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We're in the USA where the pandemic is still raging. We've been working from home since March. My department is 5 people and some of them have been seemingly having "cabin fever", so they asked my manager if they could meet for lunch. I thought this would be optional and that I could refuse, but it ended up becoming a lunch meeting where work would be discussed and so no longer optional. I told my boss that I wasn't comfortable joining and she is guilting me and saying I should go to help "build camaraderie".

Am I overreacting here by refusing to go to this meeting? I feel like no one should be meeting up in person right now unless necessary and a lunch meeting is not necessary for us. We've been doing web meetings for months.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Aug 4 at 12:08
  • @emory: sounds like this lie could have unintended consequences. – Quora Feans Aug 5 at 22:09
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    What are the details of the lunch? Where I am, we meet at restaurants with terraces and greet at a safe distance. I only take the mask off immediately before eating, and put it afterwards. I feel safe in such situation. – Quora Feans Aug 5 at 22:13
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    OP which state are you in? – Harper - Reinstate Monica Aug 5 at 22:36
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My manager has scheduled a face-to-face lunch meeting. Am I out of line to refuse?

You are not out of line to refuse given the current situation. If the purpose of the meeting is to discuss work, then you should at least make some effort to remotely attend. You can offer to call your manager or one of the participants and be placed on speaker phone during the meeting. This way, you can somewhat participate without physically being present. If even that is not possible due to the environment or some other reason, then ask to be updated on what was discussed or reach out to someone that attended to find out what was discussed. This way, you demonstrate that you were actually interested in the content.

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    Is OP an at-will employee? You should mention the very real risk of being fired for not going (directly or indirectly) – Jeffrey Aug 3 at 17:03
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    @Jeffrey Real but not necessarily likely. It really depends on just how unreasonable OP's manager is, though I admit insisting on a mandatory in-person lunch meeting during a pandemic isn't a point in her favor. – BSMP Aug 3 at 18:38
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    @Jeffrey: You're not wrong but that risk exists for literally anything (barring things that are specifically protected by law) when you're employed at will, making it fairly irrelevant to point it out at every turn. – Flater Aug 4 at 13:32
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    @Flater I disagree that a response to a question "what are the possible negative outcomes of taking this action" fits the description of 'point it out at every turn'. – Alex M Aug 4 at 17:33
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    @SnakeDoc that's incredibly poor advice. Engaging in a risky activity bears more risk than not doing so, regardless of the precautions one takes. Going grocery shopping is, for the vast majority of people, a necessity to continue being alive. Going to a lunch meeting with no good reason for physical presence is not. – Adam Barnes Aug 5 at 5:28
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You have to look at the environment where the lunch meeting is taking place. It is possible to meet for lunch and still separate by 6 feet. This is done all the time by people who want to visit relatives. A small group eating outside can set their chairs 10 feet apart and be fine.

My parents have an evening meeting with their neighbors on their cul-de-sac. They stand by their mailboxes and talk. They bring an adult beverage and discuss whatever they want. No masks are required, but they can be worn if that makes the person comfortable.

My community brought in a food truck, then allowed families to sit in marked off zones on the old tennis court.

Give the manager options. Everybody can bring a picnic lunch or they can get it catered. They key is to be outside.

If the safety issue can't/won't be resolved then you have to realize that no team building even is 100% required.

A few comments regarding items brought up in the comments:

  • It is a business meeting. In name only. In order for the company to approve it, your manager needs to bring up a business topic. Based on my many years of experience the business topic will be 2 minutes and the rest of the time it will be socialization.

I had decided to avoid any of the normal issues that are included in these questions and focus just on the COVID problems, but here are the ones that aren't COVID related:

  • Time. If the cost in time to get there, eat, socialize, and get back home is not being covered by the company this is a burden on the employee. I know people who have to travel 50+ miles to work. or they have to take the commuter train which doesn't allow for arriving in the office for lunch. That 30 minute lunch will cost them multiple hours, which they have to make up or take vacation.

  • Money. If the company isn't footing the bill for the food, that can make it to expensive for employees.

  • Conflicts. Some days I have meetings that I have to attend. In the past they were in person, now they are over the phone, but sometimes I am not able to reschedule a meeting where I am 1 of 50 attending. The longer the business lunch the more likely there is a conflict.

