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

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.”

Virtual communication

What do I wear on a videoconferencing work call?

Hopefully, by now we all know to wear pants on a Zoom call. But what about tops, with the trend toward wearing athleisure wear 24/7? Is this indeed the end of office clothing, as a recent Bloomberg News story asserted?

“My entire Facebook feed is a stream of ads for T-shirts, telling me that this remains the new de facto office attire,” Petrow wrote. “But all T-shirts are not equal. Don’t wear a stained, loose-fitting tee or other past-the-expiration-date leisure wear on a Zoom call.” For fall, soft, casual sweaters, Henleys and long-sleeve T-shirts can work, he said. Still in doubt? “It’s always wise to follow the leader — in this case your manager or boss. What are they wearing this fall?”

How can we stop speaking over one another?

Farley had some tips in April for a Zoom meeting: Designate one person to be the host of the call; keep your microphones muted until it’s your turn for questions or input; and use the “raise hand” feature when people want to talk or develop another signal. Also, make sure everyone is on “gallery view”; if all participants can see other, it helps prevent crosstalk.

Can you FaceTime or Zoom someone without checking with them first via text or phone call?

Farley recommended via email not doing a cold-call video chat, which he likened to “stopping by someone’s home without calling first.” He acknowledged that it could be a pleasant surprise. But unless you’re sure how it will be received, he wrote, “a thoughtful text asking: ‘Would love to catch up on video. When might be a good time?’ is the way to go. Exceptions are family members and significant others. Still, he said, this is more of a “manners misdemeanor than a good-form felony.”

Is it okay to leave my screen dark during a virtual meeting?

Farley is much more appalled by people who do this, calling them “the pandemic-era equivalent of detectives viewing a witness interrogation behind a two-way mirror.” As he pointed out, virtual communication is already complicated enough, because it lacks so many of the visual cues that come with in-person interactions (one way to help provide such cues is to sit farther back, so people can see your hands and arms). “If you are on a video call, you must be ready to see and be seen,” Farley wrote.

There is an exception, Petrow noted: If you get up, especially if heading to use the restroom, stop the video and audio “so no one can tell you’re only half-dressed when you leave the room or hear what goes on behind closed doors.”

How can I get off one of these never-ending calls?

Ending a call is really the responsibility of the host, Petrow said. “The best invitations — whether Zoom or not — have a start time and an end time,” he said, and hosts are the ones who should enforce them. “When I’m hosting a cocktail hour on Zoom, I let it go for two drinks,” he said. “Then I’ll say: ‘It was great to see everyone but I’m sure you want to get to dinner.’ Adapt as necessary.”

Is it still bad form to email co-workers during off-hours, since many of us are on such weird schedules?

Farley wrote in his email: “If you have a time-shifted schedule (whether or not by choice), go ahead and compose at whim, but save those emails in your drafts folder and schedule them to be sent at a time when you know the recipient will be back on the clock.” (You should do the same, he said, when emailing people in different time zones from your own. And your “good morning” or “good afternoon” salutations should always be pegged to the recipient’s time zone — not yours.”)

What if I call a co-worker, and I hear babies crying or kids whining? Should I offer to get off? Or is it rude to draw attention to the noise?

“If you are on a call where it sounds as though pandemonium has broken out in the household, offer to reschedule the call at a quieter time,” Farley wrote. “This will likely put you both at far greater ease than having to shout over the din.”

But here’s the bottom line, he said: “All parties must realize that these are unprecedented and imperfect times, and to expect library-like silence from households where pets, kids and spouses are all operating underfoot is not only unreasonable, it’s often next to impossible.”


Can I safely have friends or family over for a meal?

According to this story by Koncius and fellow staff writer Emily Heil, experts believe it can be done, with caveats: Entertain outdoors; communicate the rules beforehand, ideally via phone (including whether you will allow anyone in the house to use the restroom); stay six feet apart; and either have people bring their own food and drink, or plate and serve everything individually, while wearing a mask.

When do I wear my mask when dining out? And where do I put it when I’m eating or drinking?

Farley said in his email that “the etiquette on mask usage while dining out is dictated by three factors (and to be considered in descending order).” These are state and local regulations, the restaurant’s policy (ask if it’s not posted) and the preference of the other diners at your table.

As to the tricky question of where to put it while eating, “I would advise keeping the mask fastened but lowered around your chin,” he said. “Though likely not required if you are seated at a table, it is a considerate gesture to lift your mask to cover nose and mouth whenever a server approaches. Additionally, you should wear your mask if you leave the table to go to the restroom. But careful what you do with it, Farley said: “In no circumstance should you place your mask on the table (where it will pick up and transfer germs). Nor does it belong in your napkin, where it chances getting soiled with food.”


Have the rules changed at restaurants?

Post food reporter Tim Carman wrote that “it’s more important than ever to tip restaurant workers/servers well, even if you do takeout and have, basically, zero interaction with a server. Why? Because these folks are frontline workers, helping to feed us when we’re too tired or too busy to feed ourselves. Or just want to treat ourselves. They interact with many people during a day, increasing their risk just to give us something to eat. They deserve to be tipped well. I give at least 20 percent, and usually between 22 and 25 percent, even on takeout orders.”

What if you’re dining in-house or on a patio? In that case, Carman said, “I’d consider giving even more. Servers are not only exposed during the pandemic, they are trying to make ends meet with fewer customers, which in turn means fewer tips. If you have the means to go to a restaurant, you should have the means to tip well. Give around 30 percent. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Then there’s the issue about how to tip servers, takeout staff and delivery drivers. Placing a tip in advance on your credit card is great for a no-contact transaction, but it may mean the money takes a while to get to those workers, and they might have greater financial needs now because of the pandemic. (If you’re going to use cash for deliveries, Farley suggested putting it in a clean envelope, writing a message on the envelope thanking the driver, and taping it to the door.)

