EDM shows, for the uninitiated, are a germaphobe’s nightmare: sweaty, athletic, bass-thumpy gatherings with lots of what we’ve all come to know as “respiratory droplets” flying around, be it through yelling or panting or singing along with the music. So Ferrante and most of her friends knew what they needed to do if they wanted to start going again safely: get vaccinated. “I used to joke and say, ‘I’ll show up in a snow suit if I have to,’ ” Ferrante says.
One friend, however, has held off — and it’s causing problems.
For one thing, music festivals such as Coachella and Stagecoach have begun announcing vaccine requirements — and a show that the group has plans to attend in Colorado might be next. “We paid for a rental car, for flights. We got a really nice Airbnb,” Ferrante says. “I had to talk to her. I was like, ‘Hey, you know, we’ve paid for a lot of this stuff already. You need to decide what you would do.’ ”
But the logistical quagmire isn’t the only issue. “It’s kind of causing, like, tension,” Ferrante says. “I think she might feel that I’m being difficult on her.”
Now that a pandemic that briefly looked to be ending has surged back instead, vaccination status remains depressingly relevant — especially when meeting up with the whole gang at a bar or a game or in a home or in any other tight space. Some groups with a lone unvaccinated holdout are devising new ways to get together safely, while others are quietly wondering what it all means for the future of their friendships. How can we possibly keep hanging out with this person? But, literally: How?
Suzanne Lamminen, 74, moved to a senior living community in Sierra Vista, Ariz., about a year ago, and by spring, she’d joined a local group for widows. She’s grown especially close to about eight of them — they play bridge together and swim, and earlier this month, she invited them all over for a Saturday-evening dinner party.
A few days before, however, one dinner guest informed Lamminen that another wasn’t vaccinated. “I really was shocked,” Lamminen says, adding, “She also knew that I had told a prospective fellow that I couldn’t go out with him after I found out he wasn’t vaccinated. Because, you know, I’m 74.” Lamminen also has elderly onset rheumatoid arthritis, which can jeopardize the immune system.
The friend confirmed she was unvaccinated. As gently as she could, Lamminen uninvited her. “I almost bit the dust 20 months ago when I got the regular flu,” she wrote her in an email, “and my doctors have informed me that covid-19 would probably be fatal for me.”
Come Saturday, as the eight remaining dinner participants drank martinis and ate curry — one of Lamminen’s specialties — the details of the situation went politely undiscussed at the table. “But most of them knew,” she says. The friend hasn’t shown up to any widows’ group functions since.
Eventually, Lamminen hopes her friend will change her mind. But for now, she’d settle for just talking together from a six-foot distance. “We’ve had a lot of fun talking. We have things in common. I enjoy her conversation,” Lamminen says. “I miss her.”
Vaccine divides can be more threatening to a friendship than a mere disagreement. “In the case of religion or politics, you could just say, ‘Let’s not talk about it,’ ” says Irene S. Levine, a psychologist and the author of “Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend.” No such luxury exists with a coronavirus vaccination, since one person’s exposure to an unvaccinated person could affect “not just them but people around them, too,” Levine says. “Siblings, parents, grandparents, if they’re married, or have children.”
Of course, vaccinated people have been found to carry considerable viral load when infected with the delta variant, which can then be passed along to others. Still, the vaccinated are far less likely to get the virus, and even when they are, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, they’re likely to be infectious for a shorter period of time. (Public health officials recommend that even the vaccinated wear masks and keep some space around them when in crowds indoors.)
Levine suggests having an honest group conversation about boundaries, and planning gatherings accordingly. “People that are vaccinated and only comfortable with vaccinated people can get together,” among themselves, she says, “and it might be more of a one-on-one between the person who’s not vaccinated and anyone else who feels comfortable.”
Figuring out how to still hang out together, though, is the easy part. What’s harder is confronting a rift in values that has been suddenly, glaringly exposed. It can be difficult, Levine says, “to convey to an unvaccinated friend that you’re not rejecting them, but that you don’t agree with the decision.”
Gobi Bailey, 23, and her friend Bill Beverage, 22, are part of a seven-person friend group that talks nightly over Discord, a platform popular with gamers that enables group calls that can be easily entered and exited. Their far-flung group, which originated with a handful of high school buddies, rarely meets up in person — Bailey and Beverage both live in West Virginia, but the other five are scattered throughout the South. How to safely gather hasn’t been a matter of urgent concern.
But when one member of the group casually mentioned that he wasn’t getting vaccinated because there were no convenient locations, a faint new fault line appeared. Bailey was herself suffering from a breakthrough infection of the delta variant at the time.
“Gobi really went in on him,” Beverage says with a laugh.
“I was like, ‘Dude, do you want me to feel bad for you? I don’t feel bad for you,’ ” Bailey remembers. “I had my pulse ox on my finger. I was coughing and feeling like garbage. Like, ‘I don’t want to drive two hours’? I’m like, ‘Some people drive that for work!’ ”
The Discord call, Bailey and Beverage remember, was unusually quiet for a moment — then erupted in laughter. “Everybody was like, ‘Whoa, got dunked on ...,” Bailey says.
The mood stabilized quickly. But the confrontation echoed in Bailey’s mind for a long time afterward. “We all still think about it,” she says. Ultimately, they know it’s their friend’s decision whether he gets vaccinated. They’ll stay friends no matter what. But that said, she adds, his not doing so “does contribute to things like variant strains.”
And if the group were to gather in person now, Beverage says, “I think at that point, I would probably put my foot down.”
The aggrieved vaccinated people in this story all expressed concern for their unvaccinated friends’ well-being — after all, they’re the ones more at risk of a severe covid-19 case. Bailey even began researching whether there were in fact pharmacies near her friend’s home where he could get the shot. Ferrante, meanwhile, was at a recent sold-out show with no vaccination or testing requirement, and got the heebie-jeebies thinking about the risks it would pose to someone without protection.
“Everyone was, like, jammed in there, and I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is so weird,’ ” she says. “To be that close to so many strangers, now our brains are programmed to be like, ‘Oh, God, is this okay?’ ”
Her friend, she adds, will probably travel to the October concert in Colorado with the rest of the group — but skip the show itself. “She’s like, ‘I guess I’ll just go because everything’s paid for,’ ” Ferrante says. Just about everyone involved has the same opinion of that plan: “It’s just like, ‘God, that sucks.’ ”