Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.
I was taking off my rubber gloves after a shift at a local food bank last week when I looked down to see a text from my roommate. “Heyo, all good?” he’d texted.
I recalled the scene I’d left back at home: a thermometer, sitting unsheathed on the dining room table. I’d forgotten to put it away, after checking to confirm that I had no hint of a fever and rushing out of the apartment three hours earlier.
Under normal circumstances, this ominous still life — Naked Thermometer, Just Used: Where’s Sarah? — wouldn’t be a cause for concern. As an adult, I had no responsibility to tell my roommate (a good friend!) where I was going, or when. But these are not normal circumstances, and I had failed to remind my apartment-mates about my volunteering plans. I apologized: It wouldn’t happen again.
As stay-at-home orders multiply and extend, and public health experts urge everyone to stop doing all but essential outside tasks in order to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections, the home has become the new locus of nearly everything: It’s your office, gym, restaurant, bar, cinema, and social club. Everyone who is lucky enough to have a house or apartment is there nearly all the time, or should be. That means spending a lot more time with the people inside it, or alone.
For many urban dwellers — particularly 20- (or 30- or 40-) somethings in expensive cities — that constant companion is often a roommate, with whom they’re sorted by circumstance, financial necessity, or, in my case, genuine affinity. The Pew Research Center and Zillow both found that in 2017, nearly a third of the U.S. adult population they surveyed was living in some sort of shared household. These cohabitators may not be family, nor even part of one’s “chosen family” (friends). But the coronavirus doesn’t care about that distinction: Sharing space means sharing germs, and all roommates have had to trust — or force — each other to make the whole household’s safety and well-being a priority, and prepare for the possibility that one of you could fall ill. Navigating these new responsibilities and intimacies is not always easy.
Sam Ozer-Staton, who lives in Brooklyn with two of his closest friends from childhood and now, one of his roommates’ girlfriends, said that their “quarantine pod” of four has been fixed since March 10. For weeks, they’d been living under “a general understanding of what was appropriate,” he said — everyone understood the stakes, and the importance of rigorous social distancing — but they hadn’t sat down and had an official conversation. Then Covid-19 cases in New York City surged, and they codified things: They agreed they’d only go out either to get groceries, take walks late at night, and exercise on the roof of their apartment; they wouldn’t allow anyone outside of the quarantine pod into the apartment, and they’d refrain from going into enclosed spaces, including other people’s homes.
“This notion that as adults you’d want to get your roommates’ consent to literally go on a walk goes against at least the vibes we’ve been trying to cultivate in our apartment, of personal agency and individual freedom, since we moved in a year ago,” he said. “But I think there’s both a level of trust, because we know each other, and also a deep empathy for what each other and all of us are going through.”
Other have pursued more dramatic interventions, or put off similar conversations only to have frustrations fester. Many people I contacted didn’t want to use their names in this story, for fear of alienating the roommates they were already feeling alienated by.
One woman cut her “social cluster” from three (her roommates) to one (her boyfriend), because she was getting overwhelmed by living in such close quarters; when her former roommates invited her over for a dinner party, she had to remind them that social distancing didn’t allow that, either.
Another woman in San Francisco also fled her apartment because her roommates weren’t taking things seriously and moved in with her boyfriend, who shared an apartment with four other people. It’s been great, she says: His pod agrees not to wear outside clothes inside, and they shower immediately after coming into the house after doing essential trips. But she’s now dealing with the looming fear that his other roommate, who’d left town before San Francisco’s shelter-in-place started, will return.
“Everything right now is as idyllic as can be given the circumstances,” she said in a Facebook message. “But hanging over our heads is the future where this roommate will be back and might not adhere to the social order we’ve established.”
