How to Talk to Your Roommates About COVID-19 — When They're Still Hosting Parties

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Adhiti Bandlamudi looks out of the window from her room on Jan. 29, 2021, in an apartment that she shares with roommates in San Jose. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Living with roommates isn't always ideal. Especially since you're usually choosing your roommates out of necessity and not desire.

But even if you didn't get along with roommates, at least before COVID-19 you'd have a place to go to get away from them, like work or a coffee shop.

During the pandemic, those escape routes don't exist anymore. You're stuck with people you would have never expected — or even wanted — to get stuck with.

This describes my living situation perfectly.

My two roommates and I usually get along fine. When shelter-in-place started back in March 2020, one roommate's boyfriend moved in indefinitely (and he's still here) but we made it work. We created a more comprehensive cleaning schedule. And while we would occasionally share a meal, we generally kept to ourselves.

But when the holiday season hit, one roommate wanted to socialize.

When the Party Doesn't Stop During COVID-19

Spanning about four days at the end of December, there were a series of parties in our small apartment of seven to eight unmasked guests each night playing board games and drinking cocktails late into the night. My other roommate and I would stay in our respective rooms until the guests left and it felt safe to come out, but I was starting to get nervous.

I confronted my roommate about the partying and asked her to stop hosting guests. Begrudgingly, she agreed to stop throwing parties.

But the partying didn't stop. The very next night, I heard unfamiliar voices in our apartment. It was another party with about five people, throwing darts and drinking cocktails — all unmasked.

I confronted my roommate again, but by then it was too late. A few days later, I tested positive for COVID-19. Then my roommate's boyfriend tested positive. And then my roommate herself.

How to Talk to Roommates About COVID-19

Karen Lipney, a mediator at the San Francisco-based conflict resolution center Community Boards, has been hearing stories like this from tenants and landlords since the pandemic began.

"Some of [the disagreements] are about security deposits and things, but most of them are about situations just like you're describing," Lipney said.

So if you find yourself in a similar situation to me, what can you do? Here's Lipney's advice.

Get Communicating — and Sharing Your Goals

Even with the COVID-19 vaccine here,  it seems likely that many of us will still be inside for several more months in 2021. And in that time, Lipney believes roommates should be sitting down with each other and making ground rules.

"What kind of ground rules would we like to establish for bringing people into the house?" Lipney suggested considering. "What is everyone's goal?"

Sure, everyone's goal could be to "stay safe," but maybe the goals could be even more specific. For example, my goal would be to keep my almost-90-year-old grandfather safe during the pandemic.

He lives in the Bay Area and I want to be available to take care of him. If I make that goal clear to my roommates, we can all work towards solutions that benefit that goal.


Set Some Ground Rules With a House Meeting

Lipney says a house meeting is the most constructive thing roommates can do.

"We're going to be civil; we're not going to interrupt each other," Lipney said. "If we get escalated, we'll take a breath and we'll stop."

"If we come to agreements, we'll write them down and we'll make sure we agree with them," she said. "And if we need third-party assistance, we all agree that we're going to find some third-party help."

...and Remember How You Express Yourself Matters

When discussing ground rules, Lipney says a few things are important to keep in mind when phrasing concerns:

  • Use "I" statements, focusing on your emotions and concerns without asserting responsibility or blame to one individual. Example: "I feel really uncomfortable when there are unmasked guests in the apartment, because I fear I will not be able to take care of my aging grandfather if I am exposed to COVID-19."
  • Introduce a safe word that people can use if things get too heated and they need to step away from the discussion. Example: if I say the word "peanut," I'm getting tense and heated and I need to step away from the conversation to gather myself.
  • Before having a discussion with roommates, make sure everyone is in a place to talk about their concerns. Example: "You're giving the person permission to say 'I hear what this is a problem, I'm not in a place to talk about it right now. Can we talk about it at another time?'" Lipney said. Then you should follow up with suggestions for when a good time might be to have that discussion.
  • Ask open-ended questions that elicit a narrative.  Example: Instead of saying "You look like you're getting angry" say "How are you feeling?" or "What's going on for you right now?" That way the person can talk about their emotions, and you can possibly build empathy.

If the Worst Happens, Avoid the Blame Game 

Why is it important to avoid blame? Because it doesn't really solve anything, Lipney says.

In my case, yes: I could blame my roommate for partying and exposing me to COVID-19. But the truth is that I'll never truly know how I got the coronavirus. And while I'm fairly certain it was from her parties, I don't have any proof.

It also doesn't help me fix the problem, other than to provide me with a sense of control in a situation where I have none.

As for me and my situation? A few weeks after my roommates and I recovered from COVID-19, my partying roommate decided to throw a birthday party for herself in our apartment — with the same unmasked guests from the holidays. I confronted my roommate with the concerns beforehand, but the party still happened.

I can only control my actions. So I booked a vacation rental for that weekend, and was able to stay safe and isolated.

And for what it's worth... my roommate offered to pay for the rental.