This is a (lightly edited) copy of an email I sent during the second phase of the pandemic to my family about meeting. The email opened up a few conversations about meeting (and hugging). Perhaps it may be helpful for your family now and later…
Earlier this year, in mid-march, we hosted a birthday party for Ella. Two days before, Governor Tom Wolf had announced guidance measures for the pandemic, including the closures of all schools, child care centers, and all non-essential retail facilities.
At the time, I was beginning to feel the fear, although I had not yet fully fallen (and recovered), so to speak. However, Ella’s birthday party, the last occasion at which many of us gathered as a group, seemed to be infected in its own way. We all felt hesitant, and all of us shared the same sense of unease: should we really be doing this?
Every person at the party had a sense of the risk, yet we also understood the risk of not gathering. The question, should we really be doing this, was eclipsed by a greater unease: when will we see each other again?
So we gathered, talking and hugging, kissing each other, and sharing food. That night, Olivia slept over at our house. The next day, we went to the park (picture below). Beyond my mother and my own immediate family, I haven’t touched or hugged a single family member since I kissed Olivia goodbye that day.
I am writing this letter three months after Ella’s birthday. My purpose in writing is to ask (and attempt to answer) a simple yet important question: How do we meet?
On Isolation and Fear
Recently, I have tried to examine my responses to the important questions–the questions of love and justice, as well as how and where to direct my attention and time. In every situation, no matter how small or large, I have noticed that isolation skews my perception. When I feel isolated, from my family, my community, or my own best self, I make decisions based on fear.
I am all too familiar with this feeling. When I was diagnosed with my autoimmune illnesses, I felt a profound sense of isolation from everyone and everything. At the time, most of my decisions were based on fear. Fear of failure. Fear of pain. Fear of discomfort. And fear of more illness.
Over the years, my family and friends have seen this and accepted this about me, yet they have also helped me in immeasurable ways to replace my fear with confidence. When they let me make the family meals, they do so, partly, because they understand I am most comfortable eating my own cooking.
Yet, over the years, even as my family and friends have made concessions to my idiosyncrasies, they have challenged me to be more than my fear, to see beyond my illness, to see myself as they see me: As Seth. Not sick Seth. Just Seth. A son, brother, step-brother, step-son, son-in-law, brother-in-law, nephew, husband, and friend.
By challenging me to be my best self, the people closet to me have helped me understand: Fear is no way to live. They have also helped me see a simpler, more profound truth: I need to be around people. We need each other.
How do we meet?
One can answer this question based on fear or some other strong emotion. My own answer is admittedly based on strong emotion: I believe we must see each other, in the flesh, not only for our own sake but for the sake of our society.
What is the emotion motivating this belief? I’d like to say confidence or love. I can’t say for sure.
However, I also believe my answer is informed by logic, and this is how I hope to present my thoughts below–in the guise of logic.
We Should Meet Outside, Whenever Possible
“I think outdoors is so much better than indoors in almost all cases,” says Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech, and a world-leading expert on airborne disease transmission. “There’s so much dilution that happens outdoors. As long as you’re staying at least six feet apart, I think the risk is very low.”
The wind is a factor, too: As the Times notes, “even a light wind will quickly dilute the virus. If a person nearby is sick, the wind will scatter the virus, potentially exposing nearby people but in far smaller quantities, which are less likely to be harmful.”
But how likely are you to get infected outside?
A well-cited study from China, based on Orwellian-style data about Chinese citizens–“a horrific program that, for better or worse, is likely responsible for one of the most complete contact-tracing data sets anywhere”–found that the risk of outdoor infection is infinitesimal: out of 1,245 cases during the height of exposure only two contracted the disease outside.
Taken together, of course, the answer is glaringly obvious: We can easily meet outside, with little or no risk, at a distance that feels safe for the most concerned among the group. For example, if one person feels we should stay six feet apart, we should all stay six feet apart–at least from that person, and perhaps from each other.
There is Little Risk of Catching the Virus from Children
Of course, us parents of younger children–like Owen–have to be diligent to keep our children a part from those who wish to remain apart. That said, it appears that child to adult transmission is playing a relatively “limited role” in infections. Iceland, for example, sequenced every infected person in the nation and discovered in all the data “only two examples where a child infected a parent.”
We Should All Be Hugging–Especially the Children and Grandparents
Considering the evidence above, I believe our children should be hugging their grandparents now.
Of all the things we miss right now, human touch may be the most important. The Times quoted Johannes Eichstaedt, a computational social scientist and psychology professor at Stanford University, who said, “Humans have brain pathways that are specifically dedicated to detecting affectionate touch. Affectionate touch is how our biological systems communicate to one another that we are safe, that we are loved, and that we are not alone.”
On the other hand, Linsey Marr, the aerosol scientist quoted above, notes that “the risk of exposure during a brief hug can be surprisingly low — even if you hugged a person who didn’t know they were infected and happened to cough.” Please read that again.
In fact, I believe we should all be hugging right now.
Of course, again, the decision to hug is individual, and we must follow the wishes of the most concerned among the group. However, I would gently ask that person to consider the evidence.
Indoor Exposure: Should We Be Going into Each Other’s Houses?
What of other circumstances? What of indoor spaces, like homes or beach houses?
In any indoor scenario, the risk of infection is amplified. Of course, you can mitigate this risk by wearing masks, staying 6 feet apart, and by limiting indoor exposure. As this viral post about limiting indoor exposure noted: “Successful Infection = Exposure to Virus x Time.”
For indoor exposure, it’s important to note, as the CDC says, that the virus “does not spread easily” from touching surfaces. The real risk of infection is repeated and close proximity to an infected person who is actively showing symptoms. (This chart is helpful).
In other words, if you are smart indoors, you can dramatically reduce your infection. I believe we can all develop proactive strategies to make indoor gatherings more feasible–like opening all the windows, maintaining a safe distance, and limiting the time spent indoors.
But the most important point to remember is the comfort of the most concerned person.
It should be absolutely incumbent upon everyone to act and think in a way that would ease the most concerned person’s mind without that person having to remind us, ever, to keep a distance, wash our hands, or whatever. This is common decency and respect.
Monitor Your Health
This likely goes without saying, but to be responsible right now, don’t be a Claire. If you feel sick at all, stay away from others outside of your family.
By assiduously monitoring our own health, I believe we can essentially diminish the chance of spreading the infection amongst our family to near-zero.
What is the Real Risk?
This is not an insignificant number, and in the context of risk tolerance I believe we should honor any person’s decision not to meet inside. (However, I will argue for the importance of hugs).
On the other hand, this number is dependent on an actual infection, and we can all work together to greatly reduce this risk by following some of the guidance above.
Fight the Fear
When thinking about these important issues, we must fight fear-based thinking. I believe our most important goal should be a sensible return to what makes life worth living: family, friends, and meals. The need to meet and connect, to touch each other, to talk and laugh together, is the greatest human need.
My 95-year-old mother and her 94-year-old partner of 22 years had just polished off a bottle of wine, their first since surviving coronavirus. Although they are both still sharp-minded and independent, their illness was frightening for our entire family. After a month of debilitating symptoms, they recovered. When they called me, they were in a tipsy, celebratory state of bliss. “We just want to make sure you know how much we love each other, how precious our love is,” they said. Then they said they had to hang up “so we can give each other a kiss.”
With love and respect,