For nearly a week, a single flight of stairs in a two-story home in Rolla, Mo., became a no man’s land — the only thing that separated the sick from the healthy. On the dozen or so steps, the healthy roommates left takeout orders and paper plates, and the sick ones returned used plastic utensils and other trash from their bedrooms.
And if any of the three coughing residents thought for a moment about wandering downstairs, a wooden cornhole board placed on the fifth step blocked their path.
When Marco Cisneros, 22, moved into that house in central Missouri last month, all five roommates had free rein of the four bedrooms and shared living spaces. They cooked meals together. They stayed up late playing Mario Kart.
But then one roommate began coughing. Another one got a fever. Soon, three of them were sick. Fearing that their roommates might have the coronavirus, the two healthy roommates banished the sick ones to the second floor.
“The day we moved them upstairs, we sanitized the whole house,” Mr. Cisneros said recently of his roommates’ quarantine. “I never thought to sanitize door handles before this, and now I’m sanitizing door handles.”
Living with a roommate has always included some drama — fights over dishes, shared bathrooms and cable bills. But with more Americans testing positive for the coronavirus every day, millions of roommates across the country have been forced to rely on people they may barely know to keep them from getting sick, in some cases entrusting their health to strangers they met on Craigslist or through mutual friends.
While the pandemic has brought some roommates closer together, for others, it has turned petty grievances about cleanliness or visitors into arguments over safety.
Across the country, nearly 20 million people live with nonrelatives, according to Census Bureau data. Among people ages 18 to 34, in 2015, one in four lived with roommates, a figure that included young adults who lived with relatives who were not their parents, such as siblings.
In interviews, people afraid of contracting the virus from less careful roommates said they were fervently cleaning surfaces, keeping toiletries in their rooms and removing shared items, like phone chargers, from common areas. Some have fled apartments for family homes, saying their roommates’ nonchalance put them at too much risk.
In Seattle, navigating the new normal of isolation has been exponentially more complicated for Eliza, a community organizer who lives in a house with nine others. Before the coronavirus, the intentional community felt like a big family. Now it is a source of anxiety — and possible infection.
“We all have different definitions of what social distancing means,” said Eliza, who asked that she not be fully identified to avoid tension with her housemates. One housemate was still going to an office last month, and another recently had three friends over to watch a movie, which “made me very uncomfortable,” she said.
And then there is the issue of hours upon hours suddenly spent together — in the same shared space.
With stay-at-home orders issued in all or parts of 45 states, many roommates who were accustomed to seeing each other only briefly in the morning or after work are now home together, in many cases working remotely, taking business calls and participating in video meetings.
About 40 percent of working-age adults are working from home because of the virus, a figure that is higher among the wealthy, according to the Pew Research Center. With roommates now doubling as co-workers, some have tried boosting morale in their new home offices — which, in many cases, is simply the living room.
Naomi Nagel and Michelle Topping, both 26, said that after a week of wearing their pajamas all day in their Atlanta apartment, they decided they needed to do something that would force them to change clothes — and lift their moods. The best friends created a “spirit month” calendar with a different theme for each day — including “ugly sweater” day and “fancy Friday” — and the effort has caught on among their friends, who have sent photographs of themselves following along.
When Ms. Topping was laid off from her job at a law firm during the pandemic, the spirit calendar and photographs gave her something to look forward to each morning.
“It was really helpful,” she said. “Losing my job sucks, but this is a little bit of a distraction.”
The altered state of living has also put more novel living arrangements to the test, such as that of Kristin Accorsi, 33, who lives in Freehold, N.J., with her husband, her former husband and a child from each marriage.
When the pandemic grew more severe in March, she told her former husband, who usually spends about two nights a week in the house’s “in-law suite,” that he should go to his other apartment in Brooklyn and hunker down. But within a few nights, after watching his roommates traipse in and out of the apartment and as cases spiked in New York City, he decided to return to the family home, she said.
Since then, there have been a few sticking points: Ms. Accorsi, a teacher who also writes a blog about her living situation, said her former husband has a tendency to talk on speaker phone, for example, and she has been doing much of her family’s dishes and laundry.
Still, the unusual circumstances also have their perks. Her 8-year-old son has been happy to see his father every day, and everyone has been somewhat amicable, at times surprisingly so. Sometimes, after Ms. Accorsi goes to sleep, the men stay up to watch anime on TV.
“I would say my ex and my husband get along better than I get along with either of them,” she said, laughing.
For Mr. Cisneros, in Missouri, the coronavirus upended much of his life. Last month, he was working at a movie theater in Springfield, Mo., his hometown. The pandemic caused the theater to close and cost him his job. He filed for unemployment last month and, after weeks of hearing nothing, he began receiving payments last week. His original plan to apply to a local Walmart is on hold, as the job feels increasingly hazardous.
“The Walmart is still hiring, but I’m too scared to work there, especially because my roommate who worked there potentially has coronavirus,” he said earlier this month. A few days later, one of his roommates tested negative for the virus, bringing everyone in the house a measure of relief.
Now Mr. Cisneros spends much of his days cleaning. He wants to be at home with his mother, but she has a rare lung disease and he worries about bringing the virus home, even if he has no symptoms.
Although he never could have anticipated the arrangement in his new house, Mr. Cisneros is grateful to be with some of his best friends, and glad they never turned on each other when they were all stuck upstairs for nearly a week.
Even once one of the roommates tested negative for the virus, Mr. Cisneros and the other healthy roommate did not take any chances.
“We had them stay upstairs another day just to be safe,” he said.
Dan Levin contributed reporting.