Is It Safe to ‘Quaranteam’?

The health and ethical implications of isolating with a tight-knit circle of friends

Friends wearing face masks practice social distancing as they chat in front of a shop during the outbreak of COVID-19.
Friends wearing face masks practice social distancing as they chat in front of a shop during the outbreak of COVID-19.
Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

Kari Craig, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, says she recently made plans to hang out with a friend and the friend’s significant other in their backyard. “If I feel comfortable wearing a mask to the grocery store then I should feel even safer in a [private] space like someone’s backyard,” she says. “Our plan is [for me] to literally BYO everything — my own chair, alcohol, cups, snacks, etc… I’m going to take the same precaution of constant hand-washing and mask-wearing, but may also incorporate things like changing clothes and shoes immediately when entering the apartment.”

As spring weather settles in throughout most of the country, many people are wondering if they can do as Kari plans to — see their friends after nearly two months of mandated stay-at-home and social distancing orders. Of course, folks have already been arranging socially distanced park meetups or setting up folding chairs in the front yard or driveway to enjoy a beer with their buddy, while sitting six feet apart. And that kind of careful behavior has been more or less accepted and is considered relatively low risk.

But now, people are wondering whether it might be ok to push the line and relax those safety measures even more. Is it safe or ethical to form “quaranteams” or “Covid-bubbles,” which means going to the homes of a select number of friends — who have, like yourself, been isolating for the past months––to have dinners and movie nights like we used to have? And if so, what’s the best way to go about it?

Assessing the risk of “quaranteaming”

Changing our social distancing habits isn’t a matter of flipping a switch. You (presumably) won’t go from not leaving your home except to buy groceries on Monday to hosting a kegger at your place on Friday night. Figuring out whom to see and in what situations is complicated, and it depends on a number of factors: Where you live, what your living situation looks like, and how committed you are to certain restrictions when you’re in the company of your friends.

The first, and most important, thing to consider is your household’s risk level. If you, or anyone you live with, has a condition that puts them at an elevated risk to severe illness from Covid-19 — such as asthma, diabetes, heart conditions, or a compromised immune system — it’s worth holding off on seeing any friends until officials deem it “safe.” The elderly are also particularly vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus, so if grandma is your roommate, you might need to give up on seeing your BFF in the flesh for a while longer. And no, there’s no set date for how long “a while” could last.

But what about households composed of young, otherwise physically healthy adults?

“The ethical question at issue isn’t whether you are willing to take the risk of getting Covid; it’s whether you are willing to expose the rest of your family and friends if you become contagious.”

Craig, who made plans to hang out in someone’s backyard, was right to assume that if you’re going to see friends, it’s best to do so outside. Experts agree that outdoor spaces appear to be considerably safer than indoors, where poor ventilation and airflow make it more likely that the virus is hanging around in the air.

“Broadly speaking, it will probably be okay to see family and friends in small groups while carefully monitoring symptoms,” provided that groups really are small, and anyone who thinks they may have been exposed gets tested and continues to self-isolate, says Sandro Galea, MD, an epidemiologist and professor of family medicine at Boston University’s School of Public Health.

Wear a mask in the company of your friends, he says, and absolutely make sure you maintain at least six feet of distance (no hugs!). Need to cut through their house to get to the backyard or use the bathroom? It’s fine, says Galea — just make sure you wash your hands thoroughly (which, honestly, you should be doing anyway).

Keeping small gatherings outside isn’t the only thing to consider when debating whether or not it’s safe to hang out with your friends or quaranteam. Other questions to ask yourself include:

  • Have the friends you’ve decided to see mostly self-isolated up to that point? If not, they’re a risky choice, and should probably be avoided.
  • Are they seeing anyone else besides you? Nobody in the tight-knit social circle of yours should interact with others outside their group.
  • Do you trust them without reservations? If you don’t, they’re not the right people to hang out with right now.
  • Can you maintain at least six feet of distance from each other at all times? This is much easier if done in a large backyard, where open air and plenty of space keep people relatively safe. A public park is a decent alternative, but if it becomes crowded, everyone in the quaranteam needs to leave.
  • Is there hand sanitizer or soap and water available? In the chance that one person accidentally touches another, or even touch their own faces, they need the ability to immediately clean their hands.
  • Do you live in a high-risk area? If so, you should be extra careful if you do decide to quaranteam.
  • Can everyone agree to keep the quaranteam off social media? There’s the chance that people could either become enraged or, conversely, get the wrong idea and assume that all bets are off and life is returning to normal. (Spoiler alert: Unfortunately, it isn’t.)

The ethical implications of quaranteaming

There are no easy answers to the questions we’re collectively facing. It’s easy to say everyone should just entirely self-isolate for months on end, but humans need contact with each other. “Social isolation, although appropriate in this public health context, certainly can have negative implications in terms of one’s mental health,” says Alex Klein, a clinical psychologist, and advisor for the health website Healthline. It’s crucial to find ways to keep our mental health intact while safeguarding the physical health of those around us, in particular people who are more at risk than we are.

“The consequences of exposure generate outward, not just for the immediate friends involved but for everyone else they see,” says Lee McIntyre, PhD, an ethicist and research fellow at Boston University. “The ethical question at issue isn’t whether you are willing to take the risk of getting Covid; it’s whether you are willing to expose the rest of your family and friends if you become contagious.”

Trust is a critical component to navigating quaranteam, says Jaime Ahlberg, PhD, an ethicist and associate professor of philosophy at the University of Florida, who advises that you only see one small group of friends, in which everyone in the group promises they’ll stay familiar with the rules, guidelines, and facts around their local Covid-19 situation, and that they’ll only be seeing their quaranteam.

“Trust is integral to good friendships and to mitigating risk under conditions of uncertainty, with respect to contracting or spreading the virus,” she says. “It will be important to be trustworthy — to be truthful and keep promises we make to our friends who want to visit with us regarding our whereabouts, social distancing practices, etc. And it will be important to have trustworthy friends if one is considering spending time together. We can love our friends without trusting them.”

A final thought

I live in New York City, and as much as I want to go hang out on my closest friend’s roof and drink wine, I decided to hold off for a bit longer, mainly because NYC is such a Covid-19 hot spot. It’s more considerate to my community, to my elderly neighbors, and to my own health — even if I am feeling rather lonely.

“Social connectedness is a key to one’s well being, but so is following public health precautions. I don’t think being bored or being irritated with your roommate is a good enough reason not to be extra careful,” says Klein, noting that people should evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis, and continue to employ methods of mental health relief that don’t involve the physical presence of other people, such as Zoom calls, meditation, and exercise.

No matter if you chose to quaranteam, or not — remember that you’re not choosing just for you. You’re choosing for everyone who comes in contact with you and your social circle, too.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.