In theory, it’s simple. To combat the weariness and mental health consequences of strict confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have been touting the idea of forming “social bubbles” or “quaranteams”—groups of people that socialize normally with each other, but only with each other.
The idea is to widen your social horizons in a controlled way, so you’re free to touch, hug, snuggle, and kiss the people in your bubble to your hearts’ content. If someone in the bubble is infected, the virus is contained within the group and the spread stops there.
After a substantial decrease in transmission rates, the governments of New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom have encouraged citizens to form these bubbles. And they’re working—flattening curves have continued to flatten, and people report feeling much more at ease even if they’re socializing within a small group.
The United Kingdom adopted social bubbles on June 10, only after the daily count of new coronavirus cases plunged systematically from 8,612 down to 1,741 in less than two months. And even after the implementation of quaranteams, infection rates continued to drop—on July 5 the UK reported only 624 new cases.
What about the US?
The social bubble idea has crossed borders and recently caught fire on local news sites and social media. Now everybody is asking the same question: Is the US ready to adopt social bubbles?
For most of the country, The short answer is no. This is because of one simple reason—for this experiment to work, curves must have already flattened drastically, meaning the number of sick people is spreading in time.
“It’s way too premature to think about this—especially in places where transmission rates have spiked, like Florida, Arizona, and Texas,” says Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto.
If COVID-19 cases are surging in a particular state, these social bubbles would only fuel the fire of infections. “These states need to take more drastic measures to mitigate the virus before they start talking about ways to expand,” says Melissa Hawkins, an epidemiologist at American University.
Other parts of the US, including states like New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, have successfully flattened curves (recently, New York City celebrated its first 24 hours without a single COVID-19 related death) making them good candidates to start thinking about quaranteams, says Hawkins.
Although social bubbles do increase the risk of transmission, it’s important to keep in mind that our wellbeing is not just physical—lockdown fatigue, depression, and anxiety can inflict serious damage on people’s mental health, too. A survey conducted in April revealed that 13.6 percent of US adults have reported symptoms of psychological distress, compared to only 3.9 percent in 2018. Joining a social bubble can help people cope with these feelings and also alleviate the pressure of childcare and isolation.
Social bubbling 101
Even if your state seems to have COVID-19 under control, the decision to join a social bubble is ultimately a personal one.
“Risk isn’t binary—it’s not all or nothing,” says Hawkins. “This is about balancing risk and safety while expanding your social and emotional circle.”
But before planning to join a social bubble, remember that adding people to your intimate circle will increase the chances of infection within your household, so we strongly recommend you consider the guidelines provided by your local authorities.
If curves in your town or city have dropped enough, local health officials have given the green light, and you and your family feel ready to form a quaranteam, starting one is easy.
The golden rule: thou shalt stay within the bubble
Before deciding to join a pod or asking someone to join yours, have candid conversations with everyone involved. To successfully isolate the risk lurking outside, you must all agree not to socialize with anybody outside of the bubble—not doing so means popping the bubble, plain and simple.
Before your quaranteam’s first get-together, Hawkins strongly suggests that everyone gets tested for COVID-19, if possible. Although your potential bubble mates may not have any symptoms, they could still be COVID-19 positive. “Asymptomatic spread and presymptomatic spread is a significant driver in the disease,” says Hawkins.
Create a closed loop
When it comes to the number of people in your bubble, remember this maxim—the more, the riskier. Experts have suggested anywhere between six and 15 individuals, always considering that a tighter group is better, and that adding individuals from different households is more of a risk than adding families or roommates that already live, eat, and play together.
“This boils down to shared risk-taking and decision-making, but also of what is risky for you and how much are you willing to tolerate,” says Bogoch.
Agree on strict rules
You and all the people in your bubble should be aware of how much risk your bubble-mates face every day. Do you frequent grocery stores? Are you working from home or not? Are you an essential worker? Do you go to the dentist or the hairdressers’?
You need to assess all the risks you are taking and create a set of rules that help you balance them out. It’s important to do this as a group and take everyone’s thoughts into consideration so everyone feels comfortable.
Don’t skip the trial period
Adapting to other people’s needs is always a compromise, and what might have sounded easy at first, might not be as simple to do two weeks in. Agreeing to a trial period will allow you to adjust the rules if necessary, and may help everyone in your bubble feel more comfortable.
“It gives people the opportunity to see if it works, and gives you a period to back out for any reason while still preserving the relationship,” says Hawkins.
If for whatever reason you realize you joined the wrong bubble, Hawkins suggests getting tested for COVID-19 upon leaving. This will make sure you’re still healthy after exposing yourself at close proximity to others.
Have constant, honest check-ins
Try to foster an open, warm community among your bubble. If anyone came in close contact with another person outside of the bubble or breached any other part of your agreement, it’s important everyone feels comfortable letting the whole group know so they can take appropriate precautions.
Providing a safe space for this level of honesty is crucial in keeping the safety of the bubble intact. Without it, you might be indirectly coming into contact with other individuals without even knowing it.
Should “high-risk” individuals join my bubble?
We’re talking healthcare workers, transit employees, cleaning staff, elderly or immunocompromised individuals. It’s definitely not a strict no, but the answer to this question will depend on how much risk you’re willing to take.
“I work in a hospital in the COVID-19 ward,” says Bogoch, who has formed his own social bubble. “The people that I interact with know that and they’re okay with it.”
The level of contact you have with high-risk populations might affect how you form a social bubble and who can join, but as long as everyone is comfortable and following whatever rules you come up with, it’s possible to ease your loneliness and boredom without greatly increasing your risk of catching COVID.