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Covid-19 etiquette: A comprehensive guide

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. We are also including some recommendations from medical experts because, to us, following the latest health guidelines is the ultimate form of etiquette.

Please keep in mind that as our scientific knowledge of covid-19 deepens, “covidiquette” advice may change; we will update this FAQ as appropriate. 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.

Being out in public | Virtual communication | Dining | Tipping | Disagreements | Weddings | Funerals

Being out in public

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. 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.

“Going out in public without a mask is an etiquette felony,” writes Petrow, formerly The Post’s “Civilities” columnist and now a USA Today opinion writer on civility and manners, in an email. “While local laws may differ — and unfortunately there is no federal mask mandate — protect yourself and everyone around you. Wear the mask.”

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. “Supermodel Tyra Banks is the master of this, and you can find her how-to videos online,” he said.

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.”

In his April chat, Farley had a suggestion we should still be keeping in mind: “Don’t forget to thank the cashiers and other employees at the grocery stores, who are literally ensuring that we all have food to eat at this time.” Many of these workers are feeling forgotten.

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 U.S. chief of protocol, told staff writer Jura Koncius in a July story.

In his recent email, Farley advised people to choose their battles, and yet not make it a battle. “For individuals with whom you regularly interact (such as a co-worker when you are both back in the office and both required to wear masks), a simple, ‘Oops….it looks like your mask slipped! It happens to me all the time,’ should more than do the trick. For an oblivious stranger in the cereal aisle, I would not bother unless you believe the person is acting in a deliberately unsafe manner, in which case I would keep my distance and alert a store manager.”

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