Florida residents are shedding their masks and hugging their loved ones again. But for some, it’s a moment of confusion.
Even though the state has lifted all local orders related to COVID-19, there are mixed messages about masks and social distancing. Some places require masks; some don’t. Some public spaces remain closed; others are as crowded as they were pre-COVID.
Many etiquette issues are confronting us as we wonder if the person next to us has gotten vaccinated and how to speak to the ones who haven’t.
Experts on ethics and manners say it’s permissible to ask questions (most of the time) about whether someone in your circle has been vaccinated; it’s all in the delivery. Explain your reasons, be polite and show some humility. We all have to make our way together through this uncertain transition time.
1. What is the best way to greet someone now? Are handshakes and hugs OK?
Before you make physical contact, make sure the other person is OK with being touched, said Yvonne Salas, owner of Etiqueta Excellence Manners in Pembroke Pines.
“Handshakes and hugs are not OK until both parties agree that it is OK. Simply ask: ‘Are you back to handshakes or would you rather we wave? May I give you a hug?’ ”
She said not to be offended if the other person declines.
“Maybe they have an underlying condition which is not visible. Maybe they lost a close relative to COVID and are extra sensitive about contagion,” Salas said.
2. Is it OK to ask someone if they have been vaccinated?
The experts were split on this one. Salas said the best strategy is to share your own vaccination perspective before you ask.
“It is certainly OK to ask,” she said. “It is also a good idea to start by sharing with them that you have been vaccinated. It makes the questions feel less intrusive as you are sharing with them your personal experience.”
But Dannie Fowler, owner of The Etiquette School of Florida, said the question crosses a personal boundary if it’s asked randomly or just to make conversation.
“You wouldn’t say to someone, do you have cancer?” Fowler said. “That would be rude. You have the right to ask if it relates to you or your health. But don’t be accusatory; the way you approach it is important.”
3. What kinds of questions should I ask if I’m invited to a dinner party and want to know about if guests will be vaccinated, how much social distancing will be required and whether food will be shared during the party?
Salas said there’s nothing wrong with querying the host about safety measures. Will it be outdoors? How will the tables be laid out? Will food be individually served or will it be shared?
“These are all valid questions because everyone must place their health and safety as their No. 1 priority,” she said.
4. If my child is invited on a playdate, can I ask if the parents and other house members have been vaccinated?
The experts agreed this is a reasonable question.
“In the same way I would ask a parent if there are nuts in their home or what kind of cake or ice cream would be served at a party to protect my nut-allergic child, I would ask about vaccine status or mask protocols at a party or a play date to protect my currently unvaccinated child,” said Amanda Horelick, co-founder of Elementary Etiquette in Boca Raton.
5. Can I try to change the mind of a friend or relative who is vaccine-hesitant?
The experts split on this one, too. Salas discouraged the practice.
“I think this is a very personal decision and would not try to change anyone’s mind regarding the vaccine,” she said. “The most that I would suggest is telling them of your own experience with the vaccine so they have a point of reference regarding the experience.”
But Justin Bernstein, a bioethicist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, said it’s acceptable, “praiseworthy, even,” to try to convince the undecided.
“Nonetheless, it’s worth being careful and respectful when doing this. Vaccination has long been and remains a highly polarized issue, and people often double down when confronted about the issue in ways that make them feel uncomfortable or personally attacked. I’d recommend acknowledging the hesitant person’s concerns and indicating why you understand their reasons for hesitancy before trying to assuage the relevant worries,” Bernstein said.
He suggested these talking points. “1. You can indicate that you’ve been vaccinated, that you’ve had no serious adverse side effects, and the same is true for everyone you know who’s gotten vaccinated. 2. Emphasize how you feel less worried about interacting with vulnerable individuals — such as older relatives — since you’ve been vaccinated. 3. Point out that the chances of contracting COVID-19 and dying from it are exponentially higher than the chances of suffering a vaccine injury.”
6. Is it OK to ask someone who isn’t wearing a mask in a place that requires them, such as a grocery store, to put one on?
Yes, but do it gently and don’t say “you” should be wearing a mask, say “we,” Salas said. She suggested these words: “Please remember that for everyone’s safety we should all be wearing masks” or “Our way of caring for everyone’s health is by wearing a mask. Please join us.”
7. What should I do if I can’t hear someone who is speaking with a mask on?
If you’re six feet apart, ask them to lower their mask so you may hear them better. If they’re closer, ask them to please repeat.
“It is a normal occurrence to have difficulty hearing someone speak with a mask, especially if there is surrounding noise, so no one should be offended when asked to repeat what is being said,” Salas said.
8. What’s the best way to decline an invitation to an event I’m not comfortable going to?
“A host sets the rules and should be explicit about what is expected — mask or no masks, indoors or outdoors,” Horelick said. “And a guest has the right to accept or decline an invitation — courteously and promptly — based on that information. Both parties should be gracious and accepting of these decisions.”
A white lie could be acceptable in this situation, Bernstein said.
“If you’re really concerned not to offend the person or can’t afford to offend the inviter because they’re your employer or something like that, I’d argue it’s permissible to tell a white lie by offering some other excuse,” he said.