It’s time to hold each other accountable for problematic socializing.

Lately, I’ve been hearing similar comments from friends and family members about COVID-19: “I’m over this pandemic. I’m sick of wearing a mask. What’s the point?”

I don’t know what to think when I’m scrolling on my phone and see pictures of the people I love at the beach, going on vacation, being with large groups of their friends, because I understand the urge to pretend that everything is OK.

I’m planning a socially distant wedding as I write this. I know our decisions to socialize in the face of the pandemic just makes this worse.

We’re all tired.

The emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is undeniable, with more and more people experiencing what experts are now calling “caution fatigue.”

A main symptom of caution or crisis fatigue is losing sensitivity and a feeling of urgency to practice safety precautions during the outbreak. We are tired of being indoors. We want to see our family members and friends. We want this virus to be “over.” 

But the reality is that we can’t simply wish away this highly contagious virus. COVID-19 doesn’t care about our caution fatigue. It plows ahead as deadly as ever.

Instead, washing our hands, wearing masks, and social distancing are all important steps to take to protect ourselves and others from contracting this new coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

So, how are we supposed to respond to those comments of being “over” the virus? And how do we keep ourselves in check when we’re feeling exhausted from all the safety precautions?

When it comes to socializing, we have to set our own boundaries — and stick to them.

While the CDC gives specific guidelines and recommendations for any social gatherings, we also have to check in with ourselves to understand what we are and are not comfortable with. This is especially true if you or a loved one is high risk for COVID-19.

For some, wearing a mask and socializing outdoors with a lot of space between each individual is enough to feel safe and secure. Safety measures for immunocompromised people are more severe and urgent. 

For others, staying 6 feet away in an outdoor location is still not safe enough. There are other precautions that are necessary, such as wearing the right face mask and even using hand sanitizer that’s actually effective.

Some people are even creating social bubbles — small groups of friends or family members — during the pandemic. In these cases, this is your group, your herd. Seeing the same people over and over again can feel exhausting, but it’s a type of controlled socialization that can keep you happy and safe.

The first step, then, in setting boundaries is figuring out which boundaries you need. It might be a social bubble. It might be a variation of that. Or it could be seeing one person and having virtual hangouts with others. 

Here are some questions you can ask yourself before going to a social situation:

  • What do I need to be safe? What do the other people in the social situation need to do to keep me (and themselves) safe?
  • Am I immunocompromised? Do I need to take extra precautions to stay safe?
  • Will the social event happen outdoors? Where am I comfortable socializing?
  • Is everyone required to wear a mask?
  • Have I practiced safety measures in other aspects of my life to protect myself and the people in this situation?
  • Have the other people in this scenario practiced safety measures in other aspects of their life?
  • Are they socializing with other people, and are those people being safe?

Once you know the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to assess your own comfort level to make the most of your social life during these times.

Let’s say, for example, that you need your friends and family members to always wear masks when they go to the grocery store or a public place (which is a mandate in many states now).

Setting a boundary would mean letting them know that this is a requirement to keep you safe for you to see each other.

Keeping that boundary would mean that if they don’t wear a mask in public places, you can’t socialize with them in person. While sticking to your boundaries can be incredibly challenging, it’s also the best way to make your expectations clear to stay safe.

Communicating your expectations and listening to other people’s expectations is essential.

When my fiance began new employment as an essential worker, we had a conversation about how he was going to keep himself and me safe. Obviously, he doesn’t have a choice. He has to work. We have rent to pay. And remember that intimate socially distant wedding I mentioned earlier?

To stay as safe as possible, my fiance wears a mask (which is required regardless) every minute while he’s working, as do his co-workers. He also practices rigorous handwashing and hand sanitizing throughout the day.

Lastly, when he comes home from work, he takes off his shoes at the door, removes his work clothes, and hops in the shower before we’re face-to-face.

After working for 10 hours and being on his feet all day, it’s tiring to take the time for these extra safety precautions — but it’s incredibly important for our relationship to safely live together.

And having these conversations is a practice I’ve applied to the rest of my relationships, too. My friends know that masks and having an outdoor space are necessary to see each other.

While some of my family members are reluctant to wear a mask, they know that it’s important to wear it if they want to spend time with me. These are my boundaries, and they keep me safe.

Most importantly, it’s time to hold each other accountable for problematic socializing.

This means having hard, honest conversations about our social distancing expectations.

Be honest with your friends and family members about what they’re doing that might feel unsafe or put you at risk. And make sure to tell them as clearly as possible what you need from them to be safe.

This goes both ways, too: Ask your friends and family members what you can do to help them feel more comfortable and safer. And always be willing to reflect on what you might need to do to be safer.

This might mean taking the extra time to shower after work, getting a custom mask that fits to your face, or disinfecting doorknobs and steering wheels after each touch.

For your friends and family members who perhaps aren’t quite on the same page in terms of safety precautions? Ask yourself, “What should I do to keep them safe?”

Trust me, telling your grandma, who’s a lung cancer survivor, that you can’t hug her is one of the hardest boundaries to stick to.

Waving to friends you haven’t seen in months instead of hugging or shaking hands is awkward. And this is especially challenging when one party wants to touch and the other knows it’s not a good idea.

We have a responsibility to keep others safe as much as we should keep ourselves safe. Wearing a mask, staying home whenever possible, and respecting our own and others’ safety boundaries are important steps to navigating the pandemic as our lives adjust to a new normal.

Even though it feels challenging right now, staying apart is temporary. And won’t it feel fantastic when we finally can hug and see one another safely without the risk of spreading this virus?

Hold on for that moment. The further away we stay, the closer to the end of this we’ll get.

Aryanna Falkner is a disabled writer from Buffalo, New York. She’s an MFA candidate in fiction at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she lives with her fiancé and their fluffy black cat. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Blanket Sea and Tule Review. Find her and pictures of her cat on Twitter.