Etiquette in the era of Covid

My friend is invited to a relative’s wedding in another state. Along with the invitation she has received a request for proof of vaccination.

Some people might consider this rude. Not me. I am relieved. My friend (who never smoked and is vaccinated) has lung disease and walks around attached to an oxygen tube. If not for the assurance that everyone will be vaccinated, she might be unable to go because of the risk.

I help coordinate an organization that meets once a month to hear interesting speakers. After a year on Zoom, we’re going to be back in person in September. Our steering committee was unanimous in deciding to admit vaccinated members only.

I was embarrassed when I asked our September speaker if he’s vaccinated.

He thanked me.

“I have been a bit frustrated,” he emailed, “that we have been making policy/rules based on the unvaccinated, whereas I believe we should make policy/rules based on the vaccinated, which not only rewards those of us who have participated in shared protection, but also incentivizes vaccinations for those who may be hesitant.”

Groups of all kinds and sizes are facing this question and handling it differently. Some churches, for example, are wide open, having chosen hospitality over safety, though I’m sure they wouldn’t describe it in that language. Others asking members for copies of vaccination certificates.

Most of us are not sure what is appropriate in this new reality.

I have started trying to set guidelines for myself, so that I can avoid getting accidentally trapped in unsafe situations. Sometimes, where physical closeness indoors cannot be avoided, I am going to have to ask people whether they are vaccinated, politely but in plain language. I hope they will expect the question and to be willing to answer it.

If you are not vaccinated, your reasons are generally none of my business. So I won’t ask why, and I won’t judge you. But I may choose not to sit next to you.

Perhaps the unvaccinated should assume the responsibility for being considerate, by sitting a few feet away from others without being asked or by wearing a mask and keeping it on. Based on a very simple understanding of the mechanics of breathing, I think the unvaccinated have no business singing in a choir.

This period is going to be unavoidably hard on those who are forced to be unvaccinated because of other health issues that involve compromised immunity. They are already struggling and this makes it more difficult for them, but they may have to endure their difficulty from a few feet away, for their own safety as well as for others.

Recognized etiquette experts are writing about this issue and taking the side of safety plus disclosure. They are saying that safety first is good manners. As long as you inquire politely, it is not rude to ask.      

We have a guideline from the heir to Emily Post. For those too young to recognize the name, Emily Post wrote her first book in 1922, and her name was synonymous with etiquette for generations. There is now an institute in her name.

Lizzie Post, her great-great-granddaughter, writes that today, asking questions about other people’s status before inviting them is polite. So is stating your personal safety boundaries.

“Although etiquette has always had an undertone of safety first, during the pandemic, safety became the main point of politeness,” she writes.

If you care about other people, are you more concerned about insulting people who are not vaccinated by asking or about protecting your friends and family? Every one of us has to make that decision.
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