Quarantining together won’t work without communication

It isn’t a joke you can take lightly, Hannah Denham writes


Two sophomore students quarantined themselves in a Gaines Hall apartment. Photo by Coleman Martinson.

Hannah Denham

The conflict started when he told me he had smoked cigars with a friend before they drove to a grocery store and a fast food drive-thru an hour away.

“Well, did you wear a mask and gloves in the store or with your friend?” “Nope.”

“Did you disinfect all your groceries when you got home?” “Nope.”

I told him to think about how many people had touched the very groceries he brought into his apartment, where I now was. I asked him to be more careful, reminding him of the statistics of people in their 20s who were dying of the coronavirus without explanation. I was uncomfortable, especially because I didn’t know he had been in close quarters with this friend, but I shared my frustration and then let it go.

I’d been dating him for two months when coronavirus in the U.S. started to feel real. We went to Walmart together to stock up on groceries and were putting them away when I got the email from President Dudley that Washington and Lee University was moving online and sending students who lived on-campus home.

We hadn’t defined the relationship at that point, but we saw each other almost every day since our first date. He lived close by, and neither of us had family here, so when I decided to stay in Lexington and my friend moved in on my couch, we agreed that our two households would quarantine together.

The Center for Disease Control recommends limiting contact and travel, staying at least six feet away with others in public and wearing a face mask. Read more on the Center for Disease Control’s guidance on daily life and coping

But a few hours after the grocery store conversation, I saw he had posted on his social media cooking dinner at someone’s house. Two days in a row of direct exposure, and I had consumed too much coronavirus news to know that it would skyrocket his chances of catching it and subsequently passing it on to someone else.

My heart broke because I knew he had made the decision for me by breaking our quarantine agreement: I had to distance from him for 14 days.

I don’t have any underlying health conditions, but I could still catch coronavirus and it would be risky and unpredictable. We’re in rural southwest Virginia, and healthcare options are extremely limited. It wouldn’t be fair to put my roommate at risk, either. I knew in my gut that it was the right thing to do.

It was upsetting because it felt preventable with a simple conversation. We had just been talking about this a few hours before. He could’ve said that his friend had invited him over for dinner and he wasn’t sure what to do. We could’ve talked about options, like dropping off a meal and eating over FaceTime, or even a socially distanced picnic. I could’ve told him then that if he didn’t want to be quarantined with me anymore, no problem, but that there was no justifiable or healthy way to do both. But I wasn’t offered the chance.

After his dinner, when he asked me if I wanted to come over, I was frustrated that he was willing to risk exposing me, too. I told him how I felt and that I didn’t want him to take it the wrong way that I didn’t want to spend time with him, but couldn’t justify it given the circumstances. He had broken my trust by being willing to risk my health just to hang out with his friends multiple times, and it felt purposeful that he didn’t even think to tell me about it.

Looking back, having a quarantine agreement with someone you’re not living with probably wasn’t the best idea. It would’ve worked the same way had it been a family member or a friend, and I would’ve felt just as frustrated if the agreement had been broken without a conversation. But given that we were fairly new to dating, I was afraid if I asked him where he had been or who he was interacting with that it would come across as clingy and overbearing. We had engaged in honest communication up to this point, so I just trusted him to tell me.

But that wasn’t enough. If you’re going to quarantine with someone, you have to go above and beyond to think through how you both can minimize contact with other people and other surfaces. It’s wiping down every delivered package or takeout food box or milk carton you bring into your home, every door knob and light switch, your phones, keyboards and computer screens, and refrigerator door handle. It’s slathering lotion on scaly hands from washing them so much. It’s communicating about your schedules and when you need to leave the house for food or exercise, and what your disinfecting plan is when you return.

It can feel exhausting, or micromanaging, or even pointless as you watch the numbers of confirmed cases rise, but it’s necessary. Quarantining together isn’t a joke you can take lightly. It requires a lot of trust, communication and reliability, and constantly thinking about yourself and your quarantine partner, or else it just won’t work.