“A test of relationships,” said Amy Canevello, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “is what we’re doing here.”
Read: How not to tank your relationship in quarantine
To stay safe in this pandemic requires being on the same page as everyone else in your household. As I have learned, this is very difficult when the adults living alongside you perceive the severity of the situation in different ways and at different speeds. In all things, but especially in effective pandemic response, communication is key. “There’s a lot of gray area there when you’re living in this roommate situation,” Elizabeth Carlton, an environmental epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health, said. In a time of great uncertainty, “having plans in place can help make people feel like they have some control.” The best place for roommates to start, experts told me, is to have a conversation about three things: cleanliness, illness preparedness, and social-circle size.
In order to help prevent the spread of the virus, public-health experts advise Americans to keep frequently touched surfaces squeaky clean—and they’ve stressed that people should do their grocery shopping only when absolutely necessary, to avoid exposure. But work-from-home life in a shared apartment means that common spaces like kitchens and bathrooms will be getting much dirtier, much faster. And if every roommate shops for themselves, that can add up to multiple grocery-store trips per week.
Experts say there are best practices to follow. Don’t share hand towels with roommates, and regularly disinfect often-used surfaces like counters, faucets, remotes, and refrigerator handles, Jessica Justman, an epidemiology professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, told me. When you’re moving from a communal space to another room, wash your hands. “Wash your hands more times than you think would be possible.” For anyone, but particularly for those living with roommates, experts recommend designating a landing spot in your apartment for shoes, coats, shopping bags, and other outside gear to help keep your living area clean. Take turns grocery shopping every week for the whole house, or implement a food-sharing system.
Read: Grocery stores are the coronavirus tipping point
If someone contracts the coronavirus—or even starts to cough or run a temperature—the CDC advises that the person self-isolate. Cordoning yourself off, though, is nearly impossible when you share a cooking, eating, and living space with other human beings. This is made more difficult if those human beings are not related to you, and may not be that invested in gently nursing you back to health. Housemates need to have a plan for if and when someone in the group becomes symptomatic. Ideally, the sick person would stay in their bedroom and have their own bathroom. If the bathroom is shared, they should clean it after each use. When they leave their room, they should wear a mask and gloves, if possible. “People can bring them food and take care of them,” Carlton said, but those people should also wear masks and gloves.