New Brunswick

Choosing a 'bubble family' not always easy

While it’s led to some levity about favourite children, New Brunswick’s new “two-family bubble” has also sparked some serious discussions about expanding one’s bubble. 

Province says bubbles could grow if we continue to see good results

Infectious disease specialist Isaac Bogoch said a two-family bubble is a good first step but that people should select their bubble family carefully. (Submitted by Isaac Bogoch)

While it's led to some levity about favourite children, New Brunswick's new "two-family bubble" has also sparked some serious discussions about expanding one's bubble. 

Increasing contacts means increasing the potential for infection, says Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto and the Toronto General Hospital. 

"There still is the possibility that infection can be brought into a house — and instead of infecting one house, it may infect two houses."

He said it's important to remember that "whatever that other household is doing can directly impact your house as well."

Bogoch said the idea of a "two-family bubble" is new to him, but he thinks it's a good first step on the way to getting back to some semblance of normal. 

He said the benefits include more social interaction and expanding "the social safety net that people have."

Joining forces with another household would add more "able bodies" to help with child care and at-home learning. 

"It can make things way easier for people living under one roof because there's just extra hands on deck," he said. 

But Bogoch stresses that "more hands on deck" means more people can introduce the virus. That's why it's so important to carefully consider who you let into your bubble. 

Beware of who you bubble with

For example, you may not want to pick someone who has been flouting state-of-emergency measures. And essential workers may not be the most popular options for those still bubble-family browsing, said Bogoch. 

The government also warned about choosing essential workers. 

"If you are working and out in the public, you may want to be cautious as to who you bubble with so that you do not increase risk to a vulnerable person in another household bubble," states the government's guidance document on the province's recovery efforts. 

Whomever you choose, Bogoch said people should still remain vigilant. 

"The same measures are still extremely important — those of physical distancing and hand hygiene," he said. 

On Friday, the government announced that people can now choose one other household to partner with to form a "two-family bubble."

Their choice must be mutual and once they decide, they cannot choose a different household, explained Premier Blaine Higgs.

The relationship must be exclusive. 

In its guidance document, the government said the measure "would allow you to visit, have a meal and enjoy the company of another household bubble. You must not have close contact with anyone else. You cannot join up with more than one household or bubble."

First steps will be watched

Bogoch expects that a lot of other jurisdictions will be watching New Brunswick to see what works and what doesn't. 

He predicted that the path to a new normal may not be "linear." 

"There may be setbacks as well. If there's an unacceptably high number of new cases, it would come to no one's surprise that the same public health restrictions that we're living under right now get reinstated."

New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health also warned of that. 

Dr. Jennifer Russell said it's important to remain vigilant and that restrictions could be tightened again if infection rates climb. 

Saint John lawyer Matthew Letson had a little fun with the province's creation of two-family bubbles. (Twitter)

Three unrelated outbreaks in a six-day period, or cases linked to a mass gathering that can't be fully traced would mean an immediate return to existing restrictions, Russell said.

She said she was heartened by the "joyous reunions" on the weekend of parents meeting with "desperately missed" children and grandchildren. 

"But I know there has been sadness as well," she said. "The two-household bubble doesn't stretch far enough to include every grandparent who is missing their grandchildren."

She said the two-family bubble is a first step and could be expanded in the coming weeks if "we continue to see good results." 

Higgs reiterated the need to limit the bubble to two households. 

"I want to remind everyone that this is not a free-for-all. If people start attending gatherings that extend beyond their two household bubble right now, we could begin to see a resurgence of cases of COVID-19. 

Forced to choose

Psychology professor Steve Joordens said the two-family bubble approach is "fascinating." 

"I understand completely the idea behind it. For many people it will be fantastic," said Joordens, of the University of Toronto Scarborough.

"If you happen to be somebody with one child who has children. And now suddenly you can be with your grandchildren and they can be with you. Then that's fantastic."

But things get trickier in families with multiple children. Who do you choose? he wonders. And how?

Perhaps some cases are straight-forward and the option is clear, he suggests. For example, if one of the children has a health concern, they may not be the best option. Or perhaps a front-line worker might not be the best option to visit an elderly parent. 

But if there is no "principled" way to settle the debate, Joordens suggests a random selection in order to be "explicitly clear that you're not choosing one over another." 

Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, says choosing "bubble families" may put a lot of pressure on parents of multiple children. (Submitted by Steve Joordens)

He said it's important not to place anyone in the position of having to choose between children. He said it's a much better option to let the children discuss it and come to a decision themselves. 

Perhaps one child doesn't have children, so it might make sense to "bubble" with that family since children are usually "less disciplined" about preventive measures. That would help keep the older family member — who is more at risk from the virus — safe.

"But mom's probably going to want to be with the grandkids," Joordens suggested. "It's a battle that so many people are going to have. … It's going to be so tough to pick somebody over another."

Joordens, who grew up in Lincoln, just outside of Fredericton, is intrigued by New Brunswick's approach to loosening social restrictions. 

"It is an interesting way to give people the social connection with the people they need most … while still keeping some control over how much co-mingling is going on. So I thought it was actually extremely clever. The only fly in the ointment is that decision. That aside, I think psychologically it's a very clever approach."

He believes that once we "come out of the shadow of this … a lot of that stuff would probably be forgotten. I don't think there's going to be horrible after effects." 

Two-household bubble mediation

And if there is, Saint John lawyer Matthew Letson has an idea for that. 

In a tongue-in-cheek tweet to New Brunswickers, Letson wrote, "Having trouble choosing which other household to visit? Now offering 'two household bubble' mediation services.  #familyfeud #CovidLawyerHumour."

It's one of many humorous tweets and Facebook messages that have been circulating since Friday's announcement. 

One of Letson's favourites is from an acquaintance of his wife's who took the bull by the horns by showing up at the parents' home with the grandchildren in tow, and then texted the brother to say, "you snooze, you lose," said Letson. 

"So some people have been very strategic about it," he said, noting, "Christmas dinner may be a little more tense now." 

Letson thinks people are looking for "something to laugh about because things are pretty grim." 

He suspects there's a "kernel of truth" to the jokes about being forced to pick between loved ones. 

"It's going to be hard on some members of families. For parents, for grandparents, this is a bit of a Sophie's choice."

He worries that elderly family members may avoid that tough decision altogether and choose to remain isolated rather than risk hurting someone's feelings. 

His firm does a lot of commercial mediation and brought The F Word: Stories of Forgiveness exhibit to Saint John in 2018. The exhibit is a collection of photographs and personal narratives of people from around the world who have experienced atrocities, but managed to forgive and move on.

Letson said his advice to people making tough decisions about bubble families is to be "open to forgiving their siblings or forgiving their parents with the choices they make in really difficult circumstances."

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