Through the pod, then, our kids are now a primary vector for contagion — putting not just my wife and me at risk, but also our parents, if we choose to see them. The map of my bubble makes this plain — if not for our children, my wife and I would be an island unto ourselves. But the thing about kids is, they’re never alone — as Gurley pointed out, your friends and co-workers may live by themselves, but if you have kids, there’s a good chance they associate with other kids, and you can be sure those kids are around other adults, creating an invisible chain between you and people you don’t know.
A lot of people, it turns out. Rebecca Green, the mom of one first grader in the pod, is a doctor who has daily contact with two colleagues and about 10 in-person patients a week. Green’s younger son, the first grader’s brother, attends a preschool with 10 other children and two teachers. Through this single connection, then, my kids are linked to at least two dozen other people, including a rotating cast of patients. Green told me that she thinks about this level of exposure often, and she outlined several mitigating factors. Her practice has “strict Covid rules around illness and anyone with even a cold has to have a negative Covid test to return to work,” she told me. The preschool is also exceedingly careful. “Someone had a cold three months ago and everyone had to have a negative Covid test to return to preschool,” she said.
Still, for months, I’ve been linked to two dozen strangers, just a few ill-timed coughs away from Covid, and all the while I’d been none the wiser. As I was analyzing the far-flung corners of my bubble, I was often reminded of the double-dipping bit from “Seinfeld.” The dip looks untouched, pristine. But how many people are double-dipping their chips in your dip?
So that sealed the deal, then, right — we’re staying home for Thanksgiving?
Well, not so fast. Mapping the far reaches of my coronavirus bubble revealed far more contacts than I’d expected, but there was something unexpectedly reassuring about candidly discussing Covid risks with Green and other parents. I discovered that my network is robust in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. All of my indirect contacts are taking the virus seriously — none of them spun conspiracy theories about the pandemic, or suggested it was no big deal or told me to bug off and mind my own business. None of them were beyond risk, but I was also satisfied that they seemed to be doing the best they could to avoid getting sick.
I asked Gurley if I was crazy to even consider visiting my family for the holidays. She told me I wasn’t. In a pandemic, everyone is at some level of risk; what’s important is understanding your risk, and deciding whether seeing your loved ones is worth it. “I think we have to acknowledge the reality of people’s lives,” she said. “In my family, for example, we have a family member who has been diagnosed with stage-four cancer and may not live very long — so of course that person is at high risk, but at the same time, would we pass up the chance to see them in a way that we felt was safe?”
I wouldn’t be going to Thanksgiving to see a family member dying of cancer. Mine is a more mundane desire — to see my folks in person in a year we’ve spent mostly apart, and to accommodate their intense desire to spend time with our kids before the kids get too old for all that. This may not be enough to satisfy others’ scrutiny — on social media, among lefties like myself who proudly believe in science and ostentatiously defer to expertise, I’ve noticed quite a bit of travel-shaming. The C.D.C. says the safest way to spend Thanksgiving is to stay home. After discovering how huge my bubble is, shouldn’t I just go with that advice?
But I can’t do it. Even after I’ve mapped my bubble, the question of whether or not to go still feels, in the end, like a gut call, ruled more by emotion than empirical data.