Three arms’ length, two and a half baseball bats, two golf clubs, two shopping carts, two end-to-end Doberman Pinschers, the width of a Honda Accord, or half a parking space. That’s six feet, give or take a few inches. And that’s the current standard of social distancing, which still means something even if businesses have started to open again and protestors march in the streets.
It’s the 2020 version of the gym teacher, armed with a ruler, separating couples who were dancing too close at the junior high school dance. What we called cooties back in the fifties are back today as COVID-19.
Ball games, barbecues, picnics, outdoor concerts under the stars, libations around the fire pit. Those were yester summer’s fun, but COVID-19 changed the rhythm, setting, and style of socializing, creating New Rules, new normal, and new ways of entertaining ourselves in the company of others.
And now that the Boston Marathon, postponed to September 14, has been cancelled, what are you going to do? We all know how hard you had been training for that while you sheltered in place.
You can play board games and Animal Crossing: New Horizons only so long. You’ve become sick and tired of decorating focaccia and making sourdough. Even fermenting vegetables has become old. How can you get out of the house, socialize with other sentient beings, and remain in an acceptable risk zone? Surely, there has to be some way to have fun, socialize, and still maintain acceptable social distance. National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, in “From Camping To Dining Out: Here’s How Experts Rate The Risks Of 14 Summer Activities” gives some useful guidance. You can still have fun while maintaining that safe, healthy, and social distance.
Manhattan Beach, California, lawyer Brian H. Cole, whose beach forbids setting up chairs, limiting activity only to “active” pursuits like swimming, surfing, and walking, has been having “driveway dinners,” both at home and at friends’ homes. Two or three couples gather, sitting at appropriate distances apart, and enjoy take-out from a nearby restaurant. Even friends with health challenges have been willing to engage in these driveway dinners, since everyone gathers in fresh air without getting too close.
A Seattle lawyer participates in Zoom cocktail parties with other lawyers, Zoom wine tastings, and even split a bottle of wine with a long-time, trusted friend, physically separated by at least eight feet on the deck of his house, overlooking a lake. For a real change of scenery, he ventures forth to his office, distancing himself from the sole other occupant, his secretary. And then there’s always Costco.
Practicing out of a high-rise condo in the Philadelphia city center for a dozen years, Miriam Jacobson’s not socializing in person at all, having no plans to do so for a long time, but that doesn’t mean she’s living the life of a hermit. The plays, movies, restaurants, and meetings which were part of her pre-COVID-19 life are no longer on her agenda, nor are the doctors’ appointments which had been part of her social life. But she’s neither idle nor lonely, using Zoom as her lifeline, participating in tai chi, yoga, pranayama, and Qi Gong breath classes, attending bar association meetings in different locations in her living room and dining area, participating in a group that is trying to bridge the cultural difference between Jewish and Muslim women, and enjoying dinner with friends. She says her list of Netflix and Hulu offerings is probably longer than her life expectancy. Hot weather, crowds of unmasked people on narrow sidewalks, and protests have kept her from taking outdoor walks for now.
Jacobson senses that in some of the Zoom meetings, people are more willing to share intimately, adding that some the discussions have taken on more open and authentic dimensions, perhaps because the focus is upon the participant’s faces instead of the backs of their heads that we would see at in-person classroom settings.
So, what has this writer been doing? Life is not terribly dissimilar from pre-COVID-19 days, because there’s plenty around the house and yard to keep me occupied and entertained. I participate in competitive cooking with friends in North and South America, I garden and read, and I snidely complain to others about the indecency of the unmasked masses. I venture out to Costco, the beauty shop, and to my favorite steakhouse, which I’ll keep on doing.
This is the age of consent and establishing boundaries. Close friends have always had social codes of conduct. Some are just common sense, like not wearing white shoes after Labor Day or serving shrimp cocktails with salad forks at a Passover seder. Whether it’s a hike with friends, a dinner party, or coffee and dessert, establish ground rules for all participants. Just as there once were tacit agreements about smoking, over-drinking, using recreational drugs, and discussing taboo topics, the New Rules require an understanding of everyone’s tolerance level of masking, washing, disinfecting, sharing, and sane distancing. And those agreements can easily extend to a ban on bringing uninvited guests. What might’ve passed for faux pas or just bad manners last year are matters of life and death for many today.
Relax, and remain flexible. You may have set out enough supplies of hand sanitizer, tissues, disposable facemasks, spray cleaners, disinfectants, and trash receptacles to outfit a MASH unit, but no matter how careful everyone tries to be, sooner or later someone’s going to break the New Rules. Consider it today’s equivalent of spilled wine or a broken glass, break out the Clorox wipes, and move on. A breached bacterial barrier isn’t worth stressing over. Your hospitality zone would never be mistaken for an operating theater anyway.
Everyone’s risk aversion level is different. Try to understand their needs and concerns, accommodating them without compromising your own health standards. If someone insists upon wearing nitrile gloves and a plastic face shield, topped off with a foam pool noodle, at an in-person dinner party, don’t comment. After all, it’s not as if they were wearing black socks with sandals or eating with the wrong fork. If others require you to wear a full-on plastic face shield, play along in good faith. It’s only for an hour or so, and it can’t look any sillier than you were at that Halloween party back in 1999.
And if you can’t commune with other humans, you can still get close to nature. Go out for a hike, plant a garden, landscape the yard. Breathe in some fresh air, and let the sun restore that Vitamin D. Walk your dog, go horseback riding, maybe even take in a botanical garden or zoo.
Ten years ago, MOOCs (massive open online courses) were all the rage, fell into disuse, but COVID-19 has put Coursera, Udacity, and edX back in style again. Take a course with a few friends, just to make it a meaningful and safe social activity. The Johns Hopkins’ course, “COVID-19 Contact Tracing,” offered through Coursera might not lead to new career opportunities, but it will make you conversant about a new topic.
Sheltering in place, self-isolation, and quarantining don’t have to mean social exile. Keep in touch with friends – and even strangers – by phone, on social media, by e-mail, and even by old-fashioned snail mail. Staying socially connected is essential to remaining sane in interesting times.
Previously published in Voice of Experience: June 2020, American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division