So you’ve decided you’re ready to expand your social distancing bubble.
After months of staying indoors and avoiding family — and after some deep thought — you accept an invitation to meet up with one or two close acquaintances at an empty park to reconnect.
But at some point, as you sit more than 6 feet away, someone pulls down their mask. You’ve both had little-to-no contact with the outside world, save for some trips to the supermarket, so you’re taken off guard but not turning to run the other way. This is, after all, a person you trust.
So should you show your face, too, so long as you stay far apart on that spacious lawn?
Public health experts say keeping your mask on whenever you can is the safest course of action to protect each other from the spread of COVID-19. But as people begin to enter this next phase of pandemic life, one that includes restaurants reopening and more outdoor activities, they may face a new sort of social pressure — specifically in smaller, private settings with select friends or family.
According to a recent Suffolk University poll conducted for several local media outlets, 44 percent of residents marked themselves as being “very strict” when it comes to social distancing, a drop of about 25 percentage points from a similar poll question in May. What’s more, 77 percent of respondents said they would feel comfortable seeing family or close relatives.
Those numbers could be a sign that some residents are a bit more willing to test the waters, now that COVID-19 cases are trending downward in Massachusetts and the state has announced the beginning of its third phase of reopening.
“We’re getting used to this new, ‘I’m going to assess my risk; I’m not going to just live in my house,’ ” Dr. William Sharp, an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University, said. “I would say with 99 percent certainty, these [conversations] are going to come up.”
Sharp said he recommends people establish mask ground rules and parameters prior to setting up any social gatherings, so that everyone is on the same page when meeting face-to-face for the first time in what may feel like ages.
“Talking helps,” said Sharp, who has a private psychoanalytic practice in Brookline. “It’s all that we can really do: state what we really want.”
He said that if someone is worried about how much risk they’re willing to tolerate, they could say, “Hey, yes, let’s absolutely meet for that al fresco dinner. I’m going to be wearing a mask and I think it’d be great if we all did.”
“At least you can go into it already knowing,” he said.
Alyssa Bilinski, a PhD student in health policy at Harvard’s graduate school of arts and sciences, has been confronting the coronavirus and mask-wearing both as a researcher and as a self-described “person who wants to have a normalish life.”
When it comes to extending outside of the confines of home, and reconnecting with friends again, Bilinski also stressed the importance of keeping an open dialogue with others, and asserting intentions off the bat.
“We really need to empower people with tools to talk about these kinds of behavioral approaches to COVID-19 and have those conversations in an open way,” she said. “Part of that, as we think about bubbles and things like that, is to make sure that people are really honest with each other and talking about what level of risk the group is taking.”
The 28-year-old Cambridge resident emphasized that while the economy may be slowly reopening — Massachusetts entered Phase 3 Monday — people shouldn’t equate that with ditching precautions. It’s even more important to follow them, she said.
For her, if a friend’s mask slips below their nose, she’ll broach the subject by saying, “I don’t mean to be annoying but,” or crack a joke to get the point across to keep it on.
“Everything is better with a little bit of humor,” she said. “I try to be really nice about it. Obviously, it’s always a tricky balance.”
Governor Charlie Baker has urged residents to continue following state guidelines around mask-wearing. The rules state people should wear them in public settings — both indoors and outside — when maintaining 6 feet of distance isn’t possible.
At a news conference last week, Baker said residents have been “pretty good” about it, and seem to be donning them frequently because they understand that “they keep people safe.”
But as North End resident Niki Blaker found out one recent weekend, sometimes that needed distance can be achieved in a friend’s backyard.
After months of strictly following all of the health and safety guidelines laid out by experts, Blaker and her husband, Jeremy, accepted an invitation to an outdoor hangout with a couple in Cambridge.
Once she got there, Blaker, who was wearing a mask, assessed the environment: The chairs were at an adequate distance, the space was wide open, and the hosts similarly hadn’t been around other people in weeks. The conditions seemed right, she said — so they made the conscious decision to lower their face coverings.
“We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘OK, this is cool, we feel OK to do this outside,‘ ” Blaker said. “There has to be a level of trust in the circle I’m in before I take the mask off.”
Blaker said the occurrence was rare, and marked the extent of any socializing they’re planning to do right now.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer guidelines for these types of backyard shindigs.
“Arrange tables and chairs to allow for social distancing. People from the same household can be in groups together and don’t need to be 6 feet apart — just 6 feet away from other families,” the agency’s website states. “Wear cloth face coverings when less than 6 feet apart from people or indoors.”
Dr. Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said new conversations around risk can be done in a way that’s nonjudgmental and nonconfrontational. The result will depend on each person’s level of personal comfort among peers.
“Everyone is going to have a different risk tolerance and I think we are all going to have to adapt to some extent not only to our own risk tolerance, but the tolerance of those around us,” she said. “One thing to remember about masks is, they aren’t just about protecting the person wearing them — they may be even more about protecting the people around them.”