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In these days of coronavirus, etiquette takes on a greater importance. This isn’t a matter of where to place knives and forks, or even of someone obnoxiously wearing his backpack on a crowded BART train; the new etiquette is part of a more dire social reality.

Or, as Bay Area etiquette expert Lisa Grotts bluntly put it: “Six feet apart is better than six feet under.”

We reached out to Grotts, a former director of protocol for the City of San Francisco, for her take on the quickly evolving etiquette for interaction as we coexist in the world of COVID-19.

And evolving it is. Only three weeks ago, I walked into a business for a first meeting and the person immediately thrust out his hand for a hearty “damn glad to meet you” handshake. It was jarring, but I did shake his hand.

A week after that, I met a man about buying a car and when he came within 10 feet of me he said, “Hello, I’m Deepak and I’m not going to shake your hand.” And that too was strange — no one had ever told me they WEREN'T going to shake my hand — but it was at least reassuring.

Today, neither bit of awkwardness would even be there since the handshake is no longer an option in our current world.

“Who would have thought three short weeks ago a handshake would spell danger?” said Grotts. “It’s the most accepted form of communication in the world, but now it’s on hold for an indefinite period of time.”

“This global pandemic is breathing new life into old rules," she added. "Without much warning, we now live in a world that continues to evolve at lightning speed.”
 
Within a few weeks we have gotten rid of some behaviors and come to accept others that were unheard of. Now, we not only wait in line patiently outside the grocery store, we wait six feet apart. And it’s totally normal.

But this too didn’t happen overnight. Some stores adopted distancing rules quickly, but many took a while to follow suit. The Whole Foods near my Albany home was slow to adapt, but now it carefully monitors its crowds. Only last week, my local produce market let everyone just walk into their very crowded store. Social distancing was closer to six inches than six feet.

But recently, I went there and found an orderly line outside with everyone six feet apart and a line monitor handing us a sanitized cart when it came our turn to enter. The socially distant outside line has gone mainstream.

While Grotts says, "spatial distancing is now as common as brushing your teeth," that is definitely not as true inside stores. Here, shoppers must navigate narrow aisles — you can’t social distance by walking out into the street when you’re inside Safeway  — and compete for sometimes scarce products.

If there is only one pack of toilet paper left, it can become an instant free-for-all. And if you’re getting some produce, most people might wait at a respectful distance, but some will still thrust their arm right over your shoulder. Whether we evolve so we're as respectful inside stores as we are outside of them remains to be seen.

But inside a store, fears of COVID-19 are not only from fellow shoppers getting too close: germy surfaces like the credit card reader at the checkout are being constantly used and I've never seen one get a wipedown.

The next step in our etiquette evolution may be to always wear your gloves to the supermarket — and not the kind favored by Emily Post.

If there was ever a time when our social behavior mattered, it is now. As Grotts points out, “We are living in unique and extraordinary times. The unknown and the uncertainty create fear.  We must change our thought process from ‘me to ‘we.’ We are at war with a virus, and what we do right now as individuals will have an impact on our country as a whole in the coming weeks and months.”

Here is where the social pressure, a key enforcer of etiquette, comes in. The proper behavior during these times is to isolate. It may seem an odd way to follow the etiquette of the moment but otherwise you may find yourself “quarantine shamed.”

"While it may be unpleasant, Grotts said, “we really don't have much choice in the matter.”

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