COVID-19 Etiquette: Out and About

(Photo by Noah on Unsplash)(Photo by Noah on Unsplash)

The coronavirus pandemic upended all sorts of social norms, from handshakes and hugs to group lunches at the office.

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Many employers are now looking to bring their workforce back to the office — but what if you’re not ready to return?

We asked a trio of experts for advice as part of our COVID-19 etiquette series

Handshakes were replaced last year with elbow taps, fist bumps and waves to prevent the spread of COVID-19. With offices reopening and people mingling once again, hands are being offered in greeting. What should you do if someone wants to shake hands — or hug — and you don’t want to?

Dr. Susan Bleasdale, medical director of infection prevention and control at University of Illinois Health: You can use your body language. When you’re getting together with people, keep your hands at your side. It’s hard because oftentimes, we like to greet people and smile, but you can’t see that behind a mask. If someone puts out their hand, I’ll put out my elbow and say, “I’m not handshaking yet, but I’m really glad to meet you.” Our you can fist bump and then wash your hands.

Say, “It’s so great to meet you, and I still can’t believe we can’t shake hands yet because of where we are.” That’s telling them, “I’m letting you know I’m being cautious and trying to be safe.”

Shelly Rauvola, assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology at DePaul University: In terms of a business context, I think, hopefully, we’ll be able to establish some norms as an organization that could be communicated with visitors to your organization or new clients in advance.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to communicate with your family and give them a heads-up, saying: “I’d like to see you later, but I’m not currently in a place where I’m comfortable with close physical contact. I’d like to maintain some social distance. I can’t wait to be through this and be able to hug when we come out on the other side of this safely and comfortably.” If you communicate that in advance, it makes it less awkward.

Of course, you’re going to see and meet people unplanned. If you’re in a situation where someone extends a hand or comes in for a hug, being as kind and clear as possible is helpful. If you need to, take a step back, make distance between yourself and them, and then communicate why you’re doing that. I recommend you do that as opposed to shaking hands and feeling uncomfortable about it. 

It is totally normally and good to have boundaries and standards, and we can all communicate those.

Dr. Crystal Clark, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine: Just say, “Hey, I’m not shaking hands these days. I’m trying to avoid spreading any germs given this pandemic.” A lot of people respond fine to that. People who like to hug might give a gesture of hugging and say, “I’d love to hug you, but this what we’re doing these days given the rise in (COVID-19) numbers.” It’s still a gesture of affection, but you’re not touching each other. Elbowing is replacing handshakes these days.

Once ubiquitous social distancing markers in stores and public places are increasingly rare. But maintaining social distance of at least 6 feet is a key strategy to preventing the spread of COVID-19. With infections fueled by the delta variant rising, how do you ask someone to give you more space in, say, a checkout line?

Bleasdale: It’s a hard social etiquette thing. You could say, “Would you mind? I need a little more space, I’m worried about COVID,” or, “I’ve got someone I’m worried about, so I want to be careful.” Those are ways to gently have those conversations.

Obviously, you can use some body language. You can take a step back and maybe that creates that space. Or you can be tightening your mask again as people are getting close. Sometimes, using that body language can send, “I’m being a little more cautious right now.” And that might prompt people to step back. If they’re not seeing the cues, just ask them nicely to step back and that you just want to make sure you’re being safe.

Rauvola: I definitely wouldn’t recommend just looking at people and hoping that they’ll notice you look frustrated. We all think people are noticing a lot more about us than they do. A lot of people are in their own little bubbles, especially in the checkout lane in the grocery store.

If you can, come up with whatever the reason is you’re waning more space, whether you’re uncomfortable about contracting COVID or transmitting it to someone, or if you’re someone at higher risk – you don’t need to disclose your personal information, but you need to able to say why.

Clark: Turn around politely and ask, “Do you mind maintaining 6 feet of distance because of the pandemic?” Everyone may not respond to that request well. So you can say, “I’m sorry to bother you and I’m sorry that I upset you but I’m just trying to protect myself.”

You can also point to the (social distance) markers and politely say, “We’re supposed to be on the markers, do you mind trying to maintain 6 feet? I’m concerned about this virus. It really scares me.”

Also, be willing to step out of line if you’re uncomfortable and definitely follow up with the store management, and ask if they can put the (social distance) markers back out – I know a lot of stores don’t have them anymore.

With COVID-19 vaccines readily available, many businesses are rolling out return-to-office plans. How do you tell your boss you don’t feel comfortable returning to the office?

Bleasdale: There’s a lot of responsibility from employers to ensure they have safe environments for people coming back to school and to work. If someone is feeling nervous or scared about the spread of the virus, they should ask their employer, “What are you doing to make sure it’s a safe environment for me?”

Masks are very effective, which is why there’s a recent re-requirement for masks. Masking is a good way to make it safe to come back to work. Distancing helps. Make sure people are aware of the signs and symptoms of COVID and that they get tested right away if they develop symptoms to prevent it from spreading. Make sure as many of your staff as possible is vaccinated.

Rauvola: If you’re not super close with your boss or are nervous, it might be better to start with a different mentor or colleague and talk about your concerns. From there, the best course of action is to talk to your manager or talk to some other supervisor whether that’s in (human resources) or some other department and just share your concerns.

We’re seeing so many people leaving the workforce altogether or leaving jobs and taking on new jobs because they’re forced to return to work and don’t feel comfortable doing so. I think people in that position should recognize that you have bargaining power here. Your feelings are valid, your concerns are valid and trying to communicate those is really important, and organizations are going to have to adapt at some level.

Clark: I recommend asking the boss or employer: “What are the protocols or precautions given the surge and increasing rates of infection? What is the company doing?” Maybe the company is doing things that you feel OK with.

If you’re not feeling comfortable, I recommend saying why you don’t feel comfortable whether it’s, “I have small kids at home,” or “elderly parents to take care of,” or, “I have an immunocompromised illness that puts me at higher risk.” Explain to the boss your situation and why you would benefit from not coming back at this time.

As employees return to offices, so too do lunches with colleagues or clients. How do you navigate, say, a work lunch where you find yourself inside a restaurant and feeling uncomfortable because nobody is masked?

Bleasdale: If you share a meal together, a great way to do that is outside. Have a picnic. You can space yourself out and bring your own lunch. Do a grab-and-go lunch. That way you’re not in close proximity.

Tell everyone you’re planning this, so everyone is careful beforehand to limit the number of exposures. Try looking at alternative ways that don’t involve food and drinking.

Employers need to make sure whoever’s there is comfortable, and if they aren’t, make sure they feel comfortable wearing a mask and that they can come with their mask on and maybe wait to eat till afterward when they’re back in a private office area.  

Rauvola: People are going find in themselves these situations a lot moving forward. To the extent that you’re able to, proactively avoid some of those situations. Just don’t end up at a lunch you know about in advance. Make alternative arrangements to interact with individuals.

Take a proactive approach. This is something you should talk about with your manager as you’re coming back into the office. For a lot of companies flying in clients, business lunches are a big part of a company’s culture and they need to address that in some way as employees are returning to work. This might be something where a company figures out what the standards are from outset. And you should also communicate what your needs are from the outset so everyone knows.

Clark: Ask questions before going to find out yourself so you’re not in that situation. Be comfortable with saying, “That’s a really crowded restaurant. They don’t make sure everyone wears a mask.” If you don’t feel comfortable or know people won’t be wearing masks because they have to eat, you may want to opt out of that lunch and explain why.

Interviews have been condensed and edited.

Do you have COVID-19 etiquette questions? Send us an email.

Contact Kristen Thometz: @kristenthometz (773) 509-5452  [email protected]

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