On the face of it, a shared house of 20 people with common areas and meals taken together sounds like a disaster waiting to happen during a pandemic, but residents of Bowers House Co-op in Hyde Park have managed to avoid a single infection by way of stringent, mutual responsibility and some degree of luck.
"We are constantly looking at our health protocols to make sure everybody is safe, individually and collectively," said David Nekimken, a 15-year resident. "We know if somebody comes in, it would make it easy for everybody to get it."
Communal living is an ancient tradition, from the ascetic withdrawal of remote monasteries to 1960s communes' struggle for utopia. The Qumbya Housing Cooperative — which has three locations in Hyde Park, including Bowers, and another in Bronzeville — fits into the countercultural latter, with other houses named after the Haymarket Riot and pioneering investigative journalist Ida B. Wells.
It was 13 months ago that Marijke Wijnen, a resident of more than two years, began to panic. "I remember coming home one day and just breaking down in tears and saying, 'We need to change something,'" she said. "And then everyone was really kind and was like, 'Yes, we do.' And we put it on our house meeting agenda."
Unlike other intentional communities that operate by consensus, not breaking until a course of action is found that is agreeable to everyone, Bowers operates by majority vote. Given the epidemiological stakes, however, Wijnen said residents tacitly decided to find a way forward that everyone could sign on to. If someone voted against something, the house would discuss before bringing them on board.
"People's needs were inherently more contradictory than with other issues," she said. "One person really wanting to see their partner, another person feeling like that wasn't safe, and there sometimes wasn't a way to solve it that worked for both people. (There was a) lot of compromising, a lot of working through feelings and sometimes swinging one direction and sometimes swinging the other direction."
Basically, the house became a bubble, though policies have changed throughout the pandemic, depending on how bad the situation is in Chicago. During waves, Bowers functioned as a strict pod; when there were fewer cases of COVID-19 in Chicago, the house had a plus-one policy, in which everyone had one person with whom, after the house vetted them, they could break social distancing. That being said, only around five residents chose to have a plus-one.
Transparent communication has been key throughout the pandemic: anytime something risky comes up for one person, an email goes out to the house to let everyone know.
"I think very early on it became clear that we were going to prioritize making ourselves a bubble versus bubbling from each other in the house, just because so many rooms are so small," Wijnen said. "If someone got it, even if we were somewhat bubbled from each other, there's no guarantee that we wouldn't have given it to each other anyway. So instead we made stricter rules isolating ourselves from the rest of the world. And I think for our own mental health, we knew that, if we're all stuck in our bedrooms for a year straight, that wasn't going to work well for us."
During the unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd last summer, Bowers did again relax some policies in order to accommodate residents participating in protest activity and mutual aid, in line with its prevailing orientation toward social justice.
If anyone travels, residents quarantine for six days in their rooms upon return to the house, with a bathroom reserved for their own use. Someone would take them meals. For four days after that, they can leave their rooms to get food, but they have to return to their rooms and wear masks.
During the first wave, everyone at Bowers worked from home, but as the pandemic has worn on, residents have taken jobs outside of the house — at the University of Chicago Medical Center, in child care, in homeless services.
Bowers has not put restrictions on what people do for a living. "People need to work," Wijnen said. "Typically we said that jobs are immune from our rules. Be safe, do what you can, but we're not going to do any rule-making around that."
That being said, during the second wave, residents working higher-risk jobs did self-isolate a bit from the rest of the community, taking meals in their rooms and wearing masks in common areas.
Clara del Junco, a Bowers boarder — she lives in an apartment across the street but does chores and eats meals at the co-op — ascribed the house's avoidance of an outbreak to "a combination of the rules that we've had, the trust that we've had in one another, luck and a fair bit of privilege, because a fair bit of people here work from home."
The rules have been pretty strict. Most residents have not gone to a grocery store in more than a year, with that task having been delegated to a few residents; rather than rely on public transit for trips to a doctor or dentist, residents with vehicles will drive their housemates. But all in all, del Junco called the avoidance of any known infections during the last 13 months "pretty miraculous."
Kevin, another resident who preferred not to use his last name, said the social benefits of having a domestic pod with 20 people "has been the whole benefit of living in a co-op during the pandemic …. If I would have lived by myself, I would have gone crazy." He had lived in the co-op before and moved back in during the pandemic.
In a pandemic marked by physical isolation and loneliness, Bowers has maintained its social life. Last spring, residents had a murder mystery night and threw a talent show. They have played a lot of board games. While the world has changed, the gist of communal living in the big house on University Avenue has stayed the same.
"I like that every day after work, I can come downstairs and have dinner with friends, and that I don't have to put in the time and effort to make plans — that socializing and having community is just the people versus something that I have to plan for and put time into," Wijnen said, further touting the environmental benefits of communal living.
"In a lot of ways, I feel like 2020 was a dark year for our planet, and so to be constantly around a community of people who were trying to make things better and were trying to bring joy into each other's lives, it was just a really positive counter-balance. For all the things I could get really sad about, that was going on in our world, there was always something to give me hope, of people going all-out to deliver food, or go to protests, or just bring joy to our home."