What Do We Do About a Neighbor Who Breaks Distancing Rules?

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We live on one side of a duplex in a densely populated urban area of Seattle. Three weeks into the shelter-in-place order, our neighbor who lives on the other side of the duplex had multiple people coming in and out all week, and then held a barbecue on his small patio with several people where it was impossible to remain six feet apart. He lives alone, and the guests seemed to be friends. It bothered us that he appeared to so brazenly disregard guidelines put in place to protect the community. We hardly know this neighbor. We took strict precautions ourselves, so did not feel personally at risk. But was it our ethical obligation to ask him to stop having people over? Name Withheld

Conformity to social and moral norms can be sustained by the criticism of others. I’ve mentioned before the Muslim tradition of “commanding right and forbidding wrong,” which obliges every Muslim to command right when they see others failing to do what they should, and to forbid wrong when they are doing what they shouldn’t. This precept is reasonably hedged about in Islamic legal traditions by the recognition both that people are entitled to a degree of privacy — so you shouldn’t go poking your nose into other people’s lives — and that people may respond badly to criticism, so you aren’t obliged to criticize others when you would be endangered by doing so or when it would simply do no good. In the case you describe, the violation was in the open. This tradition suggests, plausibly, that you should go ahead and tell him, courteously and in a neighborly fashion, why you think he shouldn’t have done what he did, so long as it would keep him from doing it again and you wouldn’t be seriously penalized as a consequence.

There’s a different kind of reason for doing so. Your neighbor was violating not just a moral duty but a civic one. In a democracy, each person — each constituent member of the polity — has a share in running the state. One way of exercising that share is to vote, serve on juries and the like. But another is to hold other people to democratically created norms and practices. Not through vigilantism or violence, but through modeling and social sanctions. Getting people to stick to the rules is everybody’s business.

The trouble is that it doesn’t sound as if you know your neighbor very well, and so you may not have been in a good position to judge what his response would be. People often resent being called out, especially by those they don’t know well. And given that he was in isolation all by himself, it cost him more to keep to the rules than it cost you. You don’t want an antagonized neighbor, which can be a terrific nuisance, to say the least.

So yes, with these caveats noted, you would have done well to convey your disapproval. Getting clear about this point, though, is only the first step to a useful response. Those caveats count. You would have needed to decide how to frame what you said. The object, after all, isn’t to make you feel good or to make him feel bad. It’s to encourage him to do better.

My husband and I separated amicably about a year ago. We share time equally with our young, school-age children. I was dating someone for several months before the pandemic began but did not see this person after the stay-at-home orders began in mid-March. My new partner works from home and other than living with his elderly mother, has had very minimal social contacts. My new partner’s mother is not worried about the risk of coronavirus via exposure from me or my family. My ex-partner and I have not been sharing details of our private lives with each other (or our kids). I’m not excited about letting him know I am dating, given that we are not yet officially divorced and I don’t want his feelings hurt. Neither of us has a job that puts us at higher risk of infection, and there are no other older people in our lives I worry about exposing to Covid-19. Is it OK for me to resume seeing my new partner (on personal time) without telling my ex? Name Withheld

Your dating life is a private matter, and in the normal course of things, you’re entitled to keep it to yourself. But if you were exposing yourself to the risk of acquiring the coronavirus, this would not be a matter you should keep private from your husband. You and he share custody of the kids, and they could be conduits of infection, even if their own risk of harm is small. Assuming your partner and his mother are genuinely observing the proper precautions, your contacts with them shouldn’t add significantly to your husband’s risk. But note that you are in effect deciding to trust your new partner not just with your own health but with your unknowing husband’s and kids’ as well. If that trust turns out to be misplaced, you will have made a bad decision for them as well as for you.

I don’t know enough to say whether you may rely on your new partner to the extent necessary to free you from the obligation to inform your separated spouse. Here’s one way to approach the quandary, though: Given the understanding you have with your husband, would you feel betrayed if he turned out to be doing exactly what you are?

I own a townhouse and collect rent from my girlfriend and a friend of a friend who live with me. My girlfriend and I have worked hard to follow the C.D.C. and state guidelines on social distancing and cleaning around the house, but my roommate has not. He works in a private clinic and says that because he takes precautions at work, the curve is flattening and it is impossible to avoid people altogether (at the grocery store, etc.), he is comfortable taking the risk of seeing friends. He said that it may be selfish but that he can’t stand the emotional or social aspects of social distancing, even with FaceTime/Zoom calls.

My girlfriend is currently not working and is without health insurance. She is worried about the virus as her family falls into a more at-risk age group. Is it reasonable to ask our roommate to find somewhere else to stay during this time? Also, what can I do about the circle of friends we Zoom call, some of whom are still getting together despite state orders and our entreaties? Name Withheld

Your housemate’s rationale for his conduct is puzzling. I’m glad he spends his working life under the appropriate guidelines, but if he’s socializing with people who aren’t keeping to the guidelines, he’s at risk of getting infected and infecting others, especially people with whom he shares enclosed spaces for long periods — people, that is, like you. And his clinic surely expects him to observe the appropriate precautions when he isn’t at work.

His other arguments aren’t much better. The curve may be flattening in your area, but the decision about when it’s safe to return to normal isn’t one he’s entitled to make. The notion that it’s not worth keeping to the rules because you can’t avoid contact with others makes little sense. Having to face some risks doesn’t undermine the argument for reducing others: The fact that driving on the highway poses some risk of accident isn’t a reason for driving recklessly. You might want to consult a lawyer before asking him to leave; as a tenant he may have legal rights. But given that this is someone you clearly know well, some “commanding and forbidding” would seem to be indicated here as a matter of ethics. You’re entitled to ask that he respect the guidelines if you’re to share a home.

As for your irresponsible friends, the fundamental moral point is this: People should wear masks because we often don’t know we’re infectious until it’s too late. As a result, we don’t usually know who is infectious until it’s too late. One or two unmasked people probably won’t make much difference, of course. But morality requires us to do our part in collective practices that are good for the community, even when our single violation doesn’t pose a significant threat. What’s important is that, if we all stick to the rules and accept a certain amount of inconvenience, we can pull off something wonderful — we can contain the spread of a virus that is lethal for some and causes suffering to many more. And if we pull this off, we will have done so together.

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