A guide to post-coronavirus etiquette – POLITICO

A guide to post-coronavirus etiquette – POLITICO

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Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column.

SAINT-REMY-DE-PROVENCE, France — Do you kiss or do you swerve?

That was my dilemma when a friend swooped in with a traditional French greeting recently.

After a year of government-mandated social etiquette, the sudden lifting of many COVID-19 restrictions has cast us into an unnerving age of uncertainty. With the guardrails gone, residual caution is clashing with the desire to show friendliness, or at least courtesy. What is safe, and how do we know? What gesture of affection might strike others as a callous — or even dangerous — imposition? When is it rude not to turn the other cheek?

I offered a friend a fist-bump at an art gallery reception last week. He raised my opening bid by extending an outstretched hand. Not shaking it would have seemed churlish, or perhaps wimpish. But I admit I felt uneasy. Now that I’m double vaccinated, should I still be eschewing bodily contact or reaching for the hand sanitizer?

What makes these decisions nerve-wracking is what’s made navigating the pandemic so difficult from the outset: the lack of certainty about the dangers of infection or the effectiveness of the countermeasures. The pandemic, for now, seems to be on the wane, but it’s also possible that we’re slouching toward a fourth wave in the fall because of a combination of reckless behavior, social distancing fatigue, failure to inoculate enough people in developing countries and residual resistance to vaccination at home.

Perhaps we had come to trust — or at least obey — health officials’ and ministers’ judgment too much. Hence the sense of panic when we have to make those decisions for ourselves. Can it really be safe to walk in the street without a face mask this week, when it was a menace to public health punishable by a €135 fine just last week? Has the danger really gone away, or is it lurking everywhere in places of promiscuous assembly — in night clubs and bars, or clustered around public TV screens to watch Euro 2020 soccer matches?

The restaurant rules are just as bewildering. Why is it safe to be six around a table but not eight? Why must you wear a mask when being shown to an indoor table but not when brushing past neighboring diners on the terrace?

My hairdresser — let’s call her Magali — is an average French vaxo-skeptic. She wears a mask to cut my hair, but she told me she’d declined the jab because she thinks we don’t know enough about the side effects yet. I asked her whether what we do know about COVID symptoms and the risk of death doesn’t outweigh any uncertainty about risks from newly developed vaccines. She shrugged and said she was confident she wouldn’t catch the virus.

If enough people like Magali continue to refuse vaccination, we may all be less safe. But the lady’s not for turning. Should her behavior influence mine? Probably, but it doesn’t.

In some countries, the guidelines have started to appear arbitrary after a year in which they have yo-yoed along with infection numbers. In Belgium, for example, a friend says she lost faith after the limit on outdoor gatherings was raised to 10 people, only to be reduced again to four.

No wonder many people, especially the largely unvaccinated young, are throwing caution to the winds and behaving like it was 2019 all over again. It’s been so long — in their short lives — since they could party, kiss, dance. Who can blame them?

For my own baby boomer generation, in our 60s and 70s, the fear of missing out revolves largely around travel. The sudden halt to our golden years has lent a greater urgency to fulfilling life-long dreams. For most, that includes ticking off a “bucket list” of destinations.

Sure, it’s not as tough as being cooped up like a battery chicken in a tiny apartment 24-hours a day, home working amid restless kids and pets. But for the European middle classes, crossing borders had become a fundamental freedom almost as routine as taking the subway or a bus. Losing the right to roam has caused frustration verging on depression.

And yet, the lack of certainty persists. As much as I’m longing to get back on the road, I don’t feel like rushing to the airport, standing in hours-long lines lengthened even more by COVID testing and haggling over the paperwork required to board a flight, with the cloud of potential quarantine on return hanging heavily over the holiday.

Just look at the relationship between my native country, Britain, and France, my adopted home. The U.K., which has had more COVID deaths per capita than almost anywhere in Europe, continues to treat France as a plague-infested danger zone. And the French have reciprocated as the U.K. struggles with the Delta variant despite mass vaccination.

Double-vaccinated friends who needed to travel from France to London this month had to pay almost €1,500 per couple for three sets of mandatory COVID tests, then quarantine for a week on arrival in the U.K. That makes travel a fine-plus-confinement punishment, not a pleasure.

Should I stay or should I go isn’t a hard choice right now. But to embrace or not to embrace, that is the question.



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