  • Food choices/allergies. I am allergic to seafood. If the company lunch is sushi, I have zero interest in attending.

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    The difference between your parents and the OP is (possibly) that the OP has (presumably) to travel to the work/lunch location, the parent at the mailboxes not. – guest Aug 3 at 14:23
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    But travel concerns aren't expressed in the question. – mhoran_psprep Aug 3 at 14:29
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    I would assume "meet in person" includes travelling unless said otherwise (as you did in your example). – guest Aug 3 at 14:38
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    Another issue here is that everyone has their own comfort level with these situations. Some may be comfortable sitting 6' apart outside without masks (since masks need to be removed to eat), while others may not be. And that comfort level may vary depending on age, health conditions, the level of viral spread in the local community, the number of participants at the gathering, how seriously the other participants are trying to protect themselves, transportation options, etc... The OP may make those judgement calls differently than you or your parents, and that's their right. – Zach Lipton Aug 3 at 23:45
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    Most lunch meetings are not going to be in a place where you can maintain separation--and remember 6' is without airflow effects. If the HVAC is blowing and you're downwind it's not enough. – Loren Pechtel Aug 4 at 3:42
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Check your state, county and city executive orders and other mandates.

It's something you should be familiar with anyway... but there's a fair chance a government order at one of those levels will prohibit the meeting.

You are looking in 2 areas: General, and Employment.

Obviously most of us think about the rules on social gatherings, and any such rules do apply. In most states, 5 friends getting together is legal, at least outdoors with social distancing.

But this is an employer function as part of a job - and that brings in another chapter of regulations. A few examples of such regs:

Obviously those last two conflict with a sit-down meeting in a restaurant. But what do you do with that??? What's the regulation issuer going to say about that? Since my advice is "check with your state, county and city", that's a good thing to ask them.

But I don't see too many saying "sure, hold an unnecessary meeting and suspend precautions". I think most will say "No, the rules preclude lunch meetings". Again you must ask.


Further, "doing it anyway" can be as serious as a misdemeanor; and while early on, the governors were making the rules fairly toothless, of late they are cranking up the penalties.

You also have civil liability (lawsuit) if you pass on COVID to another person. Even if a governor waives criminal penalties, that does nothing to ease the risk of a lawsuit if someone contact-traces their infection back to such a meeting. The liability is both corporate and individual, especially if the individual apparently lied on a COVID screening form.

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  • In the US right now, this seems exceedingly unlikely. There aren't a lot of places that have banned gatherings as small as 5, most municipalities do not have any mask ordinance operating, and obviously in this particular locale restaurants are not closed (or this wouldn't have come up in the first place). There's a reason the US currently has nearly a quarter of the world's active cases. – T.E.D. Aug 5 at 13:48
  • @T.E.D. The media is covering the War of the Governors, not the county level orders which most affect business. It's common to have bans on corporate face to face activity that could be handled electronically. Expect an order about qualifications to enter a workplace, e.g. the 8 questions you get asked and taking your temperature. To meet without doing that is a violation. The US has very good government in places; but that isn't helping much. It's suffering because of Karen & Ken. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Aug 5 at 14:55
  • Where? This is literally the first I've heard of such a thing in the US. – T.E.D. Aug 5 at 15:22
  • In my state, we're lucky to have gotten a mask ordinance (most cities don't have one, including the suburb my workplace is in). Trying to regulate the behavior of local private businesses within their own walls that aren't "public accommodation" is pretty much unthinkable. For the most part, the burden of deciding to use social distancing to reduce spread has been left on the shoulders of individual citizens, which seems exactly where this question is coming from. – T.E.D. Aug 5 at 15:32
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    There are counties that have banned outside dining (which means of course indoor is also banned) but if that's the case the question is irrelevant in the first place. There are also group size restrictions but again if that's the case the meeting isn't happening anyway. I'm not aware of any US county or city that has allowed outdoor dining but put restrictions on group composition (eg everyone has to be from same house). – eps Aug 5 at 21:05
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I would say address it thusly.

  1. Analyze your own risk factors
  2. Analyze the risk factors of those you come into close personal contact with
  3. Analyze the overall safety of the meeting
  4. Discuss any concerns with your boss
  5. Go, or don't

Having nearly been killed on the job, and having permanent injuries from said job, I can say that no job is worth your life or health.