Lillie lives with two roommates, one of whom lost her job and started upping her hours as a volunteer EMT. (She asked for me to use a pseudonym because she hasn’t discussed the issue with her roommates.) “She’s a HERO,” she wrote me in a DM, “but it feels very messy.” Because she’s afraid of being exposed to pathogens that the EMT may be bringing home, for the past two weeks Lillie has been staying with her father, who lives in the area. They plan to reunite in two weeks, but Lillie thinks she may have to move out altogether — her roommate is now applying to work in an emergency room.
Much of the roommate drama of the coronavirus era revolves around admitting partners or friends, and the germs they could bring with them. There are “one guest per person” policies and “no guests except this one partner we all like” policies and “if you leave to visit someone, don’t come back.” A D.C. woman who asked not to be named said she has been safely practicing social distancing and lives alone, but that her boyfriend’s roommate won’t allow the couple to travel between their apartments. (Other public health experts I spoke to agreed that no outside guests means no outside guests: Once the microbiome of one’s apartment is sealed, it should stay sealed. Obviously, the heart’s opinion may differ.)
One such roommate feud went viral on Twitter this week, when an immunocompromised Brigham Young University-Idaho student shared screenshots from a testy text exchange with her roommate on Twitter. As the Salt Lake Tribune reports, after she asked her roommate to stop having her boyfriend over, the roommate replied, “I’m glad that you are seeking to stay safe in this pandemic. That’s very wise. However, you can’t prevent me from having people over. So you can expect to see Brett over often :).” The Salt Lake County Health Department got involved, tweeting the hashtag “#StayHomeBrett,” which then started trending nationwide.
The Hearth, a seven-person co-op in Oakland united by their shared interest in life coaching, published an exhaustive list of quarantine guidelines for their and other communal houses. Jeremy Blanchard, a Hearth resident who started the doc, said he created it after a series of five intense house meetings in the eight days after the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place edict. The act of scouring public health recommendations talked him out of visiting his own partner. “Making the doc was what made me realize I can’t justify these exceptions,” he said.
Meeting the “Gold Standard” of safety at the Hearth means everyone in the house has gone 22 consecutive days without breaking the rules, which include always wearing a mask on necessary trips out and staying at least six feet away from all other non-residents. There are three modes of diligence: They’re in Yellow Mode currently because someone in the house had to make a hospital trip for an unrelated concern and restarted the 22-day cycle. That means essential visitors are relegated to the backyard. (If the house makes it to Green Mode, one guest at a time can come over with three hours notice, and permission — and only if the interloper’s house has practiced the Gold Standard, too.) The house has a daily cleaning checklist, and they’re quarantining their mail for 24 hours. They also do at least 15 minutes of mindfulness practice a day.
What happens if someone does end up getting sick? The Hearth has a plan for that, too:
Communicating expectations is key to fostering a healthy dynamic, says Amy Canevello, a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina Charlotte who studies close relationships, including that of college roommates. So is understanding that group decisions aren’t “zero-sum.” If one roommate is scared of getting sick, and another is craving time with their partner, those needs — both of which have mental and physical health implications — don’t have to be diametrically opposed. Listen to the experts: Hang out online or on the street, six feet away, visit on their turf, or move in together; don’t invite someone into the home where your cautious roommate lives.
“One of the things that’s predicting who adheres to these stay-at-home orders is the people who understand that what they do is going to impact others,” Canevello said.
Some people just do not treat the relationship they have with their roommate as one that’s symbiotic. Christina, for example, told me that her roommate just absconded from the Manhattan apartment they shared, jumping ship with four hours’ notice and leaving behind “all his mess and none of his rent or utilities due in 2 days!” Now her landlord is going to pocket the security deposit, she says.
Those kinds of relationships will suffer most from the stress of the pandemic, Canevello says. “One of the things that determines whether the relationship gets stronger or goes south is [whether we’re] recognizing that we are dependent on each other,” she said. “When your well-being and the other person’s well-being are highly linked, I think you’re going to see more pro-sociality and empathy and perspective-taking, versus if you see yourself as completely independent of your roommate.”
