Last week, about two and a half months into lockdown, Miranda (not her real name), a 39-year-old mom from Brooklyn, got a text from one of her friends, expressing her frustration with being alone in the house with a small child during lockdown. “She said, ‘I feel like the curve has flattened. Would you want to do a playdate on the DL?,’” Miranda recounts. There was a caveat to the offer: “We can’t tell anybody because we’ll be ridiculed for it.” The friend even said Miranda could come through the basement and come out through the backyard, which would reduce the risk of in-house transmission and also help them avoid the prying eyes of neighbors.
Miranda says she was surprised by the offer, but also excited about it: Her friend has a large backyard and a playhouse, and plenty of space to run around. Perhaps more to the point, Miranda’s three-year-old daughter had been cooped up inside for months, and was desperate to play with kids her own age. Miranda ultimately declined, but she’d seen her friends post photos of playdates on Instagram, and knew such behavior wasn’t exactly unprecedented. “Everybody is supposed to be at home not doing anything, not seeing anybody,” she says. “But people are. They’re just not talking about it.”
As states slowly open up across the country, COVID-19 hotspots like New York City are largely still under lockdown, with millions of people stuck in cramped apartments. It’s been particularly difficult for parents, many of whom are juggling full-time jobs with homeschooling and child care. With schools and playgrounds shut down for an undetermined period of time, some parents are buckling under the pressure and organizing covert rendezvouses for their kids.
Some parents have publicized their playdates as a way to make a political point about lockdown, as was the case with this Wisconsin parent who went viral for complaining about police “threatening” her for violating the state’s stay-at-home order to set up a playdate for her daughter. But most who are entertaining the idea are simply looking for a reprieve from the grueling day-to-day of being stuck at home with a small child, provided there’s a tacit agreement between both parties they won’t speak publicly about it.
Amanda, 31, lives in a New York suburb and recently had a playdate with her neighbor (the two adults kept a six-foot distance; their kids decidedly did not). She says both families have kept their contact with others at a minimum, so she felt comfortable agreeing to the playdate, despite it violating pediatric health guidelines. “We know how small our respective bubbles are so it wasn’t that big of a concern,” she says, adding that they both made a “conscious decision” not to post any photos on social media. “We felt like we had a safe environment for the kids but, without the context that’s so hard to provide when you share a photo on Instagram, I knew there was a chance people would make their own assumptions about it.”
To be clear, public health experts are strongly discouraging parents from arranging playdates for their kids. “It is something parents have been calling and asking about. We’ve all been home for so long I think it’s only natural kids and families are going stir-crazy,” says Dr. Tanya Altmann, founder of Calabasas Pediatrics. “But it’s still not recommended to be gathering with other families.” Reports of a small number of children developing a rare childhood inflammatory disease that may be linked to COVID-19 have also prompted public health experts and pediatricians to urge caution. “I think we better be careful if we are not cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects (of the virus),” Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
Yet that hasn’t stopped some parents from gingerly approaching the topic with other parents, or forming “pods” with other family units where they agree to interact with only each other. Altmann says she has heard of some families doing this, but such arrangements are difficult to maintain when even going out to get groceries is an activity fraught with some level of risk. “The problem is the more people are doing these things, the more little slip-ups there’s going to be and we are still seeing families getting COVID-19 who say they haven’t gone anywhere, they haven’t left the house, how could they get it,” she says. Such arrangements also require a tremendous degree of trust: “At some point if any one person gets sick, you don’t want arguments like, ‘Who brought the virus in.’”
Even if playdates are strongly discouraged, that doesn’t mean they’re not happening under the radar. To hear parents tell it, approaching someone for a surreptitious playdate requires sensitivity and discretion, as well as feeling out whether the other party is open to it or would respond harshly; in this sense, it’s sort of akin to asking another couple whether they’d like to participate in group sex. (It also involves interrogating the other party about their past contacts, a process not unlike interviewing a prospective sexual partner about their own history and testing record).
Aside from the very real risk of contracting the virus, however, is the guaranteed risk of being shamed if anyone else were to find out. Parents have long been accustomed to being shamed for their decisions, and now that social distancing shaming has become something akin to a national pastime, having a playdate is tantamount to posing an open invitation for social media flagellation.
“The more I think about it, it feels like judgment of others is the biggest factor of weight here,” says Nate, 37, a dad in Brooklyn. Nate says he has fielded a few “half-invites” from other parents, but he has not set up a playdate for his two-year-old daughter. “I think it’s impossible to keep kids apart even with good intentions, as much as we’re all going crazy,” he says.
Despite the extreme stress of being stuck inside a small apartment with one or more small children, the risks of clandestine playdates at this moment outweighs the reward. And even though parents are understandably concerned about their children being negatively affected by the extensive lack of social contact, Altmann says they shouldn’t worry. “When this is all over, what our kids is gonna remember is the time they spent with their family, the love they felt, the fun activities they did together,” she says. “That’s what they’ll remember, not the social isolation.”