If you think this is too much of a risk, and that your boss is too cavalier with your health concerns, then you don't belong at that job, and you should seek another.

If the proper precautions are in place, and your risks are low, you should go.

If you cannot go, ask if you can attend remotely. We've done similar things with people, and it's worked out well. But be safe, sane and cognizant of your risks.

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    It's more like the boss doesn't belong--it is not acceptable for the employer to make a job riskier than need be even if it's an inherently hazardous job. – Loren Pechtel Aug 4 at 3:43
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    The thing is, the risk on an individual instance is always going to be minimal. I live in one of the hardest-hit regions in the world, and in my zip "only" about 0.15% of the population is (known to be) infected. The odds of one of those other 4 people in this one meeting being in that infected group are really low, and even if they are I may not catch it. However, if you continue to take these risks all the time, or more to the point if everyone takes them, more than enough people will get infected to make the problem worse. The consideration here isn't just yourself. – T.E.D. Aug 5 at 13:57
  • @T.E.D. It's not about taking the risks all the time, it's one instance, and eventually, we will all be infected, probably more of us have been than we realize. I think I had it back in January. You cannot hide from a virus. – Old_Lamplighter Aug 5 at 14:18
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    @Old_Lamplighter - Protip: If you think you might have had it and recovered (not if you're sick or recently exposed!!!), donate blood. The American Red Cross is now checking donations for Covid-19 antibodies. Having them makes your blood more useful (so there's a practical reason), but it would also tell you if you've "already had it". – T.E.D. Aug 5 at 14:44
  • @T.E.D. I cannot donate blood for other health reasons – Old_Lamplighter Aug 5 at 14:46
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Am I overreacting here by refusing to go to this meeting?

We cannot answer that as what would be be overacting will vary from one person to another, and also ongoing regulation about such events. For example there may be relatively safe ways to do said lunch, like at a park, maintaining safe distance, with bring your own food options and so on (this is just an example not actual advice to do that, weight your own circumstances and solutions).

But whether you are overreacting or not....

I told my boss that I wasn't comfortable joining and she is guilting me and saying I should go to help "build camaraderie".

The reality of the situation is that not going to a lunch where everyone else will go, is likely to harm your relationship. How badly, for how long, we cannot tell, but whenever you refuse to do something that is important for someone else, you are at risk of alienating that person. So you have to weight that consequence against possible benefit that goes from attending and make your own decision. Or maybe you can propose some middle ground, like offering to attend over the phone, or to do it in a way that is safe for everyone.

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    requires a stronger answer up front, it's more of a discussiom than an answer – bharal Aug 3 at 19:25
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Unusual mandatory meetings tend to be about:

  1. Immediate layoffs.
  2. Company re-structuring that will result in layoffs soon.

The first type wouldn't be done at a restaurant. It needs to be at the office. The second type could be done in a restaurant. If this meeting is at the office it's even more likely to be about layoffs because offices have video & audio conferencing making a mandatory in person "lunch" meeting very, very unusual.

Yes, you can opt out on health grounds but most states allow employers to terminate you for any reason unless you have a contract that says otherwise. Look at it this way, if your close family member wanted to see you right now, would you let them? If the answer is, 'yes', then going to meet co-workers is no more risky. You can't know for sure where another person has been and what bugs they're carrying. To minimize risk, try to meet outside.

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    Given OP's details, it seems unlikely it's either of these things - it's just manager trying to accommodate the wishes of those with cabin fever and figuring to get some work stuff thrown in. – Joe Aug 3 at 22:50
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    @joe Note that 'discussing work business' may be required to allow the meal to be charged to the company... – avid Aug 4 at 4:29
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    But you're not seeing a random person. You're seeing a person with poor COVID compliance. They are more likely to be superspreaders. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Aug 4 at 6:06
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    Plus most people have a far stronger relationship with family members than with coworkers, and so are willing to take greater risks for their family members. So it's a very different calculus. – bob Aug 4 at 12:58
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    @HenryM - the fact that they want to gather a bunch of people during an epidemic, in a closed space, to perform an activity that necessitates removal of masks directly shows poor compliance. – Davor Aug 4 at 15:44

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