Opinion | Talk to your roommate about social distancing

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Dalia Maeroff | Staff Illustrator

By Leah Mensch, Opinions Editor

It’s 2020 — the sex talk is out, and the social distancing talk is in. 

In all seriousness, living with roommates means having difficult conversations — usually about cleaning the shower, the obscenely high electric bills and overly loud sexual partners. Pitt should be offering realistic guidance on campus social distancing, but beyond a delusional shelter-in-place plan and a pod week for on-campus students, administration has again been sitting on its hands.

Proper social distancing and podding — when a small group of people decide to be each other’s only contacts — consists of far more than just finding a group and saying, “we’re a pod.” To actually execute podding correctly and safely, you are going to have to do a lot of personal contact tracing, and you’re going to have to have a lot of awkward conversations. One of these conversations has to be with your roommates.  

The world of social distancing isn’t black and white. Avoiding restaurants, bars and large gatherings is crucial to slowing the spread of COVID-19, but avoiding public gathering spaces alone isn’t enough. Social distancing means keeping a 6 foot minimum space between yourself and anyone who isn’t part of your family unit — for example, your roommate — or a member of your pod. Social distancing also means that your social life will not look the same come fall. Or at least, it shouldn’t. I wish so much that this wasn’t the case, but it is. And if we want to keep each other safe, we have to honor that.

This isn’t the semester to meet the acquaintance from your literature class for a cup of coffee to catch up, and this isn’t the semester to have a Tinder date over for dinner. If you do decide to do either of these things, it’s something you should report to your pod. You should assume that every person anyone in your pod is exposed to, you are also exposed to. So if you are in prolonged, close contact without a mask with someone outside your pod, you should behave as if you’re then in contact with everyone they’ve been in contact with. This is all to say that choices that, in the past, have never affected the people you live with, are now going to really affect the people you live with.

For the most part, you can choose your pod members based on your and their level of comfort. Talk to your friends about who they’re seeing, and who the people they are seeing are seeing. Find out if they go to work, and if they’re planning to attend in-person classes. Ask if they go to restaurants, and if they are in close contact with high risk individuals. Then, everyone makes a mutual decision on whether or not to see each other. But the one person you have no choice but to pod with is your roommate. And you are likely exposed to everyone that your roommate is exposed to.

If this sounds complicated, it’s because podding is complicated.

What you’re comfortable with might not be what your roommate is comfortable with. You might have a roommate who is a frontline worker, or you might have a roommate with an autoimmune disorder. You might have a roommate who wants to party, or you might have a roommate who wants to isolate completely. You can’t ignore this topic with your roommates, and you’re going to have to find a way to pod that makes both of you comfortable. If your roommate is immunocompromised, then you need to consider this before making decisions about podding. If your roommate wants total isolation and you don’t, then you need to find a compromise.

It’s important, too, to make space for your roommates to be honest. If you do mess up and go to a party, if you hook up with a random person or find yourself in close contact with someone outside your pod, you want to be able to tell those inside your pod — especially your roommates — without fear of retaliation.

Though certainly not ideal, some people have been able to isolate from others in their household unit. The main problem with this strategy is that scientists believe people with COVID-19 are most contagious one to three days before they begin showing symptoms — so you probably wouldn’t know that your housemate was infected at all. 

Living with a roommate might mean that you can’t see absolutely everyone you want to see face-to-face. This is just a sacrifice that we’re going to have to make right now, to keep each other safe. There are ways to see people outside your pod and mitigate risks. Always wear a mask, and meet outside. While the weather is nice in late summer and fall, consider having a picnic or going for a walk in the park. Try to choose a time where the area isn’t going to be crowded with bikers and joggers — and be diligent about maintaining the 6 foot distance from your friend.

Understand that there’s no way to guarantee 100% safety, but that’s no reason to drop your guard about podding, about communicating with your roommate about their comfort levels and whereabouts. It’s going to feel awkward — but by doing your part, you’re helping make the entire community a slightly safer place.

Understand that by choosing to return to campus, you’re likely going to be at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than you were living at home. You get to decide if you’re willing to take the risk. But you still need to do your part to keep those around you safe. Talking to your roommate is one of the most important steps.

Leah Mensch writes primarily about literature, houseplants and the spices of the world. Write to Leah at [email protected].

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