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Living in a Bubble World – How COVID Bubbles Are the New Norm

An outdoor table encased in a bubble

Prior to 2020, if you mentioned a “bubble,” someone would have thought you were talking about housing or the economy. But that’s no longer the case. With the rapid spread of coronavirus, many now refer to COVID bubbles as a means to deter infection. But even this terminology can have a variety of different meanings from the conceptual to the literal. From restaurants, to sports leagues, to even concerts, we now find ourselves living in a bubble. And it’s a world that’s not likely to go away any time soon.

COVID bubbles today can refer to different situations, but they all have one goal in mind…to protect us. As more virulent strains of the virus emerge, living in a bubble remains perhaps our best bet. Certainly, long-term protections will involve coronavirus vaccinations and herd immunity. (For more on the challenges that lie ahead with coronavirus vaccinations, check out this Bold Business story.) But based on the current vaccination rollout, many are predicting such protections won’t appear until 2022. This is why many continue to embrace a bubble concept when it comes to deterring the spread of COVID.

“The fewer, the better. Your bubble consists of everybody that your entire bubble is in contact with. So even if you’re only including one other person in your bubble, but that person has 10 people in their bubble, you’ve now got 11 people in your bubble.” – Dr. Sadiya Khan, Epidemiologist and Assistant Professor of Medicine, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The Conceptual COVID Bubbles

When most people refer to COVID bubbles, they’re talking about conceptual ones. In essence, these types of bubbles refer to restricting contact to only a select few people. Only close friends and family members should be allowed in such circumstances. Those who agree commit to limiting contact to only those people living in a bubble. And if accidental contact is made outside, then COVID testing and quarantining is required. Combined with mask-wearing, this approach has been shown to be the most effective in deterring COVID infectious spread.

Without question, these COVID bubbles are challenging at best and isolating at worst. This is especially concerning for those who are already socially isolated, such as many older adults. Using innovative videoconferencing platforms can be critical for these individuals. The potential harm to this population from being exposed to the virus supports living in a bubble. Likewise, current strains on the nation’s healthcare system similarly encourage these efforts despite their extreme nature. Until vaccination rates reach 70 percent or more, this remains the best strategy infectious disease experts encourage.

“If we’re going to observe the concept of bubbles, then there have to be insiders and outsiders. Instead of focusing on who’s inside or outside, suggest maintaining social contact through whatever means are safely available, e.g., Zoom or FaceTime.”- Jayson Dibble, Associate Professor of Communication, Hope College

The Literal COVID Bubbles

After suffering through the 2008 recession, most of us can easily grasp a conceptual bubble. Thus, it’s not that difficult understanding what living in a bubble means in a general sense. But some have taken this quite literally. During the fall, many restaurants in New York and other cities created dining bubble pods during the pandemic. Unfortunately, these are not ideal, often exposing those in the pod and servers to higher infection risk. Condensation, poor ventilation, and demands for sanitization in between dining parties further complicated these situations. And in terms of their utility, most experts believed they did more harm than good.

Some outdoor dining inside bubbles
Welcome to the new normal, where everyone eats in COVID bubbles.

Even more remarkable are recent concerts performed by The Flaming Lips. During the pandemic, all of us have realized that we need live entertainment. (Do you agree that we need concerts? Check out this Bold Business opinion piece.) So, the band members decided to have their entire audience as well as themselves in bubbles. Each Zorb ball could hold up to 3 patrons, and attendants were on hand to assist if needed. Each of the COVID bubbles had water, a battery-operated fan, and small speakers. It also came with a sign that could let attendants know if a restroom break was needed. Certainly, this approach required a lot of space and ample staff. But despite this, concerts were well-attended.

“[The bubble concert is] a very restricted, weird event. But the weirdness is so we can enjoy a concert before putting our families and everybody at risk. I think it’s a bit of a new normal — you might go to a show, you might not, but I think we’re going to be able to work it out.” – Wayne Coyne, Lead Musician for The Flaming Lips

COVID Bubbles in Between

Interestingly, there are also situations where living in a bubble has both physical and conceptual aspects. Last season, both the NBA and the NHL adopted their own versions of COVID bubbles. Players were required to remain in isolated areas during the season to prevent the spread of coronavirus. This also made interruptions in the games less likely. Restrictions became even more intense as teams approached to playoffs and the finals. Though still exposed to others, the number was much reduced. Mask-wearing and social distancing was used in these instances to further manage risk.

Of course, not all sports leagues decided to take a bubble approach. Several elected to impose COVID testing, contact tracing, mask-wearing and social distancing as their primary strategies. Rather than living in a bubble, players were allowed to stay at home. The NFL and MLB pursued this type of strategy, and some mishaps did occur along the way. But despite some setbacks, the seasons proceeded to completion without using strict COVID bubbles in the process. Clearly the bubbles reduce risk, but the trade-offs for some sports leagues were believed to be too much.

Living in a Bubble After COVID

Regardless whether you think of COVID bubbles conceptually or otherwise, all of us are quite aware of a bubble mentality. Even as we walk on the street or into the grocery store, we’re all very aware of our immediate personal space. This heightened sense of our own “bubble” isn’t likely to go away immediately. And if vaccines have a limited duration of effect, like a flu shot, then these perceptions will definitely stick around. While we may not be dining or going to concerts in Zorb balls (what are Zorb balls?), we will still be wary of our surroundings. That’s why, to some extent, we’ll probably be living in a bubble world for some time to come.


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