The Secret Lives of Perfect Social Distancers

“When I look at my choices as objectively as possible, I should not be doing this,” a 26-year-old speech pathologist told me, referring to the romance she started a few weeks ago.
The speech pathologist, who asked to not be identified by name to avoid repercussions at work, has been renting a car and driving from her home in Washington, D.C., to her new boyfriend’s home in Baltimore a few times a week, and keeping it a secret from almost everyone she knows. This isn’t because she doesn’t take social distancing seriously, she insisted. She lives alone and was “real good” for the first month of her city’s stay-at-home order. “I really felt a duty,” she said. “And then, I don’t know what happened. I mean, honestly, loneliness is really persuasive.”
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For now, the speech pathologist has told only a few friends (all of whom got mad) and her mom (who also got mad) about her blossoming relationship. She’s been careful not to drop hints at all online, including in the Facebook group where the pair met. “There’s nothing I want more than to blow up Instagram,” she said. Even outside of this super-secret situation, the speech pathologist has been vigilant about maintaining her sterling pandemic reputation on social media, and recently ducked out of a group photo at a friend’s spaced-out rooftop birthday party. “We can all remember that I was at this birthday, but I can’t jeopardize my job, my clients,” she told her friends.
Now that stay-at-home orders have been in effect for months—to varying degrees—in many parts of the world, this kind of double life is a serious temptation . People are lonely. People are taking risks. And yet, people also have shame, so they are keeping secrets.
Before all of this, we went to Instagram to flash the most socially active and best-loved versions of our lives, but during the pandemic, that kind of presence scans as a reckless endangerment of other people’s health. Social distancing is difficult enough on its own, but many of us are also feeling the added demand of projecting on social media that we’re doing the right thing and staying inside if we can. Even people who don’t have surreptitious boyfriends and swear they’re staying safe can end up feeling like they’re being deceptive.

Feuds between friends have played out on social media since the platforms were first created, but for many people, this is probably the first time the passive aggression has been about public health.
Julia Byrd, a 22-year-old who lives in Roanoke, Virginia, has been going to gatherings of about 10 people with her boyfriend and his fraternity brothers, she told me. “I would find myself posting videos and then deleting them off of my Snapchat story, because I was like, Oh man, people are going to judge me ,” she said. She’s pretty sure that her friends are judging her anyway, as they’ve been subtweeting her. “They’re...