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COVID Etiquette: Boosters, Masks, Misinformation


You've probably noticed this yourself. People are making up for time lost during the COVID pandemic - having weddings, hosting cookouts, going on vacation trips, and, as well, heading back to in-person school and to the office. But the health crisis is not over, and people in different parts of the country are taking very different approaches to that fact. So we thought this would be a good time to brush up on some ways to handle those potentially tricky situations, like asking about how you got your booster shot or requesting that someone mask up. For that, we called Steven Petrow, who's been writing about matters of etiquette, among other things. He is an opinion columnist with USA Today, and his latest book is "Stupid Things I Won't Do When I Get Old." And he is with us now.

Steven Petrow, thanks so much for joining us once again.

STEVEN PETROW: My pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: So let me just jump right into the question of booster shots. I mean, the government says that they'll make booster shots available for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines starting next month. And just like with the first round of vaccines, I'm sure there will be people who will be wondering, like, why some people got a shot and some people have not. Is it OK to ask somebody if they plan to get that booster shot or if they've already done so?

PETROW: A question everybody should ask themselves before they ask someone a question is, why do I want to know that? And if the answer is, this information will be actionable to me in some way, then it's probably a fair question. But if you're just curious, you know, then it's probably not. And if someone's getting a booster shot, it's really not going to be germane to your life.

MARTIN: What if it is germane to your life? What if you're sort of similarly situated in age or something like that? Like, how would you ask the question?

PETROW: Well, so there, if it is actionable and perhaps you want to understand better who is eligible and how to get that, then it's fair to say, I understand you got a booster shot; I've seen people posting this on Facebook, you know, and hope that you get a coherent answer. And I also hope that those who are getting booster shots will talk about that and explain how they did it. So volunteering information is always fine. You know, you can't really violate you own privacy. You can only violate other people's privacy.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the great mask debate. And, I mean, this has gotten so ugly and politicized, I'm betting books are going to be written about all this. But what are your thoughts about asking someone to mask up or even asking why they've chosen not to mask up? I mean, we've seen, you know, fisticuffs break out over such matters. So it's tricky, but what are your thoughts about how to approach such a thing?

PETROW: Well, you know, in general these days, I say stay away from that question because you could wind up in trouble because there's so much volatility around this. So if you're inviting someone over, if you're going to be in close proximity, then you might explain, you know, I have a health problem or, you know, I have another concern. Could you please mask? But out in public, you know, it is just - it's gotten dangerous. I was wearing a mask in Florida several months ago, and some guy came at me. And, you know, it was really shocking. We didn't even have any words. So...

MARTIN: What do you mean he came at you? What do you mean he came at you? Like, he yelled at you, or he tried to take it off your face?

PETROW: I was walking, and I was wearing a mask. And he started cursing me and told me - basically, he used some curse words and said I was in jeopardy. And I got out of there. But it was shocking.


PETROW: I was minding my own business. So I don't want people to get hurt.

MARTIN: So safety first, consider the circumstances. But if it's your home, you feel like - what? - people should be able to set those boundaries?

PETROW: Well, if it's your home, it's your rules. That's always true no matter what we're talking about. So, you know, when I'm inviting people over these days, I am asking whether they're vaccinated. And I am again suggesting - but I'm actually telling them, you know, we need to wear masks if we're going to be more than a certain number of people and just to be mindful of these issues.

MARTIN: So let's talk a little bit more about this whole question. If you're planning a social gathering or of an event of some kind, how do you handle questions or how do you recommend that people handle questions about people's vaccination status? Like, does that change depending on what type of event it is, if it's a casual event as opposed to, say, a wedding?

PETROW: So let's start with a big event, like a wedding. And there, brides and grooms and, you know, grooms and grooms and brides and brides have long set the rules for their weddings. And so now is the time - and I am seeing it already - where if it's a digital wedding package, there is an insert which says, you know, here are our COVID rules. Masks are required. Vaccines are required - whatever that may be, but they're kind of - they're written down. And when you reply as a guest, you're basically asked to agree to these rules. And that is perfectly fine as long as people are asking ahead of time. And some people will not be coming as a result of that. And that is the way this cookie crumbles.

You know, for less - you know, less big events, like, if I'm having a small party around Labor Day, I kind of got a little bit out of my own routine, and I invited a couple, and the woman was pregnant. And she actually called me and said, can you tell me more about the vaccination status of your other guests? And I said, yes, I'm not going to tell you specifically, you know, who is vaccinated, who's not. They all were, in fact. And then she told me she was not vaccinated yet because she had just recently learned that the CDC had sort of given the total green light on that. So it's a give and take. And you want to listen and respond and always think of how can I protect the health of my friends?

MARTIN: What if you see somebody in your life behaving in a way that you don't think is responsible? Maybe you open your social media app, and you see somebody attending a big concert or club, you know, maybe somebody who's not vaccinated, not wearing masks, social distancing. I mean, what - how do you recommend addressing that? Or do you? I mean, I'm assuming this is somebody close enough to you that you would want to speak to them about it.

PETROW: Yeah. Well, you know, I'll speak a little bit from personal experience. I have a family member who shall go unnamed, and they were at a club. And they were posting pictures on Instagram where there was - there were a lot of people, and there was a lot of intimacy. So I did not, you know, post on their wall, hey, where's your common sense? But I did have a private conversation and said, look; you know the rules of engagement these days, and that wasn't wise. I'm not going to call you out publicly. But think about the impact of that picture, because we are trying to sort of recreate social norms again. And when we see a friend having this great time, we're like, oh, gee, I want to have a great time, too. I want to do that. But I want people to sort of bring that back in and think about the consequences of these posts, these actions, these photos.

MARTIN: Why not call them out on their wall and call them out publicly?

PETROW: I think it's human nature. You know, whenever someone calls me out publicly, I just do the opposite.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PETROW: And I think that others do that, too. And it's not nice.

MARTIN: So that's basically tactical, not philosophical, right?

PETROW: Right. You know - well, you know, a lot of this is, you know, strategic. You know, sure, it might be great to, like, post, you know, this is terrible because of X, Y and Z. But I don't think that's going to change behaviors. And what we all want to do is create safer behaviors for all of us.

MARTIN: That was journalist and author Steven Petrow. Steven Petrow, thank you so much for joining us.

PETROW: Thank you so much, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.