As the light at the end of the tunnel draws closer, the possibility of pre-pandemic interactions – hugs, high fives, intimate dinners, big weddings – is incredibly near. But it also remains frustrating to determine what is fair, what is safe and what is respectful.
There is clearly a public health issue at stake: First and foremost, we need to decide whether it is safe to engage in this type of contact with friends, colleagues, or people you are meeting for the first time (especially if you do not know their vaccination status).
From a science standpoint, for fully vaccinated people spending time with other fully vaccinated people, it’s absolutely safe to go back to the physical interactions we might have had before the pandemic – hugs, handshakes and more. again.
It gets a bit cloudier when you are vaccinated, but you are not sure who is around you. The higher the vaccination rates and the lower the Covid-19 rates in your community, the less risk there is for an interaction to be risky. If only 1 in 100,000 people in your area has Covid-19 and you are vaccinated, the chance of you catching an infection in a given social interaction is virtually zero, whether or not those around you have been vaccinated. The challenge here, of course, is threefold. Most of us don’t know our community’s Covid-19 rates. Current infection rates for most communities are still above this negligible level. And it’s strange to ask someone if they’ve been vaccinated.
And that’s the other side of science. Just because the data says we’re safe doesn’t mean everyone will be comfortable reverting to 2019 practices at the same time. Many of us haven’t had close interactions with people outside of our home for over a year – we kept a distance of 6 feet, kept on masks, and bumped our elbows to the max. It rightly seems strange to many.
Which leaves us with the very real social question of how to navigate these interactions.
Here’s the thing: each of us is in a different place, physically and mentally. While some of us can’t wait to socialize again, others feel differently. Some Americans have been very happy to be home alone – some may have lost a loved one, others may still be concerned that a loved one has a weakened immune system or may not have been vaccinated. For people in these categories, it may not seem normal or safe to interact with other people at the moment.
So how should we think about those times in this intervening period, when we’re not quite out of the pandemic, but we’re not completely out of it either?
First of all, be comfortable asking directly about the comfort level of others, before going in for that handshake or hug. And don’t hesitate to express your preference. There is no right or wrong here.
Second, don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t want to hug you or shake your hand, or don’t want to take off their mask; you don’t know their situation and it probably isn’t you!
Third, keep an eye on community transmission and vaccination rates in your area, and be prepared to reduce physical interactions if transmission rates increase.
Many workplaces allow a gradual return to in-person work routines. It is also normal to return to physical contact. Allowing re-emergence to occur according to each person’s conditions and comfort level is acceptable.
It’s been 16 long months. Now is a good time to show yourself a little grace.