What to do when someone in your social group flaunts their flagrant violation of social distancing?

Just today I was involved in a social situation (online, not in person) where one person in the social group (a longtime online acquaintance to me whom I would never have called a friend, but some of my friends would certainly consider her *their *friend) proudly posted a photo of her with some of her RL friends (no one any of the rest of us knows) hanging out outside, huddled in close together to take a group shot. I called her out in no uncertain terms (after verifying they were from different households and that the photo was recent–it was in fact from today), saying that this was unacceptable and puts all of us (and most especially vulnerable populations) at risk of potentially dying.

Some of the other people in the social group said that I was basically right, but that it was too “mean” for me to call her out like that. They argued that she was not going to be convinced by my hostile argument, and that in fact she might just dig her heels in deeper. I believe when I see something this egregious, I have an ethical duty to draw a line and deny such people “social proof” that engaging in this kind of behavior is, if not celebrated, at least acceptable.

I said if they were all like three feet apart, it would be sort of like knowing someone was driving with maybe a .08 or .09 BAC. Not quite kosher but borderline enough that you maybe shouldn’t make a big stink about it. Whereas to me, this was more like knowing they were driving with about a .20 BAC, with Grandma in the back seat. They disagreed and said that what she posted *was *more like the .09 scenario.


I don’t think the BAC levels are really a good comparison.

Were they at least wearing masks?

Nope. Just hanging out, leaning in close to fit in the photo frame, no masks.

I think it is a good comparison because driving drunk doesn’t hurt anyone most of the time. But doing it displays a reckless disregard for the lives of others, which is why we put people in prison if they keep doing it–even if they never actually hurt anyone.

Well, that’s just it. No one is going to put the girls in prison if they take 10 photos huddled together and unmasked each day. Probably not even a ticket, depending where they are.

Since I’m only going to be in contact with them online anyways, my tactic has just been to tell them how it’s bad on Facebook, being as polite as I can. And if they freak out and delete me, then we weren’t friends anyways.

I can’t be friends with callous, selfish people. I can be friends with someone who just didn’t understand, but only if they’re open minded enough to listen. If not, then there’s no point.

It all being online makes it so much easier than it is in person. There’s no direct interaction where I may blow my cool, and no worrying about having to continue interacting with them. That doesn’t mean I’m mean, just that it’s much easier to be assertive behind a keyboard.

I even have a built in excuse–my mom is at risk, so I can’t risk being around people like that. It tends to make sure that other people who see it are sympathetic towards me.

Reading your post, it doesn’t sound like you actually were involved in a social situation. An online acquaintance you will never meet got together with some other people you will never meet.

I would also disagree that this puts all of us at risk of potentially dying. I’m sure not worried about dying because your online pal got close enough to some other people you don’t know to take a picture. To compare it to impaired driving is just weird.

Also they were flouting, not flaunting.

No. They were flouting the social distancing guidelines, that’s true. But I said they were flaunting their flagrant violation of social distancing guidelines. Which is correct in that context. IOW they had already flouted the guidelines, and were showing off pictures of having done so, which is where the flaunting comes in.

ETA: These people and I have engaged in hourslong conversation via Discord voice chat while playing poker several times a week over a period now of years. Many of the rest of them have spent significant time together in person; I have not because I live far from most of them and have less money than they do to travel. It is definitely a friend group (one that I actually started). But I’ve never liked the woman who posted the photos.

I agree.

If you were polite and reasonable and clear and unconflicted about it, so much the better. But I think the moral obligation is to move the mood of the social response away from acceptance and celebration, in whatever way you are able. Death (and illness) are indeed part of the bigger questions.

If they don’t want to be your friends anymore as a consequence, I can be your consolation prize if you want.

Some discussion of this idea from an ethicist. (Short version: scolding people probably does not work, and in any case, it’s misdirected – it’s putting a disproportionate amount of blame on individuals, when in fact it’s institutional choices that have failed us and put people at risk.)

I think you’re discovering firsthand why it doesn’t work: pretty much everybody’s first reaction to being called out in a semi-public space like social media is to look for reasons why the other person is wrong, rather than assuming they are the ones who are wrong.

Fretful that’s my first take too, and agreed about yelling at strangers on the street say, but silence in this circumstance as the alternative implicitly accepts the behavior as normative, is passive endorsement by default.

The target of a response is not the person who posted but everyone else.

Maybe just a post of yourself in a mask with your favorite social distancing motto. Not direct conflict.

A suggestion would have been the best response.

Maybe next time, you could say “Be careful out there!” and then show them some of the clips (there are several) of how the virus can spread through air droplets.

At this point, I don’t think you can say or do much to change anyone’s minds about social gatherings. People are tired of staying indoors all the time, and I get it. But we’re going to be right back where we were in mid April within a matter of months, if not weeks. And it’s because people are stubborn. Let it happen.

I feel like the official messaging has been so undercut by the same authorities that issued it that it gets really hard to chide other people. While getting close to take a picture is certainly over the line, there is so much gray area. Furthermore, you don’t know the full context. We are really getting into that George Carelton margin, where everyone being less cautious than you is a menace to society, and everyone who is more cautious is being a drama-queen paranoid baby.

