In a phone interview, Duchin told me he’s only had seven days off since January. “My idea of a party at this point is riding my bike outside with a few friends,” he said.
He’d love to “party” more, and he’d love to spend more time with his two grown children outside the odd outdoor dining experience, but he can’t. As the pandemic point-man for the country’s 12th largest population center, he must spend most of his time analyzing data and communicating the implications of that data to millions of people. And the thing that’s making his life—and all of our lives, for that matter—more difficult is the phenomenon of people under 40 partying in ways that spread the virus.
Right now, people between 20 and 39 years of age have the highest COVID-19 infection rates when compared to all the other decades of life that local health officials analyze. “If you include 30 and under, you’re looking at one-third of all our cases coming from that group; 35% ballpark,” Duchin said.
Some of those transmissions occur where people work—offices, shops, restaurants, etc.—but a lot of them come from people just hanging out.
About half of the 2,000 infected people contact tracers spoke with between July and August reported attending a social event, and about “22 to 25% specifically said they were at some sort of social gathering,” Duchin said. Those numbers "very likely represent an undercount,” he added more than once during our interview, given some peoples' reluctance to offer detailed accounts of activities to contact tracers.
“These parties are large—anywhere between 15 and 60 people,” Duchin continued. “Some indoors, but also some outdoors: barbecues, weddings, birthdays, graduation parties, baby showers, gender reveals. And then just recreational activities like camping, vacationing, and large-group family activities.”
Given the large outbreak the University of Washington saw in the Greek system this summer, and given outbreaks at other universities around the country, Duchin is “very concerned about transmission and spread among college students when they come back to campus.”
Where college-aged students choose to live and how they choose to socialize will drive transmission rates up or keep them at bay just as the regular flu season starts to kick in. Though it’s somewhat harder to control where you live, it’s a little easier to control how you socialize for the next year. To that end, here are a couple party ideas to tide you over until we can all start chugging vaccine. You can do any of these activities with old friends, or you can invite your new classmates along for the fun.
Poker night. Establish a banker with a digital wallet. Send that person $20. Select a free poker site you don’t have to register to use, such as PokerNow. Fire up Google Hangouts to avoid time constraints. Pour yourself a bourbon and a bowl of Cheez-Its, put an Ink Spots record on the record player, and get ready to lose some money. The games are simple and easy to play, and the stakes are only as high as you set them.
Karaoke night. Wired offers a great explainer for how to set up a strong karaoke night. Basically, all you have to do is send a designated KJ links to the karaoke versions of the songs you want to sing (many of which you can find on YouTube), set up a video conference with Watch2Gether, tell the KJ to make sure the songs will play on Watch2Gether (sometimes people run into copyright issues), put on some weird costume, and commence with the insane singing.
Watching art stuff online with your germ group. The Seattle Symphony will run its fall season online. Ditto the Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Seattle Opera, a bunch of indie art houses, and any number of genius, bat-shit drag shows. To make it a party, all you have to do is gather with your very small germ group, dress up in your church clothes, and make out at the end.
The Kurt Vonnegut party. “I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses. And then, speaking gravely and elegantly into the telephone, I ask the telephone operators to connect me with this friend or that one, from whom I have not heard in years,” Vonnegut writes in his oft-quoted, oft-assigned novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. There is wisdom here.
Over the last few months I’ve learned I can only endure video conferencing for about an hour before I start freaking out. Somehow hearing and seeing a friend on my computer makes them seem more present. Since they’re not actually present, vid-chatting only highlights their essential absence. More stimulus reminds me of the more there is to miss. And the fixed nature of the interaction makes me feel trapped.
Talking on the phone, however, affords both parties mobility, plus the added NPR-like intimacy of someone literally talking in your ear. I’ve learned I can spend hours on the phone with someone just drinking a tequila slowly and bullshitting about stuff I see on Twitter, or walking around town getting my steps in. I realize that talking on the phone is not a "party," but at parties you end up only talking to a few people anyway. And if you call two or three people in a night, you’re basically at a rager.
None of this will scratch the itch of showing up at some kegger or cool house show and talking to strangers in other peoples’ kitchens. That’s something else Dr. Duchin understands.
“I know people have a strong desire to socialize and to spend time with others they love,” Duchin said. “But keep in mind, this is going to pass. It’s not going to be with us forever. It is something we’ll need to deal with for a year or so. And I think that’s a good time horizon with respect to people changing behaviors to try and keep themselves healthy.”
However, if over Labor Day weekend, say, we all make the same decisions we made on Memorial Day weekend and on Fourth of July weekend, consider the fall officially fucked.
“What we saw after [those holiday weekends] was very unfortunate because people prioritized social activities and large gatherings over their health and the health of their community, and as a result it’s been very difficult to bring children back into school,” Duchin said.
“You have to think, are these social activities and going out to eat more important right now than educating our children?” Duchin continued. “People don’t think in this context when they think about going to a party or a barbecue or a wedding. There’s a tendency to say it looks safe, it feels healthy, nobody seems to be ill, and it’s just one time or whatever, but the virus doesn’t think that way. It’s very crafty, and it will take every opportunity to spread.”