Other pods aren’t so self-contained. Jen Angel, a 45-year-old who lives in Oakland and owns a bakery (she was mixing vanilla-buttercream icing while we talked), has adopted a different strategy with her six housemates. Each of them is allowed to interact indoors and unmasked with a couple of their “most important people.” But there are no limits on the number of people those contacts see, or who those contacts’ contacts can mix with. Angel and her housemates meet weekly to go over the pod rules and map out everyone’s contacts and contacts’ contacts. As of last week, their most recent map included 35 people, and that didn’t include the unknown number of more distantly connected contacts.
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The podders I spoke with also had very different standards for rule-making and communication. Angel’s house, for example, has a Google Doc of agreements (“wash your hands as soon as you enter the house,” “immediately report exposures or symptoms to the rest of the pod”). Selby’s nannying contract includes a list of permitted activities. But some groups don’t have formal agreements at all. Sue Loh, a 44-year-old programmer and software developer who lives outside Seattle, told me that she considers her children’s nanny to be part of her household (she prefers household to pod or bubble because her family and her nanny are interacting for practical, not social, reasons). But Loh hasn’t asked her nanny or her nanny’s family to “limit their behavior at all,” she said, because “we just know from her own behavior that it’s probably not any more risk than we’re already taking.”
By any strict definition, Loh’s and Angel’s groups are not bubbles at all, because they’re not closed networks. Open pods aren’t useless, especially if everyone is good about wearing masks, but they’re still riskier than a self-contained pod, no matter how pandemic-conscious members are in the rest of their life. “As soon as you sort of break your bubble, the connections can be infinite. And this is how [the virus] spreads,” McGraw, of Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, said.
The leakiness might be even more dangerous when bubble buddies don’t realize it’s a problem. “We get into trouble when people maybe think they’re in a pod, but some recommendation is being violated,” Meghan Moran, an associate professor of health, behavior, and society at Johns Hopkins, told me. That could lead to “a false sense of security,” further endangering people in the group. In other words, not only do some pods keep their members safer than others, but the very premise of safety can also put pod members at risk.
Why, then, aren’t we all keeping our pods closed tight? Some variation in how Americans form their pods is unavoidable and even healthy. Local transmission rates, for example, can be used to inform best practices, and people in different living and work situations will come up with different solutions to the problem of how to socialize in a pandemic. But inconsistent or nonexistent messaging is undeniably playing a role in the confusion. For a concept that’s so important and widespread, health experts and the government have given remarkably little direct advice to the public.