It took Elyse Rosenberg months to break up with her cleaning lady. Concerns about COVID-19 made her do it, especially because her grandsons, who are often at her house, had been too young to be vaccinated.
Rosenberg, 66, got two shots early this year as well as a recent booster. She hoped that the housekeeper who had come to her Austin, Texas, home every other week for almost 12 years would do the same.
“It was hard because I was comfortable with her. She was so honest and never missed a day and was very easy to work with … so I put up with her not wanting to be vaccinated,” Rosenberg says. “But it got to be when delta became so prevalent, that was the pushing point.”
Rosenberg isn’t alone in feeling forced into a decision she never imagined making. The coronavirus has polarized the populace, dividing friends and families over masks and vaccinations. The delta variant has magnified the issue, forcing some vaccinated older adults to dissolve long-standing professional relationships with hairstylists, house cleaners and others.
“This pandemic and COVID-19 really turned relationships upside down — whether it’s personal or professional relationships,” says Argie Allen-Wilson, a business relationship expert and therapist in Philadelphia. “This is a new dimension of relationships we haven’t dealt with before.”
No vaccination? No business
Rosenberg’s routine includes weekly after-school pickups for her grandsons, who are in kindergarten and second grade. The boys often spend the night at her home. Before Rosenberg was vaccinated “they weren’t allowed in my house and I wasn’t allowed in their house,” and the fact that someone who was unvaccinated would be coming in regularly became a deal breaker.
Rosenberg says she tried a few times to convince her cleaning lady to get vaccinated, but “she told me she didn’t trust it.”
The last time Rosenberg raised the issue, delta was at its peak. Her housekeeper had just finished cleaning when Rosenberg asked again her if she planned to get vaccinated.
“She said ‘No, I don’t think they know enough about it. It hasn’t been researched enough and I’m not going to do it,’” Rosenberg says. She then inquired about the cleaning woman’s husband and his vaccination status. “And she said, ‘He’s not vaccinated either.’”
Rosenberg said she was no longer comfortable having the woman in her home. "She took my key off her ring and put it down and said goodbye,” Rosenberg says.
For some, distancing from longtime service providers can be challenging and distressing.
“This is a question about what level of risk you want to take and what’s the knowledgeable decision about what you consider to be life and death,” Allen-Wilson says.
Sometimes the decision to break up can be just as difficult as having conversations about the vaccine, says Monica Guzman, an executive coach and organizational development expert in Powder Springs, Georgia, near Atlanta.
People who consider distancing themselves from those who are unvaccinated “have to understand they have the right — and even the obligation — to protect themselves and their families,” Guzman says. “Being assertive and establishing boundaries with people” is OK to do.
That’s how Keith Buresh, 60, sees it. A lighting designer from Dallas whose parents are in their 90s, Buresh says having to break up with the woman who has cut his hair for almost five years “was annoying, but it wasn’t difficult.”
“I cannot put myself willingly in harm’s way or at risk for no reason,” he says, explaining that the events and companies he works with require vaccinated workers.
“I asked her in June when I saw her whether she got the vaccine as there were not any medical issues for her … and she said, ‘I haven’t.’ I told her ‘I’m going to ask you next time,’” he says. “It’s critical to me that I go to somebody vaccinated.”
Buresh texted the stylist in early October and she texted back that “she’s on the fence about it and has not gotten it.” He responded: “Too many people in my life are at risk and I cannot get a breakthrough” case. She never replied, he says, and he never went back.
Talking frankly about vaccine status
Whether someone is willing to discontinue a long-standing professional or service relationship based on vaccine status may depend on various factors.
Allen-Wilson, the relationship expert, says “oftentimes, there are relationships you’re willing to fight for and it depends on the level of longevity” and connection you may have with the person.
In Charleston, South Carolina, Marylyn Haspel struggled with the knowledge that her hairstylist wasn’t vaccinated.
“She’s a lot younger and she was really in a quandary about it,” says Haspel, 69, adding that she sent her stylist a CDC link with the most up-to-date COVID-19 and vaccine information.
Sometime before her next appointment, her stylist got the shot.
“If she had not vaccinated, I would have severed the relationship. I had been going to her eight or nine years. I have that kind of relationship with her where I could talk with her frankly,” Haspel says. “I would not have gone the extra mile with somebody else.”
Guzman urges those who feel the need to break up with a service provider to explain the current risks. Then use what Guzman calls “I statements” about what you want rather than saying “You’re not vaccinated,” which is more likely to offend. Show empathy by acknowledging how disappointing and complicated the situation is. A next step might include checking back in a few months to see whether things have changed.
“At this stage, given the fact that COVID-19 is such a sensitive topic, I’d put it in the same category as talking about religion or politics,” Guzman says. “As opposed to trying to change another person’s mind, let’s focus on ourselves and what we’re going to do or not do.”
In some cases, vaccine breakups can work the opposite way.
Massage therapist Brenda Hanley, 50, moved to the Austin suburb of Cedar Park from California, where she owned a day spa. Now she works in her clients’ homes. She says an unvaccinated client broke up with her after getting pneumonia and incorrect health information.
“She texted me that she was seeing a new doctor who told her people who are vaccinated can make other people sick,” Hanley says. “It was sort of surprising to me that she was insinuating that I was getting her sick because I was vaccinated.”
Hanley texted the client to check in, but “she hasn’t seen me for an appointment since.”
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Sharon Jayson is a contributing writer who covers health, family, aging and retirement. As a staff reporter for USA Today, she covered behavior and relationships. She has also written for Kaiser Health News, The Washington Post, Time magazine and U.S. News & World Report.