Coronavirus Advice: Can I Yell At My Neighbors?

This week's How to Plague advice column offers answers on what to do when people won't stop using your patio furniture and how to go on dates remotely.

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I’m Scaachi Koul, a culture writer for BuzzFeed News, taking over from your trusted How To Plague columnist Katie Notopoulos (who is on maternity leave!). I'm not an expert on anything but I am very bossy so naturally I’m here to tell you how to live during a pandemic. I’ll be doling out advice on the best coronavirus-related etiquette, how to handle moral quandaries, and little squabbles, sometimes with actual expert input.

I live in a housing complex in Venice, California with four other women that I do not know very well/at all that live in the three front housing units and I live in the back. I've asked them to not use my furniture (in general) or stand by my front door to talk on the phone in order to respect social distancing. One of them called me tightly wound and attempted to argue my patio furniture is communal. I notice that my neighbors also do not wear face masks when using the common area in the front or even when going on walks. What is proper etiquette for people that live in complexes where there are communal areas, entrances, etc.? Please help, I feel like a bitch, but it's a #pandemic so…

If you really don’t want your neighbors to use furniture that you’ve left in what sounds like a common area, then don’t leave your furniture in a common area. It’s not like they’re sipping on a drink you left behind while you went to the restroom; they’re sitting on a seat in a courtyard that belongs to all of you.

If your neighbors are entering your sectioned-off outdoor property, that indeed sucks and merits a larger conversation with them about trespassing. But it sounds like you’ve left a chair and table out and they’re using it when you’re not outside and you can’t really stop someone from using a communal space, even if they’re doing so without care or concern for everyone else. Do you want to be the lady who brings her patio furniture in after using it?

Have you tried talking to them about using masks when they’re in the common areas? Are there some other rules you can put in place that’ll make you feel better? Would you be comforted if they wiped down the furniture they use with Lysol wipes? Sometimes you have to make it real easy for people, like leaving sanitizers out for everyone to use. It is a burden to be right.

I would also suggest talking to a landlord or property manager who might be able to put down some ground rules for the tenants so it doesn’t all fall on you. If you don’t feel like doing any of this, there are passive-aggressive ways to handle the situation. Dump water on the chairs so they’re dripping wet at all times. Put gum on the seats. If they take a call near your door and you can hear it, start screaming. Just start screaming. You can’t force people to behave the way you might want them to during a pandemic, but you can be annoying enough to get them to leave you the fuck alone. So I guess the real question is: Is the relationship you have with your neighbors important, or are you ready to just lose your goddamn mind already and start screaming???

Can you please give me some suggestions for what to do on online dates during the lockdown? I matched with a guy on Bumble and so far we’ve watched movies and played online card games “together,” but any other tips would be appreciated!—Ellie

Listen, I’m not a doer. I don’t like going places or having fun. For people like me, this quarantine is a unique hell, because video calls can’t really replicate the thing I enjoy doing the most with the people I like: sitting around and drinking and falling into comfortable silences that no one really questions. Remote hangs require activity, so I appreciate how challenging this situation is.

And since I don’t like to do anything and I especially hate meeting new people, I called my friend Barb for some advice. Barb dates a lot, is a great deal of fun, and when I FaceTimed her to ask for suggestions for you, she answered the phone wearing nothing but her bra and balancing a bowl of granola, yogurt, raspberries, and something called “pecan butter” between her boobs. That’s who Barb is. She does yoga and takes long walks and aligns her chakras daily. She is enjoying life on a level that I can’t even conceive of, and it makes me mad.

Here’s what she suggested: “They could both make the same recipe. Choose a cookbook and have dinner together. There’s also that game I bought, We’re Not Really Strangers. If you’re in a stage where you want to go from having weird online dates to creating some level of connection, it can be really good.” We’re Not Really Strangers is kind of like Cards Against Humanity, but instead of shitty anti-trans jokes and gags about date rape, it allows you both to have a deeper (to Barb) and more stressful (to me) conversation.

