skip to main content
Coronavirus In Seattle
caption: A sidewalk near the Ballard Community Center, March 2020.
Enlarge Icon
A sidewalk near the Ballard Community Center, March 2020.
Credit: Derek Wang / KUOW

Covetiquette: Society's new rules in the coronavirus era

Just because there's a global pandemic, doesn't mean that people can neglect being polite and courteous. In fact, it means that we should be even more so when interacting with others (from six feet away).

Because these days, it's about being more than well mannered and considerate. It's about being hygienic and saving lives.

Hello, I'm Conrad Covetiquette. And together, we shall find a civil approach to social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic — practices that I refer to as "covetiquette."

The Urban Dictionary defines covetiquette as: "Etiquette during the Covid-19 pandemic, including but not limited to social distancing and refraining from hoarding."

We here at KUOW have endeavored to provide you with the nuance within the definition.

Crossing paths on the street

You may still walk around your neighborhood under Washington's stay-at-home order.

Inevitably it happens — someone jaunting down the sidewalk in your direction. Quelle horreur! They are getting closer. The sidewalk is only so wide but we all must stay six feet away from each other. So who moves aside? Who crosses the street?

This is time to practice "acknowledgment and avoidance."

Acknowledgement: Say hello. Maybe offer a "have a nice day!" You are really saying, "We are all in this together, n'est pas?"

Avoidance: After offering your friendly salutations. Jumping into the street is perfectly acceptable nowadays. I suggest using the following guidelines for this inevitable encounter:

  • Elders get the right of way first. People who are older are at higher risk of coronavirus complications. If you see them, step aside and give them plenty of room as they pass.
  • Families, children, and people with pets have next priority.

Many may feel that people with pets should step aside. But children and friendly dogs are wild cards. While they may not show symptoms and be at lesser risk, they can still spread it. So it's best let them have room and step aside (if you have children and you see elders coming your way, teach the kids a lesson about respect by letting the older folks pass).

  • Runners. Run into the street.
  • Single walkers and couples fall to the bottom of the right-of-way priority list. If two singles/couples pass, play it by ear, but better safe than infected. Opt to be the gracious one and let the other party pass by.

A note about pets: Now is not the time to pet Fifi or Fido along your walk. Six feet, remember?


Masks

This letter is a good example of the tensions surrounding masks these days:

Dear M. Covetiquette,

My husband and I have begun to wear masks in public. We are doing it as an act of care and concern for others, but also just help remind ourselves not to touch our faces on those few instances when we are out and about.

The other day I went to pick up some supplies from my son. He appeared offended to see us in masks. Of course as young person he feels he is impervious and eternal. But I think he thought we thought he would pollute us. It's hard to untangle the situation, but he basically threw a bottle of hand sanitizer, grenade-like, into the back of our car and ran away. How should we handle such encounters in the future? Bring HIM a mask?

- Wilma B. Well

Mask wearing in certain cultures is commonplace for a range of reasons: A person is ill and doesn't want to spread it; a person doesn't want to get sick during cold/flu season; or they are more sensitive to seasonal allergies. During this time in the United States, we can all learn something from this perspective.

It's not offensive, it's considerate — another sentiment you could relate to your son. And if that doesn't do it, remind him that the federal government recommends wearing masks in coronavirus hot spots.

That brings up a couple other points of covetiquette.

Be aware: most masks on the market right now are not adequate protection against the virus. But something is better than nothing. Even if, at the very least, it reminds you to stop touching your face.

Read: Washington cosplayers make masks to fight coronavirus pandemic

N95 masks: The N95 mask is the top of the line mask when facing this virus ... and you should not have one. That is, you should only have one if you are at higher risk yourself or owned one prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The people who need them right now are vulnerable communities and medical professionals who are on the front lines of this pandemic. Masks, and other personal protection equipment, are in very short supply. Doctors, nurses, and first responders greatly need them during this time.

So if you have unopened N95 masks, or even surgical/medical masks, do the right thing and look into places where you can donate them for the cause. It's the polite thing to do.

Grocery stores

The basics: wipe down your cart before and after you go shopping at the grocery store. We all have to get food, and we all bear responsibility to slow le coronavirus.

Shopping: Hopefully, you are wearing gloves. And hopefully, you are rinsing or wiping down all the food items that you bring home.

Still, many people who wrote in feel that "if you touch it, you buy it." I feel that is reasonable during a pandemic.

It can be difficult sometimes — especially when you need an avocado that will ripen just at the right time — but make an honest effort. If you pick up a can, it goes in your cart. If you pick up an apple and see a bruise, sorry, it goes in your cart. Do your best.

The line: Many stores have now placed 6-foot markers for where people can stand and wait in line for the cashier. If you don't see any, respect the 6-foot rule. Do not crowd in the line and stay 6 feet from the person ahead of you. It's okay to politely ask others in line to spread out (you can refer them to this article).

Hoarding: There is a thin line between stocking up for a week or two, and hoarding. Remember that supply chains are strong when it comes to the grocery store. There is enough food to go around (and toilet paper for that matter).

There is no need to buy everything in sight (as if you are filling up the shelves in your underground bunker). We can all get what we require and there is no need to leave the elderly and those of us with less income without anything to eat for the next month.

Children

Covetiquette surrounding children is among the most mentioned concerns. They require us all — parents and non-parents alike — to take extra consideration.

As most parents are aware, children are gross. Oui, oui, they are our pride and joy, carrying forth our love and hope for the future. But that doesn't mean they aren't also big, walking bags of germs who lick things.

Perhaps that is why some folks have expressed disfavor when seeing kids in grocery stores and elsewhere during this time. When it comes to children, it's a two-way street requiring understanding and responsibility.

Understanding: Parents may not have any option but to keep their children with them, even while visiting the grocery store. Nannies aren't really a thing these days (for most people). So kids go where parents go, and people must eat, for heaven's sake. So if you see a child in the grocery store, keep in mind that we are all trying to get through this together and working with what we've got. If you must glare, pull up your mask so no one can see.

Responsibility: Parents must also bear in mind there is a reason people may be concerned about children these days. Younger people are at lower risk for Covid-19 and there is some evidence that suggest they could carry the virus and be asymptomatic.

Keep your kids close, make sure they are not grabbing at items in the store. Make some masks for them to wear so if they are carrying the virus, they will be less likely to spread it. Don't let them run up to other people, especially older people who are more at risk. In the end, be responsible and try your best to lessen their potential impact.

Another point: Everybody parents in their own way. But we must respect other parents' decisions during this time. One KUOW listener pointed out that while their child was outside, another parent let their kid walk right up and get face-to-face with them for playtime. It happened within a matter of seconds and with no consultation.

Even if you, as parent, feel this is okay, IT IS NOT. Let your kids play en plein air if you like, but disregarding other families' needs for social distancing is impolite, and dare I say, selfish.

Also, explain to your children why they need to be considerate; discuss the pandemic in ways they can understand (there is even a comic for this).

Conrad Covetiquette has little experience offering advice and is not a licensed professional (in fact, if we're being honest, he's not a real person). But he has read a lot of Dear Abby, and blogs, and has spent a considerable amount of time on Twitter and therefore feels he can offer meaningful advice.

*Dyer Oxley contributed to this article.