A student is escorted into the schoolyard by a teacher as schools outside the greater Montreal region begin to reopen their doors amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada, May 11, 2020.

COVID-19: The latest from The World

Canadians contend with etiquette questions as they double their social bubbles

After months of staying home in self-isolation, people in some parts of Canada are being told they can begin to expand their real-life, in-person social circles.

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A student is escorted into the schoolyard by a teacher as schools outside the greater Montreal region begin to reopen their doors amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada, May 11, 2020.

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Christinne Muschi/Reuters

When Pearl Martin and Derek Martin heard the news that people in Newfoundland could finally socialize in person with one more family, they started running through the possibilities.

“We had lots of options. My brother lives next door. And he has two sons who also live in the community,” Pearl Martin said.

Their two children and a granddaughter also live in Clarenville, Newfoundland. So do Derek Martin's two siblings. All these options made Pearl Martin's head spin.

“It’s a weird predicament. How do you pick one child over another? How do you pick one brother over your sister? How do you pick one parent over the other parent? It was asking people in reality to show favoritism.”

Pearl Martin, Newfoundland resident

“It’s a weird predicament,” Pearl Martin said. “How do you pick one child over another? How do you pick one brother over your sister? How do you pick one parent over the other parent? It was asking people in reality to show favoritism.”

It’s a predicament that millions of Canadians have faced over the last few weeks. After months of staying home in self-isolation, people in some parts of Canada are being told they can begin to expand their real-life, in-person social circles.

Related: Canada closes most of its great outdoors to curb COVID-19

In Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Alberta and Saskatchewan, governments have encouraged people to buddy up with one other family, to form a “double bubble.” That means they can visit each others’ homes, go out together and even have physical contact. It’s great news for a lot of Canadians, but it has also created a whole new set of social challenges and even some awkwardness as people try to figure out who to bubble with — or how to turn people down.

Lucia O’Sullivan, a psychology professor in Fredericton, New Brunswick, said choosing another family to invite into her circle made her feel like a nervous teenager. She and her husband, a clinical psychologist, wanted to pair up with the coolest family in their neighborhood. So, O'Sullivan immediately got on the phone to make sure her invitation was the first one to get through.

Related: Niagara Falls is off-limits to Americans as US-Canada border remains closed

“It was like asking someone to the prom. It was like, ‘Oh, I've got to get in there quick and you know, we want to ask the person we most want to hang out with, and will they say yes or, will they say no?’ And it was so strange. It was very high school.”

Lucia O’Sullivan, New Brunswick psychology professor 

“It was like asking someone to the prom,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh, I've got to get in there quick and you know, we want to ask the person we most want to hang out with, and will they say yes or, will they say no?’ And it was so strange. It was very high school.”

Carey McBeth, an etiquette consultant in Vancouver, on Canada’s west coast, said she’s heard from a lot of Canadians with similar dilemmas. She said her phone had been ringing off the hook with calls for people looking for advice on how to conduct themselves when they’re setting up their own two-family bubble, what they should say if they want to turn someone down and what to do if no one invites them. She said most people are concerned about offending others.

Related: Indigenous groups in Canada fight to stay closed as restrictions ease

“We are heightened right now with anxiety, and people are feeling nervous and people are getting angry when they see individuals out when they’re not following social distancing guidelines. So, everything is heightened. If all of a sudden [you] say, 'You know, I don’t think I want you in my bubble,' somebody might take that very personally,” she said.

McBeth says she reminds her clients that if it feels like the prom — forming a social bubble is a serious undertaking. Everyone’s health is potentially at risk, and McBeth says its crucial to openly discuss limits and expectations before starting the relationship.

Tanya O’Donnell, a sales representative in Edmonton, Alberta, said open communication was the key to forming a successful double bubble with the neighbors across the street. She and her husband set up their bubble even before the government approved the idea. Both couples were working at home, and both couples have a 2-year-old. Child care was unavailable, so they decided to take turns looking after each others’ toddlers so the other adults could do their paid work without distractions.

O’Donnell said the two couples texted each other every time they left the house.

“Even before we joined houses, it was like 'OK, so who have you been in contact with who have you seen where have you gone?' And then when we knew where everyone had gone, we just kept everyone in the loop of everything,” she said.

Related: Two comedians reshape their acts during the lockdown

The relationship lasted for seven weeks and ended when O’Donnell’s son Chase got a spot in daycare. The families decided that since Chase was spending his days with other children, maintaining the bubble would be too risky. O’Donnell said it was a heartbreaking decision.

“They started off as neighbors, but then they’re family. And you see their child every other day and you have a different relationship with that child then you would just seeing them nightly for an hour. You just spend so much time with them. Honestly, it feels like you’re going through a breakup.”

Tanya O’Donnell, Alberta resident

“They started off as neighbors, but then they’re family. And you see their child every other day and you have a different relationship with that child then you would just seeing them nightly for an hour. You just spend so much time with them. Honestly, it feels like you’re going through a breakup,” she said.

The rules governing double bubbles are evolving as Canadian provinces get the coronavirus outbreak under control and that could lead to more social dilemmas.

Pearl Martin’s elderly father-in-law Sam Martin lives with her family. After a lot of careful thought, they decided the fairest option was to bubble up with Sam Martin's female friend. She comes over for dinner once a week or to hang out on the couch.

Pearl Martin expects that any day now, Newfoundlanders will get permission to add a third bubble to their in-person social circles. She doesn’t know who she’ll invite in this time, but she’s ready for it to get awkward.

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