February 23, 2021 at 10:25 am EST | by Tom Sommers
To pod or not to pod?
COVID-19 crisis, gay news, Washington Blade

Is it me or do others find COVID social pods (aka bubbles) elusive?

I watched from the Wharf’s dock as the pod boat sailed south. Where was the pod sign-up sheet? Was there an email campaign? When did registrations end?

According to an Axios-Ipsos poll, almost half (47 percent) of Americans have formed a COVID-19 pod for pandemic interaction with trusted friends. In general, participation favors women and people with college degrees. City dwellers aren’t as hip to it as suburbanites. I’d estimate with the DMV’s educated population and our LGBTQ networks, participation may be higher.

What happened to the 53 percent who aren’t in a pod? Are they still idling on the dock?

As a loosely connected LGBTQ man, I find pods intriguing. Outside of dating (what’s that?), I can be friend finicky. I seek companions for activities when the mood strikes and can be aloof. Maybe I’m a pan-intro/extrovert.

The question is, who’s in a pod and where are they? This pod culture feels like an underground society.

Are there pod meetings? Weekly check-ins? Can a pod have only three people? Are there mixed-gender and hookup pods? The answers vary.

Few people admit to their pods in casual chit-chat. And when they do, it’s in a hushed tone. George mumbles under his breath (similar to when talking about a therapy session), “shhh, yeah, on Saturday I’m going to outdoor brunch with my pod.”

My reply to George might be “thanks for sharing. And all of these years I thought we were friends. Guess my invite’s in the USPS mail.”

It’s ironic that the pod concept — a safe-meetup fix for a justified fear of managing pandemic, social activity — can also be exclusionary.

What are the criteria for joining a pod? Do they have membership drives?

What behavior cut Peter from the pod list? Was it the tacky face mask design; the White Claw flavor; the frontline job?

Pods arrived when we confronted plague reality in March 2020. People shouted from rooftops, “where do I go and with which friends do I spend time?”

Keith on Capitol Hill said, “[COVID-19] was something that needed to be taken seriously, and I limited my interactions with family and friends.” Keith hasn’t seen his parents, who are in high-risk groups, since February 2020.

Keith went on to say, “I gauge those in my bubble to their level of COVID-19 awareness, and my trust of them not exposing [themselves] to possible risks [and endangering me].”

Noah, who lives near Columbia Heights, said since May 2020 he’s had two or three meetups a month with the same two friends. They spend time cooking up a storm and watching TV series together. It’s an intimate group with consistent comfort.

Keith is in two pods — one local and one outside the DMV. Each bubble has three people and they primarily meet outdoors.

A Dupont resident said he has a hookup buddy with whom he spends time because it’s pandemic-safe and convenient. Their future is unclear post-COVID-19.

Two camps

There are two pod campsites — either you’re in or you’re out. For those inside a pod, they vary by makeup and importance. The social safety net is the common denominator.

Keith hopes his pod ends with the pandemic. “I want to see my entire social network, locally and not-so locally, post-pandemic and specifically post-vaccine,” he says. 

Conversely, Noah wants to continue his pod for as long as possible.

What about for those of us not in an official pod?

For us and everyone, there’s no pandemic end date. Fortunately, we have spring/summer vaccine appointments and more certainty than in 2020. Otherwise, caution as usual until Dr. Fauci says, “all clear!”

Noah admitted, “I’m not a person who craves a lot of in-person activity. I spend time on social media and take walks solo or occasionally with a friend (masked). Being with a small group of dear friends who are mindful of the risks has been important to me.” 

Keith’s approach is “even in my bubble, I have increased my outdoor activities — long walks and reading — in outdoor public spaces where it’s safe.”

As the pandemic’s end lies ahead, do you find a pod or wait it out? The trick is to balance safe in-person time with personal comforts to get you through the summer.

Tom Sommers is a writer in Shaw and former chair of Center Global at the D.C. Center for the LGBTQ Community.

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