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How to set omicron boundaries with friends and family

silhouette of a couple holding hands against a backround of glowing stars
Reuters/Lisa Marie David
A couple walks towards a Christmas tree in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, December 20, 2021.
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work


The second weekend of December, I was planning to attend a tree-trimming party with about 10 other guests at a friend’s apartment. Omicron was already spreading in various parts of the world, but cases had yet to surge by me in New York City.

The day before the party, however, I started having second thoughts. Omicron was making me nervous, and I was supposed to drive out to visit my mom (who’s in her mid-70s) the day after. I knew the safest course of action was to skip the party, but I also felt nervous about telling the host. Would she think that I was judging her for having the party in the first place?

Many of us have faced variations of this social dilemma throughout the pandemic, and the highly contagious omicron variant is only making such calculations more complicated. It’s clear that everyone who can be should be vaccinated with two doses and a booster, and that testing before gathering (if you can find a test) is a great idea. But anything else depends on the size of the gathering, the ventilation situation, the masking policy, the health vulnerabilities of the attendees, the health vulnerabilities of whomever attendees plan on seeing in the near future, and whether you prefer the wisdom of World Health Organization (cancel your plans) or White House medical advisor Anthony Fauci (if boosted, meet as planned).

So do we all have to do game theory now to figure out whether we’re okay attending brunch, and then show our work to whomever we’re canceling (or not canceling) on? In a word, yes. It’s just one of the many ways this pandemic is awful! But once you do decide on your boundaries, here are a few tips about how to articulate them.

Respect that other people’s risk calculus may be different

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, tells CNN that indoor gatherings right now should have at least “two out of three layers of protection: vaccination, Covid-19 testing, and masking.” She also says that people weighing holiday plans should “make a risk-benefit calculation based on each family’s circumstance.” Her words are a reminder that there won’t be one universally agreed-upon safety standard.

A healthy, recently boosted 30-year-old who lives alone, for example, may decide to take on a bit more risk in order to fly and see family over the holidays. A person whose partner is immunocompromised, however, may decide against attending Christmas dinner with a dozen relatives. All parties in these examples are making understandable choices, even if they’re not necessarily the ones that someone else would make in their place.

In these confusing times, when setting our own boundaries, it’s helpful to phrase our choices in a way that makes it clear we’re not claiming a higher moral or ethical ground. “During a time with so many unknowns, there is not much benefit to establishing who is right or wrong,” Northwestern Medicine advises in its guidance on covid boundaries, adding: “If a loved one’s behavior impacts your health, speak up and make the conversation about your concern for both their well-being and your own.”

I kept this in mind when I called the friend hosting the tree-trimming party, emphasizing that I’d checked with my mom and that she preferred that I not attend the party. My friend was understanding; I told her how much I would have liked to come and that I hoped to see her soon. When we hung up, I felt immensely relieved: Neither of us was putting pressure on the other to do things differently.

Let people know your boundaries ahead of time

Whether you’re hosting a dinner, meeting up with a friend, or staying for a weekend with relatives, it’s helpful to give people advance notice of particular concerns you might have or precautions you’d like to take. Communicating these via text or email a little while before the event will give everyone a chance to plan ahead (or change their plans) accordingly.

Some requests may be fairly low-key, such as asking to dine al fresco at a restaurant with good heat lamps instead of indoors. In trickier situations (like if you’re uncertain whether a relative has been vaccinated), it may be helpful to put your own twist on a script from advice columnist Captain Awkward, who offered this language to a couple with an infant:

“We spoke to Kid’s pediatrician, and their advice is that anyone visiting the baby within the first six months be fully vaccinated for covid-19 (among a few other things, rubella and whooping cough are nightmares!) and also mask up while Kid’s immune system is still developing. We wanted to let you know so there’s enough time to handle it before your trip, or make another plan if it’s not possible. Can you confirm that you’re both fully vaccinated plus the recommended two weeks?”

If you’re vaxxed, boosted, and otherwise healthy, your risk appetite may be comparatively high—but it’s also considerate to check in with people you’re planning to meet up with and ask if they have precautions they’d like to take, thereby making it a little easier for them to express boundaries of their own.

Don’t be afraid to double-check

Even if you give advance notice of the measures you’d like to take, it may be necessary to follow up.

For example, requesting that houseguests take a rapid test before they arrive at your abode may be a smart idea in theory, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to get their hands on a test, or that they’ll remember to do so. The day before, send out a reminder.

The day of, if they haven’t reached out to let you know that they’ve taken a test and the results are negative, don’t feel shy about checking in. Treat the follow-up the way you might approach a work email, keeping your tone polite and asking a direct question: “Just wanted to check in about whether you were able to take a test yet? Let me know if you’ve had any trouble tracking one down.”

Have a back-up plan

It’s also possible that you’ll communicate your boundaries clearly, show up to a friend’s house expecting masks and open windows, and discover that an hour in, everyone’s tossing back drinks with masks dangling from their necks. In situations where you’re uncomfortable, it’s perfectly all right to go—and possible to do so without making anyone feel too awkward.

“Just say, ‘You know what—I’m gonna head on home now,” etiquette expert Elaine Swann told NPR in August 2020. “I had a great time.’”

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