There’s also the Houseparty app, which lets you and your date play some games together online if you’re looking for something to do other than make unbroken eye contact for three hours, which again is Barb’s dream and my nightmare. (If you want my advice, I’d say that if you want to know what a person’s really like, play Pictionary with them. No one can hide when you play Pictionary.)

You’re at the beginning of a relationship, where everything is new and fun and the person you’re dating is still kind of a mystery so it’s an ideal time to just enjoy talking to them.

“It’s just nice to slow things down and have somebody write to you and be forced to be a little bit more consistent and have the space and distance to see if you really like someone or if you’re just going through the motions,” Barb said. It’s not bad advice, even if the woman giving it is an açai smoothie bowl come to life.

Hi. I have a question about wearing a face mask and being claustrophobic. I feel like I'm being smothered literally! I don't breathe right, I get VERY anxious, and just can NOT tolerate anything covering my face. I know I'm not alone on this. What do I do? What are MY rights?

Discomfort and real anxiety are different things, so I’m going to assume that this goes beyond the vague discomfort of, say, wearing a shirt with a tag that keeps poking you. Claustrophobia triggered from the masks we’re now being conditioned to wear is a real thing — have you tried wearing one with your glasses??? HELL! — but there are ways to combat it.

Personally, I have a number of phobias (not to brag), but I haven’t even begun to deal with any of them, so I consulted Tom Bunn, a licensed therapist, retired airline pilot, and author of Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia, who has some suggestions on how to deal with a stuffy face mask.

He explained that when you start to panic, it’s your sympathetic nervous system revving you up. This increases your heart rate, your breathing rate, your perspiration, and gives you all the signals that you are Not Enjoying This. Your parasympathetic nervous system, however, is the thing that calms that stress down. “Babies can’t calm themselves. They need someone else to do it for them. What research shows is that three things activate a baby’s parasympathetic nervous system,” Bunn said. “A face that’s benevolent, touch, and voice quality. That’s what mom does. Mom’s face, her voice, and her touch activates the calming system.”

But, look, you’re an adult, and thinking of your mom might not calm you down so much as make you worry about whatever needlessly judgmental comment she’s going to make about your upper arms, AS IF I NEED THIS RIGHT NOW, MONA. You can practice this using someone else who maybe didn’t once make you cry when you tried on a bathing suit in front of her in the third grade.

“Think of a moment with a totally accepting person. A buddy, nonjudgmental, not critical,” Bunn said. “The next thing is to take the feelings she has when she starts thinking of putting on a mask and link them to being with her friend. She could imagine she’s with her friend and she’s holding the mask there, thinking about putting it on. Then she wants to talk to her friend, putting the mask on. Then the next step is to put it on temporarily and take it off. It’s not just to desensitize it, but to link it to her friend.”

This will probably not cure your claustrophobia overnight. But associating the mask with a trusted friend might work better than thinking it’s a harbinger of doom. Something else that might help is connecting wearing the mask to positive activities like walking to a street or a park you like, or visiting a friend on their stoop (6 feet away, please!) while wearing it. If the mask has become a symbol of stressful errands you have to do — Costco runs with people standing too close to you, long lines at the pharmacy where everyone seems to have a cold — it’s not surprising that you’ve begun to feel strangled by this little piece of cloth.

As for your final question — “What are MY rights?” — your rights are manifold. In some states, you still have the right, for now, to go outside without wearing a mask. But what you do have at all times and in all places is the privilege of doing something that could stop someone else from getting sick, since you likely don’t know if you have the coronavirus. And if that’s not enough, you can stop yourself from getting sick, thereby saving your friends and family from having to worry about you. You have an obligation to everyone else around you, some of whom have weaker immune systems, are at a greater risk of getting sick, and maybe don’t have access to any PPE themselves, to try to do your part to keep them from getting ill.

That, Debbie, is your right. It’s a pretty good one to have. ●

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