When friends disagree about safe behavior

Among everything to lament about COVID-19, what’s bothering me now is its impact on friendships. Not friendships that became dormant, but frIendships where we don’t agree about safe behavior.

I feel defensive when very vigilant people say that it’s foolish for Illinois to ease up on restrictions. Some of those people are my friends. It makes me sad to be at odds with those whose opinions and mine about public issues always aligned before.

A friend I’ll call Chris, one of the most COVID-cautious people I know, was grumbling that Illinois will soon allow people to go maskless in most indoor settings. Silent during similar complaining before, I had an urge to speak up this time. I’m not nervous, I said. Fully vaccinated and boosted, I don’t expect to be hospitalized or die if I get a breakthrough infection. I don’t feel that I can go on living much longer as we have the last two years. 

“Yes, that’s the argument made for opening up,” Chris replied.

I noted that tolerance for risk is something each of us will have to decide for ourself. I can tolerate more risk than people with underlying health conditions. Though I didn’t know how to sound less judgmental, I still felt bad. Disagreeing with friends — the rare times I have — makes me uncomfortable.

To be clear, I am not in the anti-mandates camp; I’ve followed the public health guidelines. When the guidelines say that we can remove our masks, I expect that I often will. Whoever I’m with may not make the same choice. I hope we can be respectful of one another’s decision.

When restaurants opened up, a friend and I, both fully vaccinated, were discussing whether we would eat inside. We weren’t planning a get-together, just having a theoretical discussion. I said that I felt as safe as I could be at the time. Adding that we can’t ensure against all risk in life, I made the clichéd comparison to riding in a car. She said something to the effect that eating out is a choice but riding in a car is usually the only option to get where we need to go. Somehow an exchange about our risk tolerances came off as arguing for different points of view. The phone call ended not long after, and it was the last time we spoke. The longer I wait to call, the more awkward it seems, and I suspect that she’d rather not hear from me.

That disagreement had been rare in my friendships may not be boastworthy. Bonds might be deeper if expressions of difference had been risked now and then. The high stakes of COVID are stressing relationships. Differences about keeping save are not going to go away. Conversations may become more fraught as we each navigate an uncharted course with uncertain advice. As I practice tolerance, I should try to tolerate the discomfort of disagreeing with friends. 

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  • I understand. Finding a safe way to connect can mean exercising creativity. Instead of going to a movie theater together, friends and I each got a DVD of the film we wanted to see, started it at the same time, and watched it while hanging on the phone together so we could share our long-awaited reactions. I'd love to do that again. Good wishes for staying connected... as we are here, come to think of it.

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