Pandemic Adds New Responsibilities to Off-Campus Living

By Christina Moylan, November 13, 2020
A message from Christina Moylan, Director of Public Health Emergency Preparedness.

Public Health Column introduction video. 

There is great freedom that comes with living off campus, but with that independence comes more responsibility – especially during a pandemic. Whether you live in a large household or alone, having a plan to balance pandemic restrictions while maintaining your physical and mental health is vital.  

Fans of the “The Big Bang Theory” will recall Sheldon and Leonard’s regular references to the stipulations of their “roommate agreement.” While this generated laughs for that sitcom, you can use a similar strategy for the more serious undertaking of navigating the pandemic as a household.  

The basis for a good roommate agreement is open and honest communication – and this applies to both unrelated roommates and familial households. People have different tolerance for risk, so don’t make assumptions about how others feel. Invest time to truly listen to their preferences and share your own: 

  • What public health recommendations apply inside the home – Wear face coverings? Share food or drinks? Stay 6 feet apart? Disinfect regularly? 
  • Who will be permitted inside the home?  
  • What are the expectations for visitors – Is there a limit on numbers? Time? Wearing face coverings? Remaining 6 feet apart? 
  • Are overnight guests permitted? 
  • How will travel be handled? What will be the re-entry requirements into the household? 
  • How is the household prepared to handle illness? 

Downtown Ithaca fall aerial.

Downtown Ithaca fall aerial. (Photo by Gabe Shakour '18)

Humans typically thrive on having some daily personal interactions. This is why lockdowns can take a toll on our mental health. However, social interactions across households, even when small, drive viral spread. Therefore, identifying ways to continue to see close family and friends while minimizing exposures is key.  

Using a social pod to limit interactions to a tight group of family or friends can help. To be successful, social pods should be small, consistent, and based on trust. Members should have a similar risk tolerance and shared values for recommended public health behaviors. The pod should be mindful of government restrictions such as the new limitations in New York for indoor and outdoor gatherings at private residences, which may not exceed 10 people. Having a social pod does not eliminate your risk of COVID-19. It does balance having some social interaction while limiting viral spread.  

Truthful and forthcoming participation in contact tracing is a responsibility for all of us and should be a core value of any roommate agreement or social pod. It may feel uncomfortable to share the names of loved ones or friends with contact tracers — no one wants to be the reason that someone else must enter quarantine. However, failing to share such information is giving the virus a chance to spread.  

The most challenging responsibility that can come with living independently in the community, particularly if you live alone, is self-managing quarantine or isolation. Start by staying on top of what is happening locally with the pandemic by connecting with Eileen Harrington, the Off-Campus Community Living Coordinator.  

Ready your household by having on hand a thermometer and medicine to alleviate symptoms. Stock 14-days of supplies and comfort foods like tea or soups to support your road to recovery. Maintain sufficient hygiene supplies so that you can disinfect your home regularly. If you live with others, have a plan for day-to-day needs like meals or bathroom use should someone need to isolate or quarantine.  

Unfortunately, we are many, many months away from curbing this pandemic. As we look towards our return to South Hill this spring, negotiating your approach to the pandemic with roommates, friends, and family will be a new and important addition to your off-campus living responsibilities. 

Let’s keep our numbers low, and our spirits high!         


Christina Moylan, Ph.D.        
Director of Public Health Emergency Preparedness