For example, today I am going to ride in the car with my mom for a total of about 3 hours (round trip). We won’t wear masks in the car. We are going to a nature preserve. If it’s crowded at all, we won’t stay. I am on the fence about this. I worry I am endangering my (73, very healthy) mom–but I also know she really needs some activity/stimulation and I would really, really like to spend some time with her. I have in many ways avoided other sort of “grey” areas–like going into the grocery store, going on walks with friends–so that I minimize my chances of being exposed explicitly so that I can see my mom in a less restrictive fashion. If someone took a picture of me in the car with my mom and captioned it “I guess gossiping is more important than keeping your mom alive!” and posted that publicly, would that be justified? I’d be humiliated and angry–but I don’t think I’d change my ways, because I have thought through this, I do think it’s a reasonable risk.

At the same time, I also think I have hurt some friends because I won’t do socially distancing happy hours. Just by declining, I am judging them: they know I would go if I thought it was an acceptable risk. And there really isn’t any clear messaging from anyone whether or not a truly socially distant happy hour–never closer than 10 feet, outdoors–is really risky.

This is hard to negotiate. I know I constantly feel judged both for being too lax and for being too cautious. I can’t imagine caustic, public criticism helps anyone. I try not to judge others because it’s hard to know the full context of what they are doing.

Why not hit up ole girl privately? Why blow her out of the water in front of errbody? ?

Alternatively, you could have hit up one of your more reasonable-minded mutual friends and asked them if they would feel comfortable sharing your concerns.

I don’t know if you have an “ethical duty” to speak on this or not. I mean, I see people around me doing all kinds of unsafe things (like riding around on a bike with a small child gripping the handlebars for dear life, neither one wearing a helmet). But I don’t feel like it’s my ethical duty to say anything. I would only say something if we had the kind of friendship where I could get away with scolding them and it wouldn’t be taken as hateration but rather an act of love.

The “you’re putting us all at risk of dying!” thing would have made me roll my eyes at you too, and I’m pro-social distancing. If you’re going to speak about risks, speak about them accurately. Your acquaintance was putting you all at risk of getting sick. Being sick is awful enough, especially given the lack of resources some people have to cope with sickness. There was no need for you to jump to death here. That bit made your dispassionate lecture turn into a shrill diatribe.

Forward her this story with the tag “You might be next. Be safe!”


Personally I consider it my duty as a friend to call out people I care about when they’re fuckin’ up. I expect the same from them.

But you don’t have to do it in front of everybody.

I tell you where this whole thing started going off the rails. It was when people everywhere started thinking – or, were pressured to believe – that sharing air with a small circle of your closest friends was pretty much guaranteed to result in disaster for us all. My god, what has happened to people.

A church choir of 60 tested that. 45 infected, 2 dead last I heard.

One of the ways all this physical distancing has been harmful to everyone’s emotional well-being is how it’s moved almost all of our interactions online. In real life, I (used to) go diving with people who had different politics than I; some were my friends on Facebook but I spent little time there beyond making plans to go diving. Now I’m stuck at home, bored, scrolling through social media and reading all their hateful memes, and it’s just depressing. We’ve known for a while now that social media interactions can be toxic because of the loss of nuance and the moderating effect of having to look someone in the eye, but at least that’s always been tempered by the fact that getting offline and getting together over a beer was at least an option.

I understand the desire to call out behavior that endangers others. I understand the desire to correct misinformation. But I’m struck by this little aside:

I think it’s more important than ever to examine our motives before we react. Would you have “called out in no uncertain terms” in public someone you did like in such dire language (“at risk of dying”)? Perhaps you would have, but I think most people, at least without a computer screen to hide behind, would be kinder toward their friends. We could all make a little more effort in that respect.

And my food processing plant with several hundred people has been running about 50-75% capacity since this started without a single case last I heard 2 weeks ago.

Where was the aforementioned photo taken (hotspot or no new cases for a month make a difference) and had these people been in contact with one another on a continuing basis previous to it? My region has now had all restrictions lifted. Eateries are grappling with when and how they are going to open. Bars are for the most part open. This happened Thurs. Fri the state had the most confirmed cases so far. We’ll know after Memorial day whether or not this was a good move.

Not a very direct comparison. 60 people, so a much larger chance one of them had it. Choir practice, so presumably close contact with lots of exhalation for a long time. That’s not necessarily close to the same risk as a small group of friends huddling briefly for a picture.

Not to nitpick, but the basic problem with social shaming about COVID precautions, and let’s assume we’re all reasonable people who don’t enjoy social shaming of others as many internet people obviously do, is the big gaps in our knowledge about what practices carry what risk. We have a US standard of 6’ distancing (some argue it’s not enough, though some other countries have a 1 meter standard). If people aren’t doing close to that, it’s fairly easy to therefore to say they aren’t with the program. It’s much harder to gauge quantitatively what risk they are taking, and passing on to others. Our knowledge of the actual risk of a given deviation from the standard guideline is pretty low unless it’s pretty extreme (more extreme than going together for a few seconds for a photo). So I think it’s actually reasonable for eyes to start rolling at statements like ‘people could DIE…’.

But if it’s the right relationship you might say ‘shouldn’t you guys really keep your distance more?’ Beyond that I think it would be mainly a matter of making sure you yourself keep distance from people in RL who you don’t have high confidence are keeping distance from everybody but you. My wife and I don’t keep social distance from one another for example. The standard also isn’t to keep literally everybody at 6’ all the time.