With baseball season effectively over, Americans have a new favorite national pastime: shaming people on the internet for not properly socially distancing. Whether it’s a viral (albeit arguably misleading) photo of a crowded park on a sunny day or people wagging their fingers at joggers on the street, the narrative is always the same: self-absorbed young people are unwilling to sacrifice the pleasures of socialization in order to serve the greater good.
With this in mind, recent reports of “coronavirus parties,” or events attended by people purposefully trying to be infected with COVID-19, are almost tailor-made for internet virality. On Wednesday, the Washington State Department of Health tweeted, “We’ve been getting reports of ‘coronavirus parties’ where uninfected people are mingling with #COVID19-positive individuals intentionally to try to contract the virus. Bad idea! This is dangerous and puts people at risk for hospitalization or even death.” The tweet linked to an official statement from the health department secretary John Wiesman: “This kind of unnecessary behavior may create a preventable uptick in cases which further slows our state’s ability to gradually re-open.”
On the surface, this sounds fairly straightforward: parties where people are intentionally trying to get a potentially deadly illness? Scary! They even used a Trump-esque exclamation point to drive the point home, so you know they mean business. And to be fair, the concept of “coronavirus parties” had previously gotten ink in none other than the New York Times, in an op-ed by epidemiologist Greta Bauer referring to “rumblings” about people hosting events “where noninfected people mingle with an infected person in an effort to catch the virus.” The piece enumerates the many reasons why such parties are a bad idea, including the fact that researchers know very little about coronavirus immunity, without citing direct evidence of the existence of these parties to begin with.
There’s good reason for this, says urban folklorist Benjamin Radford: “coronavirus parties” are probably BS. “They’re a variation of older disease urban legends such as the ‘bug chaser’ stories about people trying to get AIDS,” he tells Rolling Stone, referring to a brief spate in the early-aughts when so-called “bug-chasing” parties were subject to extensive media coverage (including a controversial story by this magazine). Such stories fed into a general sense of “moral panic” over the disease, resulting in it sticking around in the public imagination regardless of the lack of supporting evidence.
That’s not to say, however, that there’s no precedent for such events. “This idea is not new,” says Jen Grygiel, assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University. “Growing up, I heard stories about people intentionally exposing their kids to chicken pox if they hadn’t been exposed in school so that they would acquire immunity while they were young.” (Such chicken pox parties are also popular in the anti-vaxx community, which has been actively spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.) There is even something of a precedent for so-called “bug-chasing” events, as the New York Times wrote last month, with gay homeless youth in Cuba in the 1980s purposefully trying to infect themselves with HIV in order to gain access to isolation camps for people who had tested positive.
In Kentucky, a group of young people had what appeared to have been an ironic “coronavirus party” in response to the state lockdowns, only for one of them to unironically contract the virus. But that too wasn’t exactly an effort to intentionally become infected.
But none of this serves as evidence that people are gathering en masse to clandestinely infect themselves with a potentially fatal illness, and some health officials have already started walking back this claim. The director of community health for Walla Walla County in Washington was quoted in a local paper earlier this week promoting the idea of coronavirus parties, but had to later amend the statement, telling the New York Times the county was “hearing reports of parties where infected people were present” but did not have evidence that people “had attended out of a desire to be exposed.”
In other words, people had contracted COVID-19 from attending parties, but did not attend for the purpose of contracting COVID-19 — a far more believable, if not less headline-grabby, version of events. But at that point, the story of coronavirus parties had already been credulously aggregated by multiple national news outlets, and the Washington State Department of Health, however, has yet to amend its statement or its original tweet.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, the public information for the DOH said: “The state Department of Health is encouraged to hear that reports of COVID-19 parties in the Walla Walla area may not have been accurate. Unfortunately, this was not the first time we had heard that these parties may be happening locally and nationally.” She added that the department wanted to be clear that “we strongly believe COVID-19 parties can be incredibly dangerous.”
Ultimately, the coronavirus-party story went viral for the same reason that all social distancing-shaming content does: it gives people cooped up in their homes a reason to pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves for their own sacrifices. There’s also undoubtedly an element of generational animosity at play here: if you believe that young people are all selfish assholes, then you’re more likely to believe that they’re gathering en masse to purposefully infect themselves with a potentially deadly virus. Radford compares it to the outrage over spring breakers storming the beaches in Florida: “a lot of people are tut-tutting over the irresponsible behavior of the younger crowd.” Morally bankrupt Gen Z-ers meeting in the shadows is a much more compelling story than the truth: that people are tired of quarantine, that we’re all restless and bored and depressed, and that some of us are bending the rules of social distancing, however inadvisably, and inadvertently contracting the virus in the process.
This story has been updated with comment from the Washington state department of health.