On top of wearing face masks and 20 seconds of hand-washing, one of the recommendations for limiting the spread the coronavirus has been the isolation bubble. If you're picturing one of the little bubble-shaped habitats in The Martian, you're partly right. Isolation bubbles are groups of people who live together or close by, and have agreed to rules that mean they can hug, kiss, and interact freely with each other, but have to keep strict social distancing with everybody else. If you're in an isolation bubble with somebody who keeps breaking the rules, though, you can be put in a tough position — and left with no choice but to kick them out of the bubble.
"We are in a period where the balance between compassion, grace and clear boundaries is very fine," Josh Klapow Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. Setting up explicit rules about your isolation bubble early on is important, he says, because then everybody is on the same page about what's at stake — and you can refer to it when somebody doesn't do right. Everything from mask-wearing, hand-washing and self-quarantining to what to do if anybody gets sick should be put in place ASAP — in writing, if that helps.
"Everyone in the group needs to know in no uncertain terms what it means to participate," Klapow says. Whether you have a three-strikes-you're-out rule, or are more forgiving, all people in the bubble need to be on board. "In the words of Brené Brown: Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind," Klapow says.
When somebody does something to put the health of others in the bubble in jeopardy — like hanging out with people without social distancing, or refusing to wear a mask — it's important to tell them how you feel. "Be clear as to how you are feeling about their behavior and why," Heidi McBain L.M.F.T., a family therapist, tells Bustle. "Let them know that their behavior needs to change or you won’t be able to spend time with them." Ideally you should do this as a group, and agree on what to say beforehand.
You should listen to their reasons, McBain says, even if you disagree with them. "You can still empathize with them, but still hold fast to what you are and are not comfortable with at this time," she says. Don't start out with a confrontational attitude, because they won't feel heard.
A one-time park visit with a friend who lives alone might not require the same response as, say, somebody who insists on picking up from their weed dealer without social distancing. You could start with temporary exclusion, Klapow says. "Ask the person to self-isolate for a period of time to confirm they have not come in contact," he says. If they can access a coronavirus test — which is definitely not a given right now — they should be tested, too, particularly if anybody they saw has since gotten sick.
People who keep breaking the rules, though, might need to be removed from the bubble altogether, painful though that might be for everybody. "Removing them from the group is as straightforward as explaining to them the purpose of the isolation bubble, pointing out their disregard for the rules that establish the bubble and offering a period of quarantine or removal," Klapow says. Maybe they can come back after self-isolating for 14 days without showing any symptoms — the incubation time of the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) — or after they've tested negative. Or maybe you and everybody else want them to hang out with other people.
Obviously, if they live with you or are very close with you and your bubble-mates, this can be a really difficult thing to do. You might feel like a bad friend or family member, even if you're following rules everybody agreed on at the start. Talking to a professional could help you navigate your emotions. "Counseling can be a great place to process how you’re feeling about this friend or family member and their current risky behavior," McBain says. She notes that counseling might help the person who's been excluded, too — because they'll likely be angry or sad, and might want to talk about it.
"An isolation bubble is a bubble of trust," Klapow says. "If that is violated, while you care about the person, you cannot risk interacting with them." Your priority needs to be your safety and the safety of those around you — and difficult though it may be, people who endanger that might need to stay away for the time being.
Josh Klapow Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Heidi McBain L.M.F.T., family therapist