Social bubbles are a good idea. So what took so long?

OPINION: Ontario didn’t allow social bubbling until June 12. When this is all over, we should figure out what the hold-up was — and learn from our mistakes
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jun 17, 2020
As of June 12, families and households in Ontario were allowed to begin interacting in groups of up to 10, with some conditions. (iStock.com/miljko)

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I had a beer with my dad last night. Indoors, too. It's a strange way to begin an article, I grant, but in the unusual circumstances of 2020, this small event is in its own way newsworthy. For the first time in months, families are getting together to have a beer, to hug loved ones, to organize play dates among cousins, or to help family members with specific care needs. Welcome to the "bubbling" phase of the pandemic.

A social bubble is a self-contained social unit encompassing several households. It helps keep people safe from the virus because it limits outside contacts; if a member does become infected, you can isolate the bubble without shutting down the rest of society. It will only be as reliable as its members are compliant and loyal, but, in theory, at least, it is a safe way to both ease the burden of isolation and greatly simplify the demands of contact tracing in the event of an outbreak. 

We started hearing about bubbles months ago as other provinces adopted some version of them, but they became permitted in Ontario, according to government decree, only on Friday of last week. Families were allowed to extend their social circle to 10 people, provided that all the members of said circle agreed to keep it exclusive. You can still see others, of course; we had a backyard visit with friends and family just days ago. But you need to maintain your distance in those scenarios: physically separated and outdoors. Within your bubble, you don't have to worry about that. You can share indoor spaces, you can hug, and you can, but really shouldn't, tackle your cousin on the trampoline (as it was regrettably necessary to remind my son). 

You'll forgive the somewhat lighthearted tone above. But my happy experience — a beer with dad, a playdate for the kids — reflects my family's blessed circumstances. We've bubbled with our immediate family in Toronto; any awkward discussions about who wouldn't make the cut were simplified by the fact that my wife's family lives farther afield. We are all in good health and relatively good cheer. For us, a bubble makes life better, but it doesn't make it more tolerable. It was tolerable already.

But that wasn't the case for many families. On Sunday, as my kids and their cousin were running around and playing for the first time in months, my sister and I compared notes about the people we knew whose circumstances were vastly different. The sudden imposition of strong isolation requirements has meant terrible hardship for many people and families. Single parents have been left to juggle work and parenting without any help. In cases where one spouse suffers from significant medical problems or mobility issues, without family or nursing support, the (relatively) healthy spouse has suddenly had to become the full-time caregiver. Parents of children with special needs have struggled to care for their sons and daughters without the usual array of supports they might have been accustomed to. And there was never, ever a break. Former couples co-parenting children together in different homes, either through amicable informal understandings or court-ordered custody agreements, faced legal and financial challenges as well as emotional ones. 

And, then, of course, there was simply the emotional toll of missing the people you love. It's not as dramatic, but it's real. Who among us, these last long three months, hasn't just wanted the comfort of family and friends? It's hard to find a metric that captures loneliness, but that doesn't mean it wasn’t a thing.

Bubbling isn't the perfect solution, but it gets us some of the way there. It was a good idea months ago, and Ontario should have moved to it sooner. Bubbling joins a discouragingly long list of concepts and ideas that our government leaders were frustratingly slow to adopt. Border controls, masking, legally binding quarantines, enhanced protection for long-term-care homes, support for outdoor gatherings, a regional phased reopening plan — these were all good ideas, and obviously so, long before they were enacted into policy. These delays probably cost lives in some cases and certainly contributed to economic damage. When this is finally over, we'll have to ask ourselves what the hold-up was.

But we'll also have to make sure that we learn these lessons and don't forget them for next time. There will be a next time. Whether the next time is future waves of COVID-19 or some entirely new viral or bacterial threat, we'll find ourselves here again, scrambling to respond, looking to 2020 for lessons. 

And one of those lessons should be that bubbles for family or close friends are a way to help contain the spread of a novel infection while also allowing families to function and human beings to get the social contact they need to stay healthy and emotionally stable. At the outset, a brief total lockdown, with only limited trips to collect essential supplies, is still absolutely necessary to break transmission chains, particularly when a virus is as sneaky as COVID-19. But, after that brief period, a few weeks at most, adopting family bubbles should be automatic. 

It won't get us a cure or vaccine any faster. But it will make the wait more bearable. 

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