A Guide to Etiquette in the Age of Coronavirus

Stop hugging, hoarding, and making your employees come in with the sniffles. And if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for me.

boston symphony orchestra fist bump

Fist bumps took the place of handshakes at a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto Photo on Thursday night | Photo by Hilary Scott

In a pandemic, we’re all hypochondriacs. Over the past week or so, as the coronavirus has wound its way into Boston, I’ve found myself on-edge, going to great lengths to avoid touching subway poles, reconsidering already-bought concert tickets, skipping the hot food bar at Whole Foods. After I read that public health officials recommended that people sing while washing their hands, I started doing it! I’ve also taken to carrying a little bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere and for the first time ever, just bought a bottle of vitamin C-rich multivitamins, because who knows. But I still have to leave my apartment, ride a subway packed with untold swarms of germs, and generally exist in a world that seems woefully unprepared to keep me COVID-19-free. Suffice it to say, the MBTA being wiped down every few hours only does so much to stanch my fears.

What we need, if we want to keep the risk of being overrun by malicious spiky spheres low, is a new social contract. Until this thing blows over, I’m counting on all of you—the open-mouth coughers on the T, the close-talkers, the compulsive huggers—to set some new boundaries for these deeply paranoid times. If you won’t do it for yourself, well, do it for me. Please. Because while bleeding edge science might not save us from the coronavirus, etiquette just might.

Luckily, we have a model for where to start: Ahead of its big gathering of virus experts at the Hynes Convention Center this week, the annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections published a detailed outline of precautions for attendees. It covered the basics, such as avoiding unnecessary contact (a livestream option so people don’t have to come in person), staying clean (they planned to seed Hynes with hand sanitizer and boxes of tissues), and keeping sick folks separated (they set up a space on site to isolate anyone with symptoms). Then, as the situation become more dire and convention cancelations piled up, the CROI pivoted, announcing that it had canceled all in-person activities and moved all of its programming online. So, with a little ingenuity and flexibility, and an expert’s appreciation for what’s at stake here, the show can in fact go on. Given that many of us can’t cancel our lives entirely, and we’re not under a sweeping citywide quarantine order (at least, not yet), what should you do to stay safe while out and about in Boston?

For starters, stow the handshake. Sure, it’s hard to break the habit of reaching out your hand when you meet someone, but research has shown that clasping your possibly viral hands around those of a stranger is—unsurprisingly!—a very effective way to spread disease. Alternatives like fist-bumping, on the other hand, spread significantly fewer microbes. For the record, bowing, waving, winking, and doing finger-guns are perfectly sanitary. Personally, I think the fist-bump is a perfectly good option if professional courtesy requires you to touch someone in some way. And hey, if it’s good enough for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it’s good enough for me. So, for the time being, let’s just agree too keep our distance, alright?

The same goes for hugs. Let’s be honest: Hugging is controversial at the best of times. I’m personally very pro-hug among friends, but the idea of embracing a stranger at a professional mixer in this year of our lord 2020 just feels weird. At a time when people are feeling particularly squeamish about germs, seeing someone swoop in for an unsolicited hug feels like watching a horror movie in slow-mo. There is no agreed-upon way to spurn hugs in a non-confrontational way, but Mensa, the club for geniuses, devised a system of color-coded stickers conference attendees can place on their nametags to indicate whether they’re okay with being hugged—an innovation Boston comedian Jamie Loftus described on her podcast My Year in Mensa as one of Mensa’s few sincerely genius contributions to the world. Doing such a thing on a citywide scale isn’t practical of course, but for now let’s just pretend we’re all wearing “don’t hug me” stickers and go from there. We already get a bad rap for being a cold, standoffish people, so let’s start living up to it.

Speaking of standing off, let’s also consider this a time to brush up on MBTA etiquette. When you’re riding the T, it’s impossible to observe the CDC’s recommendation that you maintain a six-foot bubble of personal space to stay out of other people’s coronavirus splash zone, but there’s still plenty you can do—and honestly are already supposed to be doing. First, don’t make me squeeze by you, commingling our microbes in the process: move all the way into the train, wait for people to get off the train before cramming your body inside of it, and take off your backpack. Pack your hand sanitizer if you’re going to grab the pole (and relatedly, if you’re at CVS and tempted to buy the place out, don’t, because hoarding hurts us all), stand back to front so you’re not breathing in my face, and please wash your hands as soon as you get off.

Finally, I know that the wheels of capitalism must grind on, but if you’re an employer, this is an excellent time to relax those productivity-maximizing workplace rules. Making it burdensome for workers to stay home when they’re sick—by requiring that they find their own replacements, for example—will surely make things worse. The same goes if you’re a die-hard office drone who insists on coming in. I get that in a city of strivers and hyper-competitive startups, office culture rewards go-getting, but no one will be impressed by your presenteeism when you’re sneezing all over the open office. (Typhoid Mary insisted on going to work, too, you know) You can still let everyone know how hard you’re working (or “working”) by messaging people on Slack, but given the current shortage of test kits and the heightened paranoia, just do everyone a favor and work remotely if you’re feeling sniffly.

Facing down a pandemic is nerve-wracking, but the upside of all of this is that it can also be an opportunity to find our better angels and try to be the Bostonians we know we can be. Maybe this period of elevated anxiety will push us to be more hygienic neighbors, with a better appreciation for boundaries, and a better understanding of why improving working conditions is good for all of us. It’s possible that we’ll become a city of polite, organized T riders. It seems we’re apparently all finally washing our hands properly for the first time, which is as good a place to start as any. But, until we get a handle on the virus, let’s just do our best to think of those around us. At the very least, try to think of me. I’ll be over here, singing to myself and chomping down another vitamin C.

This post has been updated to reflect that the CROI has called off its in-person conference.