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Social distancing calls for new methods of consent

What to do when others show disregard for distancing protocols you intend to follow? State your boundaries kindly — but firmly.

A social distancing marker on floor of a business office.
A social distancing marker on floor of a business office.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“Last weekend, I invited my parents for a visit in the yard,” says Heather Herz, a therapist and mother of two in South Orange, N.J. “They agreed ahead of time to bring masks, but when they showed up, my dad wouldn’t wear his. He scoffs at anyone wearing a mask or social distancing.”

Ashley (she prefers not to give her last name), a worker at a nonprofit in Chico, Calif., recently offered to drop fresh eggs off on her friend’s doorstep. Because both Ashley and her father, who lives with her, are immunocompromised, she exercises extreme caution. As she was leaving the eggs, her friend swung the door open and started a conversation. She wasn’t masked. She wasn’t social distancing. “She thinks that’s ‘free speech,’” Ashley tells me.

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An asthmatic single mother in the rural Midwest who prefers to remain anonymous tells me that her neighbor, a close friend, isn’t social distancing and berates her for insisting on maintaining six feet of separation. “I have the right to choose six feet,” she points out. “He doesn’t get to decide that I don’t get to do that.”

Here we are again navigating issues of boundaries and consent, a version of the conversations that we’ve been having ever since the #metoo hashtag shone a blacklight on the creeps, the harassers, the assaulters, the rapists. This time, the culprits aren’t the Hollywood gatekeepers, but the Covid-minimizers, the reckless vectors.

As America reopens, roommates face tough decisions (move or accept the risk?) when some insist on going out to party; friendships fall apart when one takes offense at the other’s declining of social invitations; couples struggle when one dismisses science; bosses force employees to choose between working in unsafe conditions or losing their jobs.

Forcing others to disregard social distancing protocols is the latest form of disregarding other people’s bodies and lives. “Just like men who see demands that they stop sexually harassing and abusing women as some kind of PC infringement on their ‘freedom,’ mask refusers are prioritizing their own preferences over the safety of others,” says Jaclyn Friedman, author of “Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World.” “My need for you to not seriously harm me is more important than your desire to not be uncomfortable, or to increase your own ‘fun,’ or to make a statement. At least in any kind of functioning society it is.”

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When facing a social distance-objector, whether it’s a stranger at the park or a friend or parent, speaking up can be difficult. After all, it’s cooler to be a rule-breaker than a rule-follower. It’s cooler to be fearless than fearful. And conflict is awkward. And what if we ask a stranger to back up and he gets so offended that he pulls a gun? (That has happened already.) What if we’re mocked?

We can’t stop strangers from sitting unmasked in packed bars, but we can work to know and communicate our own boundaries. “For many, Covid has illuminated the Disease to Please Others,” says Terri Cole, a psychotherapist who writes about and teaches courses on boundaries. “You have to find a way to prioritize what’s in your best interest. And you have to be OK with people not liking it.”

When it comes to dealing with Covid-denier friends and family, Cole suggests keeping interactions light and positive, but stating boundaries unequivocally, and doing so proactively when possible: For example, she says that Herz could tell her father: “The kids are dying to see you, but if you come without a mask, I won’t bring them outside. Don’t try to be sneaky, Dad!” After that conversation, if her father shows up unmasked, Herz would have to follow through: “She can tell him to leave or say, ‘Stand far away and the kids will talk to you through the screen door.’ Soften the blow by speaking without anger,” she suggests. “Don’t wait until you’re homicidal. You’re more likely to get your needs met if you state your boundary firmly, but with love and kindness.”

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Diana Spechler is a novelist and essayist.