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Even vigilant Angelenos are fed up with distancing and are bending the rules

Ocean View Park in Santa Monica
Charlotte Cooper, left, Abby Hercules and Gaby Cutini, all of Los Angeles, celebrate Hercules’ birthday at Ocean View Park in Santa Monica.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

For nearly two months, Sara McLean and her family took all the pandemic precautions.

The potter and her husband pulled their 6- and 12-year-olds out of school a few days before LAUSD canceled in-person instruction on March 16. They stocked up on gloves, masks and food. And they didn’t leave the house, save for twice-monthly grocery trips.

But in late April, McLean began to consider how, for the sake of her sanity, she might safely bend the quarantine restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus. She started by inviting a friend over to her sprawling backyard in Mount Washington. They sipped drinks — BYOB, of course — in cushioned chairs positioned many feet apart.

Feeling heartened by that experience, McLean decided to host a Mother’s Day party in her backyard. She invited nine women, and five showed up. Each guest had a designated spot on the patio. McLean wiped down any surface her friends might have touched after they left.

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“I’ve already set up the premise in my mind that we’re not going back to normal any time soon,” said McLean, 45. “So I’ve been asking myself, how can we change our lives so we can still safely do things that were important to us before the pandemic?”

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Health officials remain unequivocal: All gatherings should be avoided, and public health orders will “with all certainty” be extended through the end of July.

But as California experiences its ninth week of quarantine, many Angelenos who have strictly followed stay-at-home orders have reached a breaking point. Exhausted and depressed by solitude and an endless procession of Zoom meetings, they have begun to loosen up their personal boundaries as they attempt to balance safety and mental health.

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“We were really cautious,” said Gaby Cutini, who met up with close friends Charlotte Cooper and Abby Hercules in Santa Monica’s Ocean View Park on Wednesday to share a cake for Hercules’ birthday. “Because we could each trace where each other had been and we knew we hadn’t broken quarantine, we knew we were safe socializing.”

Among this conscientious crowd, these first meet-ups after weeks of isolation have elicited a complicated mix of emotions, such as joy and guilt. But mostly, the meted-out in-person connection has offered profound relief.

Ocean View Park in Santa Monica
People enjoy a day at Ocean View Park in Santa Monica. Many who have been social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic are starting to bend the rules — seeing friends and family in parks or even in homes.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

And though they don’t condone them, health officials acknowledged such meetings will only grow more common in the weeks to come.

“While we are not recommending you have dinners with your friends ... we understand that there may be circumstances where there are other people near you who you know,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Friday. “In those circumstances, please keep your distance and keep your face coverings on.”

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Kayla Salisbury, an art teacher at Century Community Charter School in Inglewood, was among those testing the waters. After weeks of rarely leaving her South L.A. home, she and her fiance gathered a small group of friends for a yoga class near the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial at Kenneth Hahn State Park to celebrate her 27th birthday.

“We were all yearning for it,” she said of the crew, who flowed through their vinyasas with masks on and mats spread six feet apart. “And that’s something we spoke about when we prayed after, just being grateful and how wonderful it felt to be outside and get some air.”

Anthony Cherro of Los Angeles relaxes in La Cienega Park in Los Angeles
Anthony Cherro of Los Angeles relaxes in La Cienega Park.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Although the park was busier than she had expected, almost everyone wore a mask and people kept a respectful distance from one another, Salisbury said. She said knowing that the death rate had been far higher among black Angelenos like them made her and her friends more vigilant.

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Those who visit close friends and relatives — even with masks — are right to be cautious, said Mark Nichter, a professor of anthropology, public health and family medicine at the University of Arizona. Gatherings of friends and family have been a common source of super-spreading events, and those with close ties may find it hard to keep a strict social distance.

“Social distancing may be relaxed say around a dinner table or in a confined space where grandparents are with grandchildren who are not old enough to understand the rules,” Nichter wrote in an email. “Family members may be willing to take the risk if they think members have been reasonably careful outside.”

Fernanda Amaral was so frightened of the coronavirus that she pulled her 11-year-old son Christopher out of school two days before the LAUSD officially closed classrooms in March.

But as the weeks wore on, new worries began to weigh on her. Beginning this month, she has allowed him to return to small, socially distanced baseball practices in Ladera Park, tempering her maternal anxiety with his passion for the sport.

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“It just breaks my heart that he’s missing out on his last opportunity to play Little League,” Amaral said, her voice heavy with tears. “It worries me to put him out there and I don’t want to expose him to anything, but I don’t want him to miss out, either.”

Boxing instructor Minju Shin said more clients have been seeking him out in recent weeks, paying to spar with him in Pan Pacific Park in the Fairfax district.

“When [the pandemic] started, people were really, really scared,” he said. “But now they’re less scared.”

Shin’s clients have expressed their frustration with staying at home, and he’s happy to provide them a healthy outlet. He carefully sanitizes his and his clients’ gear before and after each workout. He also spars far from others who may be using the park.

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“I feel like I’ve gotta risk it,” he said of taking on new work.

It makes sense that otherwise conscientious people are beginning to break quarantine in modest ways, said Ted Robles, a social psychologist at UCLA. Humans are social creatures, and it’s incredibly difficult to sustain months of isolation.

“We look to others to give us a sense of what to do,” he said. “The more people you see out and about, the more you think it’s OK.”

It’s also human nature to consider the costs and benefits of every action, whether consciously or unconsciously, Robles said. It’s hard for people to see and appreciate the benefits of social distancing, because their lives do not improve because of it — they simply remain virus-free.

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But the costs of isolation, such as not being able to earn money and mounting loneliness, continue to build. And people are reaching their limits.

If beaches and businesses are reopening, does that mean I can visit my friends and family now? The new rules on socializing during social distancing.

This is especially true for those living by themselves.

Shannon de Zeeuw, a freelance producer, has been quarantining alone in her Echo Park apartment. She hadn’t set foot in a grocery store in over a month and went outside only to walk her dog. The 34-year-old is infuriated by people who run around her neighborhood without masks.

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De Zeeuw is grateful for her health and being able to pay her bills. But she’s also endured intense bouts of loneliness, boredom and depression. It got to the point where she really just needed to see a friend.

So two weeks ago, de Zeeuw drove to her best friend’s place in Venice. They sat in the backyard for an hour and talked about the strange turns life had taken since they last met.

“I feel that in person, it’s easier for friends talk about the other stuff besides quarantine, like the job that drained you before this, or the girl that broke your heart,” she said.

De Zeeuw has since hosted friends — one at a time, and only those who have been strictly quarantining — in her own backyard. She’s also met people in nearby Elysian Park. Doing so feels safer to her than going to the grocery store, where hundreds of people she doesn’t know have touched and meandered.

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Still, she sometimes feels guilty for relaxing some restrictions. “I’m like, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this,” she said.

“But I’m also learning how to live this way,” she said. “My mental health is as important to me as my physical health.”

You’ve stayed at home long enough and want to socialize with your friends. Here’s how you can gather without putting your health -- or theirs -- in jeopardy.

For McLean, the Mount Washington potter, her five-person Mother’s Day party was a “dry run.” Her Chihuahua-Dachshund pup, Ozzie, gleefully bounded up to her guests, not knowing that he could possibly be a means to transmit a deadly virus. And one of her friends left her designated area and got a little too close.

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McLean playfully admonished her friend for the pandemic party faux pas.

“You sit in your spot,” she said, “and you stay in your spot.”

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.


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