Restaurant tipping is made even more complicated by the fact that some establishments are adding a “service charge” or “gratuity charge” to checks, in part to help them during through this difficult period, Carman said. “Sometimes the owners will use that service or gratuity charge to cover the restaurant’s share of a server’s minimum wage. But operators are not required to use that non-discretionary money to pay servers, despite language on the check that suggests otherwise.” So, it’s best for customers to ask about fees before tipping.

Will extra tipping be necessary or expected once we are safely able to visit our usual service providers, hair stylists, manicurists or trainers?

This question was written in April, when most of the country was still in lockdown. If you are now visiting these businesses, we think Carman’s advice regarding servers should apply: Tip more than usual. If you’re not frequenting a business as much as before the pandemic, Farley’s advice from April was to indeed be extra generous when you do see them again.

Should I tip UPS and FedEx drivers and mail carriers?

These workers are not allowed to accept tips. But we think it’s great to show them some appreciation (especially the beleaguered USPS workers) with snacks or drinks, or a simply a sign with your heartfelt thanks.


How do I stand my ground with someone who disagrees about get-togethers?

In a story by Jenna Jonaitas, readers were advised to decide on their boundaries, then communicate them to others, practicing if they had to. And to always ask about the other person’s boundaries.

One of the best suggestions came from Lyndsay Volpe-Bertram, section chief of psychology at Spectrum Health, a managed care health organization in Michigan: Validate the other person’s emotions to defuse the situation, by saying something like, “I know we’re seeing two different sides of it, and I want to respect where you’re coming from. And I would like you to do the same for me.”

How do I deal with the guilt I’m getting from family members who are upset I won’t visit?

Volpe-Bertram suggests saying something like, “I know you really miss us, and we miss you, too. This is really hard.”

In answering a letter-writer whose mother was piling on the guilt, advice columnist Carolyn Hax wrote: “The direct, no-appeasement method for dealing with guilt is to deny it traction. It’s a basic, three-step process: 1. Know your own mind and motives. 2. Use that self-knowledge to say yes or no to things in good faith. 3. Disengage from people who use emotional arm-twisting to try to change your answers. To repetitive pleading, say: ‘It’s not up for discussion. [Change subject.]’ To baseless accusations: ‘I’m sorry you think that.’ For pressure beyond these boundaries: ‘I have to go, we’ll talk soon.’ [End interaction.]”


Is it rude to go ahead with wedding plans when you know the guests might not want to/be able to come?

Petrow wrote, “It’s far ruder to have a wedding that is in violation of covid guidelines about the number of people allowed to congregate. Take last month’s Maine wedding, which became a super spreader event for the virus.” At least 147 cases and three deaths were connected to the event. “Many happy couples are streaming their nuptials. Now everyone can be seated up front.”

What if we’re invited to a non-socially distanced wedding?

Don’t agonize about not going, says Carolyn Hax. “There are right and wrong decisions here, and your mingling with people who refuse to take precautions poses enough risk to be the wrong one.”

For a close friend, Marshall in her July live chat suggested a “carefully crafted conversation” with the person holding the wedding, explaining your unease. “Again, come armed with helpful information - such as CDC guidelines," Marshall wrote. “You may be offering her a completely new perspective on the style and timing of her wedding.”

Do you send a present if you cannot attend?

Petrow said: “Of course. A gift is a tangible expression of your feelings. And don’t forget to write a heartfelt card at the same time.”

If a couple has gotten married but postponed the celebration, do you send a present now or later?

“Send it now,” Petrow said. “You may forget later.”


Should I attend a funeral in person?

“Losing a family member or friend is never easy, but with current case numbers in many states precluding an in-person celebration of a person’s life, the death of a loved one during the present pandemic can be that much more difficult to handle,” Farley said. “For members of a grieving person’s extended circle, it’s vital that we re-double our efforts to help that individual cope. Pending state and local regulations (and your own comfort level) if you are able to attend a wake, funeral, memorial service or shiva in-person, know that you are representing countless others who are unable to travel or who feel uneasy joining due to health concerns.”

Many funerals now are very small and private. Do you send flowers to the funeral, if the person’s religious traditions are open to it?

Petrow suggests checking the obituary for guidance. “Unless the next of kin suggests a donation in lieu of a floral bouquet, don’t deny the family flowers.” He advises sending an arrangement to the site of the funeral or memorial service or to the home if there is no service. “With so many aspects of traditional grieving not possible these days, let’s hang on to the traditions that are safe.”

Should people still drop off things like casseroles?

“The novel coronavirus is not known to be transmitted by food,” Petrow said, “so it’s still a lovely gesture to drop off a casserole or baked goods — whether home-cooked or store-bought. If cooking yourself, wash your hands and wear your mask — and let your friends know you did just that.”

What do you do if there is no funeral, but a memorial service will be held later?

“When you first hear that someone you know has died, it’s absolutely fine to email or text the next of kin with your condolences,” Petrow said. “But you’re not done. Then, sit down and compose your handwritten sympathy card, make a donation or send flowers.”

There’s no requirement for a second card after a memorial service, he said. “But keep in touch with those who are grieving. It matters.”

Farley also made this point: “Often, after the initial outpouring of support, the check-in calls begin to dwindle. Staying in contact with the bereaved is vital, particularly during a time when so many already feel shut off from the people and places that bring them joy.”

Designed by Victoria Adams Fogg. Illustrations by The Washington Post/iStock

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