not in each other's presence. That is where you are exchanging breath.
posted by NotLost at 9:15 PM on May 8 [9 favorites]

Since there are so many negative responses in here, I would just like to say that I sympathize with you and I would not be outraged at seeing your video.

I agree that "the criticism wouldn't necessarily be that you're behaving unsafely, but rather that you are substituting your judgment for the judgment of public safety officials." Take responsibility and exercise good judgment. In your particular protocol as written, I agree that it seems like you aren't giving a lot of credit to the risk of indoor airborne transmission -- it's very odd to me that you are wearing a mask while driving but not while in each other's presence. (I mean, I get that it's hard to sing with a mask, it's just kind of ridiculous-sounding from a risk management perspective.)
posted by value of information at 9:17 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

Neglecting the actual health and legal concerns and such, and thinking as a musician and what the purposes of releasing new music or recordings are--at least partly to develop your following and fans and bring your music to an audience of some kind--what concerns me is, as you can see from the discussion above, this is a really divisive issue.

I'm sure some people will think its a great idea, and perhaps very vocally say so. Many won't really care too much about the specifics of how it was made and will just appreciate the music (or not) more on its merits. And there is certain to be a vocal contingent who will be fired up to rip you a new one for not following whatever social distancing protocols.

Point is, the response is almost certain to be highly polarized and politicized. I would honestly be as concerned about vocal/emotional supporters of the project based on these factors as the detractors.

So I think some of your decision here is, do you want to release this music in a space where it is extremely likely to have a strong, divisive, political type of response from the public? And, where the response is likely to be very much unrelated to the music itself?

Now, that kind of controversy is not necessarily a bad thing in itself (again, thinking only from the artistic, musical, audience and fan development, self promotional type perspective). Some musicians make a whole career of being provocateurs. But is that in line with your own musical and artistic vision?

If not, I would definitely explore ways of making your recording & video via non-in-person methods. Maybe your partner records his parts at home, then ships you the minimal equipment required to record your part at your home via multitrack blah-blah-blah and then you edit things together.

Maybe you record your portions using inferior equipment because that is what you have on hand. Then you (or partner) edits it together.

Lots of folks have been doing that, even very high level professional musicians, and honestly the variety in recording apparatus and conditions is less than ideal from a purely technical perspective but given our current social and cultural conditions, it also lends a really deep authenticity to these performances. As near as I can tell, such performances have been very, very well received by audiences and by the public despite obvious technical issues.

So, worth thinking about.
posted by flug at 11:55 PM on May 8 [10 favorites]

Is there a way to explain this succinctly when we release our video to pre-empt any judgement?

I'm sorry, but no. You can't control how other people will react to anything you put out, and especially not something as potentially polarizing as this.

On a practical level, however, a lot of places are in the beginning stages of starting to "re-open" to various degrees (making no judgement (here) about the wisdom of that) and it's entirely possible that somewhere between a week to a month from now the social (and legal!) ramifications will be different.

IOW, don't record and release the video NOW. If 2 weeks from now all the bars in your area are open with reduced capacity and safety measures and people are going out, and people are allowed to gather in groups of 10, it's going to seem less . . . provocative to shoot and release a "2 people in a room" video.

f not, I would definitely explore ways of making your recording & video via non-in-person methods. [. . .] Maybe you record your portions using inferior equipment because that is what you have on hand. Then you (or partner) edits it together.

I wanna put a strong second on this - if you and your music partner want to consider & act as if you're a "bubble", that's fine, but I would ask you to really think about how necessary "going to the studio" is. My songwriter bandmate has been recording and posting solo YouTube videos and recording perfectly acceptable song demos (with vocal harmonies! and multiple guitar parts!) for years using nothing but his iPhone, often not even using any kind of external microphone. Recording studios certainly have a place and a purpose, but people were creating good stuff without them even before the pandemic.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:36 AM on May 9 [1 favorite]

Your music is not essential, and if I saw your video, I would unfollow and probably not make an effort to support your music in the future. While I definitely sympathize, combating boredom is not reason enough to put your households and other people in your chain (grocery store clerks, other people in the apartment complex, etc.) at increased risk. If this were a case of, like, "we have to record this song because it's the last song on our album that is due to be released and proceeds from this album will allow us to feed our families" I think maybe I would feel differently, but this sounds like it's hobby-level. A lot of folks have had to give up their hobbies during this pandemic, and I'm not sure why you think you should be an exception.
posted by coppermoss at 9:02 AM on May 9 [10 favorites]

Followup from the anon OP:
Thank you all for your insight, and for drawing my attention to several things that have not occurred to us thus far.

A few points of elaboration, just for context:

- Neither of us live in an area where this constitutes law-breaking. There is no SiP order in our state or the towns we live in. We are told to wear masks in public, and are not allowed entry in grocery or other stores without a mask, and we follow those rules.

- He visits me about every other week, and I only go to him once a month to record. All other work is done remotely using Zoom or phone calls.

- Masks on the drive to avoid breathing on/being breathed on by neighbors, but masks off for singing. Point taken that our logic is a bit flawed here.

- We live in an area where in the next few weeks stores and other businesses will "open up" as safely as they can, but masks will still be required - I am not sure how I feel about "opening up" but it's in the hands of our governor so I'm going to wait and see. We could shoot and release the video after this happens to avoid blow back - we aren't on a deadline.

- That said, we are looking into ways to record the video remotely as we know that people will have strong opinions about this (hence my question). I also am not that keen on a video in general bc I've gained some weight due to lack of excersize so this may all be moot

- We have been focusing on hand washing and sanitizing because neither of our "families" are leaving the house except for this - we are both getting grocery delivery (and following protocols for sanitizing those deliveries when they arrive). We are getting deliveries roughly every three weeks in my home, and every four in theirs.

- I neglected to mention that I also sanitize the interior of my car after any trip, as does he.

All of that being said, I've taken everyone's input to heart and we are not going to release a video since it clearly will piss many people off, or upset them, and I'm not okay with that. Our project isn't really a "hobby" though - we were working on this starting in January before things got dire here and we do have a deadline (flexible but existing) that we are on the hook for. We have room to negotiate that deadline though and have already pushed it back twice as the situation has evolved in our area.

We need to problem solve the mask issue when we are indoors with each other, clearly. Or, we just postpone the rest of the project, but that's tough because we will lose income if we just drop the whole thing. I wish we had known about the virus in January (Thanks Trump!) - if we had we would have pushed the whole thing back entirely. Our area didn't start enforcing active social distancing till the end of March, so we were just doing our best till then and tried to come up with a plan to stay safe once things escalated.

He and I have a call planned to talk this through this afternoon. Everyone's advice has been very helpful and I appreciate your candor, as well as your kindness. Thank you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:44 AM on May 9 [4 favorites]

I'm very sorry but singing together is probably one of the fastest ways to transmit this virus. Here's a relevant article.
All the desinfecting of various things will not make this safe.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:09 AM on May 10 [4 favorites]

Yeah, in all honesty, are we even sure if ANY of the precautions we take even work at all just to be around another person? The stakes are, you may die horribly if you are even around another person at all. Is this REALLY worth it to you just to sing in a room together? I feel like this is all just a bunch of bargaining that doesn't mean shit to the world's worst virus.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:04 PM on May 11

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