In South Africa it is mandatory to wear a mask outdoors. Picture: AP
In South Africa it is mandatory to wear a mask outdoors. Picture: AP

A comprehensive guide to Covid-19 etiquette

By The Washington Post Time of article published Sep 10, 2020

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By Elizabeth Chang

The novel coronavirus is wreaking havoc on practically every aspect of society: work, science, health care, travel, parenting, education, even the ways we give birth and the ways we die and mourn.

So, of course it's rewriting the rules of etiquette faster than we can keep up.

Below we've collected advice for handling some of the most common quandaries involving manners that have sprung up during the pandemic, including some scenarios encountered by readers.

This gentle guidance is drawn both from previously published Washington Post articles and new counsel via email interviews from etiquette experts Thomas P. Farley and Steven Petrow, and Post food reporter Tim Carman.

Please keep in mind that as our scientific knowledge of Covid-19 deepens, "covidiquette" advice may change. But in the meantime, as we all gingerly navigate our way through this turbulent year, there is one etiquette rule we know applies universally: Be kind.

Do I have to wear a mask?

Yes. Public health experts say that you should wear a mask outside, especially if you are going to be near other people. In South Africa it is mandatory to wear a mask outdoors. Also, be aware of the fact that it's possible that virus droplets can spread more than six feet, which makes wearing the mask, until we know more, even more urgent.

How do I greet someone?

There is intense debate about whether covid-19 means the death of the handshake. For now, there are many alternatives.

Etiquette experts Farley and Capricia Penavic Marshall, who both were recent guests in Post home and design writer Jura Koncius's weekly online chat, suggest the namaste.

The Hindu bow with hands in a prayer position, a staple in yoga classes, seems like a good idea because it can be done at a distance (unlike, say, the elbow bump).

Farley, a speaker and author who soon will start the second season of his podcast about coronavirus etiquette, is also a fan of the "smize," short for smiling with your eyes.

What if I don't want someone to pet my dog?

In April, Farley said, "If a passerby fails to respect the recommended distance, I would not demur from letting the person know - in as nice a manner as possible - that you are distancing, and request that they say hello from an appropriate number of feet away.

As you say your goodbyes, you can say that you look forward to meeting them on the street after all this is over, at which time they will be more than welcome to pet your canine companion once again."

Can I use an elevator?

Scientific experts say that a short trip in an elevator is low-risk, if everyone is wearing a mask.

Should I avoid paying for things with cash?

Farley wrote in his email that "the old guidance of 'cash is king' - a concept never fully embraced by the under-35 crowd - is now completely out of vogue.

Although the health experts do say the chances of your catching covid-19 after touching currency are minimal, most establishments have streamlined their payment options to make it easier - and more encouraged than ever - for you to pay by card."

What do I do if I have to sneeze? Do I do it into my mask?

It's important to cover your sneeze in some way. "The goal is to keep your particles away from other people, and to keep other people's particles away from you," Eleanor Murray, assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, told The Post's Eliza Goren.

"Whether that's through physical distancing or a barrier of some kind, either of those will work." So, sneeze into your mask, rather than removing it before a sneeze; then replace it with a clean one (Murray suggests always carrying more than one mask). For other ways to handle sneezing, read Goren's story.

What do I do if I encounter someone who isn't wearing a mask or is wearing one incorrectly?

"A polite way to ask someone to wear one might be: 'Excuse me, in accordance with the regulations of the city, we are all required to wear masks. I have an extra new one if you need one?' (I try to carry a new one in my bag.)" Marshall, former US chief of protocol, told staff writer Jura Koncius in a July story.

What do I wear on a videoconferencing work call?

Hopefully, by now we all know to wear pants on a Zoom call. But what about tops, with the trend toward wearing athleisure wear 24/7? Is this indeed the end of office clothing, as a recent Bloomberg News story asserted?

"My entire Facebook feed is a stream of ads for T-shirts, telling me that this remains the new de facto office attire," Petrow wrote.

"But all T-shirts are not equal. Don't wear a stained, loose-fitting tee or other past-the-expiration-date leisure wear on a Zoom call." For fall, soft, casual sweaters, Henleys and long-sleeve T-shirts can work, he said.

How can we stop speaking over one another?

Farley had some tips in April for a Zoom meeting: Designate one person to be the host of the call; keep your microphones muted until it's your turn for questions or input; and use the "raise hand" feature when people want to talk or develop another signal. Also, make sure everyone is on "gallery view"; if all participants can see other, it helps prevent crosstalk.

Can you FaceTime or Zoom someone without checking with them first via text or phone call?

Farley recommended via email not doing a cold-call video chat, which he likened to "stopping by someone's home without calling first." He acknowledged that it could be a pleasant surprise.

But unless you're sure how it will be received, he wrote, "a thoughtful text asking: 'Would love to catch up on video. When might be a good time?' is the way to go. Exceptions are family members and significant others. Still, he said, this is more of a "manners misdemeanor than a good-form felony."

Is it okay to leave my screen dark during a virtual meeting?

Farley is much more appalled by people who do this, calling them "the pandemic-era equivalent of detectives viewing a witness interrogation behind a two-way mirror." As he pointed out, virtual communication is already complicated enough, because it lacks so many of the visual cues that come with in-person interactions (one way to help provide such cues is to sit farther back, so people can see your hands and arms). "If you are on a video call, you must be ready to see and be seen," Farley wrote.

Is it still bad form to email co-workers during off-hours, since many of us are on such weird schedules?

Farley wrote in his email: "If you have a time-shifted schedule (whether or not by choice), go ahead and compose at whim, but save those emails in your drafts folder and schedule them to be sent at a time when you know the recipient will be back on the clock." (You should do the same, he said, when emailing people in different time zones from your own. And your "good morning" or "good afternoon" salutations should always be pegged to the recipient's time zone - not yours.")

Can I safely have friends or family over for a meal?

According to this story by Koncius and fellow staff writer Emily Heil, experts believe it can be done, with caveats: Entertain outdoors; communicate the rules beforehand, ideally via phone (including whether you will allow anyone in the house to use the restroom); stay six feet apart; and either have people bring their own food and drink, or plate and serve everything individually, while wearing a mask.

How do I stand my ground with someone who disagrees about get-togethers?

In a story by Jenna Jonaitas, readers were advised to decide on their boundaries, then communicate them to others, practicing if they had to. And to always ask about the other person's boundaries.

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