One evening towards the end of May, just as we were finishing our monthly Zoom book club, my friend Alex took a sip of her white wine and loudly lamented what each of us had been silently wondering, “What are we going to do this summer? Are we even going to go out?”
At first, too apprehensive about what summer in the throes of a pandemic might bring, no one answered.
Hilary, our most upbeat member, broke the silence, “Don’t worry, we’ll get together. We’ll be a pod and I’m committed to this pod!” Everyone nodded enthusiastically.
I logged out of book club feeling elated. After over three months of lockdown at my mother’s in Virginia, as much I love my family, I am desperate to see someone who doesn’t share a single strand of my DNA.
In late May, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that gatherings of 10 people, as long as they practiced social distancing, would be permitted. And on Wednesday he declared that New York City could begin Phase 2 of the reopening process, next week and that restaurants and bars could welcome back patrons for outdoor service. The news has prompted tiny pockets of friends to crawl tentatively out of their shelters to hang out with their pods, trust circles, double bubbles -- choose your favorite term. (In Great Britain, the government recently issued guidelines for permitted "coronavirus bubbles." ) But with the threat of COVID still lurking, everyone is wondering how we get together safely this summer.
So many questions about the new pandemic etiquette arise especially among New Yorkers for whom hospitality is a point of pride. Mostly based out east in Long Island, my book club friends have been gingerly opening their doors to each other. (So far we have escaped COVID-19 relatively unscathed: Only one of our members came down with the virus, and after six weeks of self-quarantine, she tested negative.)
“It’s a trust game,” says Alex Chantecaille, who is vice president of sales at Chantecaille Beauté and has been self-isolating in East Hampton for the past few months. “I need to do my best to ensure my friends feel secure. Is there a possibility of getting sick from the fish market? Maybe yes, but hopefully I washed my hands and used hand-sanitizer really well afterwards. I’m careful and I feel that’s how my friends are behaving as well. You open up that group very conservatively. You need to make sure you can trust them. It’s a reiteration of what friendship is.”
The book club has been alternating dinners on weekends in the backyard or having drinks on each other’s porches. The gatherings started out tentatively, with each person bringing their own glasses and snacks, and staying strictly to al fresco to practice social distancing. A few weeks ago, they began using the glasses and plates provided by the hostess. One rule remains enforced: Rather than gathering in the kitchen to help with the washing-up, as the guests normally would, they now stack their dishes at the end of the table and only one person brings them into the house.
Masks have started to become optional. “If people arrive in a mask and want to wear it, that’s fine," says Helena Gautier, a writer and frequent hostess in Southampton. "But if you stay with your group outside it’s different,”
Then there’s the tricky question of whether guests can use the bathroom.
Until a few weeks ago, Annie Leibovitz's agent and studio manager Karen Mulligan only saw her small group of friends under super strict conditions, including outside walks and al fresco peeing. One evening a few weeks ago when a friend who wishes to remain nameless stopped by for a drink, nature called. Karen gestured to the bushes but the guest opted to go and use her loo at home. Fortunately she lived nearby.
“You have to be sensitive and not breach the social contract,” says Alex, who agrees with Karen's approach. “Take a cue from the hostess. If Karen says you can’t pee her in her house, that’s fine. You can’t say you are blowing this out of proportion.”
Recently, Karen relaxed the rules when she invited people over for lunch the first time in months. ”We just hung out in the backyard,” she says. “And, of course everyone asked if they could use the bathroom.”
When it was her turn host, Hilary Neve, an executive at Google, took a strategic approach. “We designated one bathroom as the guest area.” She added Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer next to her linen hand towels and Jo Malone candles.
Laying the table posed another question. Initially, Karen used pretty paper plates, but after a while, missed seeing her colorful dishes and started to use those instead.
Hilary, decided to make a real occasion out of her party, pandemic or no. “I brought out my whole china set, my best. I have desert plates, flowers and peonies for these ten people. We go for it and create nice dinners.”
Alex adds, “Everyone’s cooking their own pies instead of buying them at the store. And we’re all appreciative of the home made effort.”
It’s a respectful group. They keep each other informed about when they let someone in to clean their houses. No one had baby sitters for almost all of lockdown so the gatherings included the whole family, even the dog.
As a pod, the members of my book club grew even more tight knit. Divorced from the usual distraction of going back and forth to the city, they only had each other, so when they did meet face-to-face the simple joy of seeing each other in person took on a heightened quality.
“Everyone was so excited to see each other, eat, chat, have a few drinks,” says Hilary.
But no hugs, “That doesn’t exist anymore,” Karen rightly points out.
Even the children seem to have internalized the new normal. Karen was walking with Hilary’s kids on the beach the other day when Alexandra, the 7-year-old, said to her, “Can you just hold my hand please? Because we are in a bubble together and I’m your friend and I just want to hold your hand.” They held hands for the whole walk.
Still, nobody’s expecting to make new friends. Summer’s usual free-wheeling conviviality will have to wait. “No one would just bring a friend along with them right now,” Mulligan notes. “Things are normally so impromptu, we don’t think twice about driving to someone’s house. Now there’s a formality to it all. The casualness is gone.”
Hilary agrees. “We are barely even seeing our wider group of friends. Right now, I think the appetite for meeting new people isn’t there.”
That may change with increased and readily available reliable COVID-19 tests which may allay some fear. But how to address whether or not a friend has been tested seems awkward.
“You don’t need to outright ask someone,” Helena says. “If you haven’t caught up with someone for a while, you might introduce the topic by saying, ‘We’ve been so isolated out East for at least three months. How about you? Have you guys been social distancing?’"
Typically, that’s when someone describes their safe status. But if they don’t volunteer that information, she says you can always add, “I just took an antibody test and I’m excited to get the results. Have you taken one?”
While I’m not sick and no one in my family has been sick, last week I took an antibody test and was disappointed to learn it was negative. I don't know when I'll next see my group but I know I need to take necessary precautions and remain vigilant when I do.
There’s a plus side to our more limited social lives in lockdown and the phased reopening, and it isn’t just more time with family and closer pods. Take it from a friend who lives in Hong Kong, which is back to near normal life, and feeling a little nostalgic. “Enjoy the period where you don’t feel the FOMO, when you don’t think you are missing something and you have to go out. There is nothing better that knowing what you are doing is the only thing you should be doing.”