Even after living in the Hearth for five years, and other bigger co-ops before that, Blanchard says this quarantine has raised the stakes of group living to new levels. “I cannot think of a single comparable situation where my actions so drastically affect everyone else in the house,” he said. If his roommates ask him to stop playing loud music, he can just play it in the park. “If I leave the house and hug someone, I’m putting six other people’s health at risk, and I won’t even know it for weeks and weeks into the future.”
Unsurprisingly, the link between isolated roommates — bored, alone, craving touch — sometimes turns sexual or romantic. Once primarily a repository for complaints, Reddit’s r/relationships board now features some stay-at-home meet cutes: Here’s one featuring two male flatmates (one of whom identifies as “mostly straight,” one bi) who appear to be drifting into a romantic entanglement. Vice recently featured six housemates who started hooking up in earnest while isolating. “I’ve been basically in love with my roommate for the past six months, and now that we’re in quarantine, we’ve been drunk-talking over boxed wine and frozen taquitos until 6 or 7 a.m. when the sun comes up,” reads a submission from Annie. “LAST NIGHT SHE KISSED ME AND I'M SO HAPPY TO BE STUCK WITH HER.”
There’s even a new platonic intimacy between those quarantined together, if only because they’re the other human bodies around. “There’s something beautiful and freeing of being like, OK, within your own home you can do the dishes together, you can sit close to each other,” said Ozer-Staton.
But familiarity can also get grating. Amanda Feigin, 25, who lives in Minneapolis in a house with five friends from college, says she instituted a “no repeats rule” for coronavirus-related conversations. “You can only offer up new information regarding the coronavirus to eliminate the repetitive/echoed conversations that add stress and anxiety,” she wrote in an Instagram DM. They’d been talking in circles, she said, and wanted to focus on other things. (She’s since fled for Iowa to be with her boyfriend and his family.)
Dylan, who asked not to be identified by his real name, moved in with his best friend a year and a half ago, a step that made their tumultuous alliance even stormier. “When the whole virus stuff happened we had just had probably the biggest fight we’d ever had two days before,” he said, about whether or not to go stock up on pre-quarantine supplies. (Of course, it was really about everything.) Dylan tried to get some space, which is hard to do while confined to the same one, and things deteriorated quickly. Last week, they had a conversation where they “officially ended it.”
“It’s kind of like getting a divorce: It’s very sad. You know you still want to do it, but it’s overwhelmingly sad,” he said. “When I get in that mood and I think nostalgically about things … it’s not necessarily wanting it but not hating that you’re physically close, because it just makes it easier to handle. Even if it can be kind of awkward.” Dylan is planning on sticking it out in the apartment to the end of his lease, which runs through the fall.
My own relationship with my new quarantine colleagues reminds me of Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopian novel about a world post-pandemic. In it, the protagonist Kirsten works her way through the country with a traveling Shakespeare troupe of actors and musicians. The virus has already done its worst, so disease isn’t the enemy anymore — cults and bandits are. But in a dangerous world, the characters find safety (and drama, and messiness, and annoyance) in sleeping, eating, and moving through the world with the same steadfast crew.
Your coronavirus support network doesn’t have to literally reside in your apartment for them to matter, says Canevello, who lives in North Carolina with her dog and no roommates — indeed, sometimes it’s better if they don’t. Moving back in with parents or other older family members, for example, can put more lives at risk. And while living with partners can affirm the reason you’re together in the first place, it can also end the partnerships entirely — reports from China show that divorce rates rose in March, after weeks bound in unbearable mutual isolation.
Ozer-Staton is grateful to have the company, and says he thinks he and his roommates, already uniquely bonded, will leave this experience even closer. “I don’t think I can think of any relationship as intimate as the one that I’m experiencing now with my roommates,” he said. “Other than familial or romantic relationships in the past.” Over the weekend, the pod received matching shirts, sent from a roommates’ mom, that read “Quaran-Team.”