Conversations Around Coronavirus Rules Are Straining Some Relationships With a spike in COVID-19 cases colliding with cold weather and the holidays, many Americans are facing difficult decisions about whether and how to socialize.

'What Real Friends Do': How to Navigate Tough Conversations About COVID-19

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Hospitals in many parts of the country are reporting another surge in coronavirus patients. That follows a Thanksgiving holiday when many Americans gathered despite public health recommendations. The spike in COVID-19 numbers is colliding with colder weather and the holidays. And as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, many Americans are facing difficult conversations with friends and family about whether and how to gather.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: It's getting colder and harder to gather outdoors. And Kenzie Billings says some of her conversations with loved ones are feeling a bit fraught.

KENZIE BILLINGS: It's felt frustrating at times. You know, you can feel energy from people in terms of wanting to be together.

MCCAMMON: Billings is 29 and lives in Portland, Ore. Her pregnant sister has been taking social distancing rules very seriously, but she says others in the family are more eager to get together indoors.

BILLINGS: There's a lot of push and pull there in terms of, OK, where are my boundaries? And then exerting those boundaries is really hard.

MCCAMMON: Billings says it's especially hard to navigate these negotiations without being face-to-face. For Desiree Middleton, who's 50 and lives in Los Angeles, the pandemic has also been hard on some relationships.

DESIREE MIDDLETON: You know, I've lost friends.

MCCAMMON: Middleton says the swirl of misinformation around the coronavirus has complicated discussions about the need for mask-wearing and social distancing.

MIDDLETON: I have people that don't believe the virus is real. They feel like it's a government conspiracy. These are friends that I've known since middle school. One friend - I was in her wedding.

MCCAMMON: It's particularly painful, Middleton says, because she's had family members get sick with the virus. Even for a physician, asking loved ones to wear masks and stay distant from each other can be difficult.

TISTA GHOSH: For me, I've had to do this quite a bit with my own family.

MCCAMMON: Dr. Tista Ghosh is an epidemiologist in Colorado and the state's former chief medical officer. She says to keep the focus on wanting everyone to stay safe and healthy.

GHOSH: One of the things that I think is important to acknowledge upfront is that you care about them and you don't want anything to happen to them, and it's not just about you. I think putting that out there upfront, especially with older parents, is important.

MCCAMMON: Ghosh advises looking for creative ways to safely meet up, like eating a holiday meal separately and then going for a walk together or even meeting up in different cars for a tailgate party. Alise Bartley, a counseling professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, says offering alternatives can help soften the impact of conversations about social distancing.

ALISE BARTLEY: Is it about saying no, or is it about trying to figure out what to say yes to? How do we discern, yes, I can do this, but I can't do this?

MCCAMMON: The pandemic has strained some social connections. But Desiree Middleton in Los Angeles says for others, it's been a time to go deeper and communicate more honestly.

MIDDLETON: I think before the pandemic, we were - a lot of us were just on surface-level friendships. And now we're actually sharing the deep, painful parts of our lives with each other and saying things that - last year I was like, oh, I never would've told you this 'cause I would never want you to think this about me.

MCCAMMON: Middleton says she recently had to turn down an invitation to visit another close friend because she didn't feel safe getting on a plane.

MIDDLETON: She was like, OK, when that vaccine comes, you're going to be here (laughter). I'm like, absolutely - because that's what friends do. We understand each other. That's what real friends do. You understand each other.

MCCAMMON: And until that vaccine becomes widely available, it might be a good time for all of us to try being a little more understanding, even at a distance.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News.


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