Naomi Elliott

Somewhere between two weeks and 1 million years ago, when it first became clear that the coronavirus pandemic would require a significant lifestyle change, the inhabitants of my four-person Washington, D.C., apartment convened a meeting. We would try to wash our hands more, we agreed, and make ample use of our nice-smelling disinfectant spray. But beyond that, we struggled to reach a consensus on how our household would stay safe. Two of us don’t own desks, and there isn’t enough space to work together at the dining-room table. Three of us wanted to take the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines very seriously and begin social distancing right away. The other one didn’t. “I’m still going out this weekend,” this roommate insisted. “I’m not going to stop living!”

How is this going to work? I thought, feeling a combined pang of frustration and dread. Living with roommates and navigating their schedules, personalities, and relationships is hard enough at the best of times. Living with roommates in the middle of a pandemic threatens to be excruciating: What people are being asked to do now—avoid others, keep things extremely clean, isolate if you’re sick—is a serious challenge when you live in a house teeming with people, without familial bonds to make the household feel like a united front. Now, as D.C. and other cities across America have instructed their citizens to stay home as much as possible, roommates nationwide are asking the same question I am: How, exactly, are we supposed to manage this?

“A test of relationships,” said Amy Canevello, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “is what we’re doing here.”

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.

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.

The most crucial piece of the pandemic-response puzzle is implementing social distancing. All adults maintain a complex web of relationships, and more adults living in a household means more webs intersecting and more opportunities for the virus to spread. But it’s difficult to stop your roommate from seeing a friend or inviting his girlfriend over or stopping by a house party.

This has been a frustrating issue for Amy, a 25-year-old physical therapist who lives in an apartment with two roommates in Oregon, a state that has confirmed at least 690 cases of the coronavirus and 18 related deaths as of this writing. A repairman was scheduled to visit their apartment two weeks ago to fix a broken drawer in the refrigerator. Amy, who asked to be identified by only her first name to protect her privacy, wanted to cancel the appointment, but her roommates had the repairman come anyway. The three of them fought about it. Amy told me that she said some things she didn’t mean. “But I don’t think they really see the scope of how this is impacting other people,” she said.

It will help to lay down some ground rules, experts say, and roommates should do it before the health situation in their city gets worse. This starts with agreeing, as a household, to follow CDC guidelines and stay six feet apart—yes, even in your own house! It would be smart, in other words, to stagger your cooking times to avoid a scenario in which four people are crammed in the kitchen following different Alison Roman recipes. Then, roommates should “sit down and have a full discussion” about who’s coming and going and where, Keith Renshaw, the director of psychology at George Mason University, told me. “Ask: ‘How strict does everybody want to be about social distancing?’ Recognize that you’re probably going to need to work [toward] the strictest level.” Many people are now working completely from home, so their interactions with others are limited. But if someone in a shared house still has to go to the office every morning, experts recommend treating them as though they’ve been exposed to the virus. Constantly “monitor [them] for symptoms and do as much of the physical distancing as you can,” Justman said.

Does one roommate have a boyfriend she keeps traveling across town to see? The couple should either agree not to see each other in person or stay together in one place for the time being, Justman said. Don’t go back and forth, because “if you have four or five people in each house, then, in effect, you’ve got 10 people who are all exposed to each other,” she told me.

Obviously, this kind of distancing, while necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, has a major downside: People are going to get very tired of their housemates. I, for example, almost came unglued yesterday when my roommate turned the oven to 450 degrees to bake a single beet. And this will be especially bad for people who already dislike their roommates, or who are shacking up with a handful of strangers they found on Craigslist. Many Americans are already living in a heightened state of anxiety, and being sequestered with just a  few people—likely not even your favorite people—is likely to make things worse.

Charlotte, a 23-year-old researcher living in D.C. with seven other roommates, told me that the new policy of social sequestration was already getting to her. “Different group houses develop different house cultures … Unfortunately, mine has trended toward the more passive-aggressive side of things,” she told me last week, also requesting that I use only her first name for privacy concerns. “It can be difficult if we’re all working from home not to drive each other nuts.”

But there are ways to stay sane. “Do a lot of checking in: ‘How is everybody doing?’” Canevello said. Communicate your frustrations kindly. “Keep in mind there’s an internal struggle there that you don’t know about and have compassion for that when they’re starting to get on your nerves.” It might help, she said, to think about the situation in a different context. “Maybe [don’t] treat it as though you’re living with your roommate, but [as though] you are traveling,” Canevello said. On a trip, “there’s a lot of uncertainty and [you’re] navigating challenges together.”

Retreating to a private place will help, too, said Nance Roy, a psychologist at the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting emotional health among young people. Taking 20 or 30 minutes by yourself to do yoga or use a mindfulness app can relieve pent-up frustrations, she told me. Many colleges and universities are still offering remote mental-health services, and therapists across the country have gone virtual, too. Take a walk outside if you can. Relax with an art project, or binge-watch a Netflix show. It’s okay to veg out if you need to, Renshaw said: “We’re all just trying to muddle our way through.”

Things will be difficult in the days and weeks to come. But one possible outcome of this harrowing period is that at the end of it all we might feel a lot closer—or, at the very least, we might surprise ourselves with our own resiliency. It might help, when things get especially tough, to remember Canevello’s mantra: We’re all on this trip together.

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