Mask or No Mask – that is the question

Last week there was an announcement out of New Zealand that their country was officially coronavirus-free and that all domestic restrictions were being lifted. Their life was going back to a pre-pandemic normal! Memes celebrating their success spread quickly on social media. This news gave the rest of us hope that everything that we have sacrificed for the better good through the extensive lockdowns and safety measures was not in vain; the possibility of life as we know it prior to the introduction of a vaccine actually does exist!

This news comes as large parts of Canada are moving into various stages of re-opening. For many, the lockdown represents over three months of social isolation and financial hardship and the need to return to any kind of normal is strong. Couple that with the warm, sunny days of summer and news that other countries are beating the virus and it can be easy to throw caution to the wind and become complacent. The dangers of doing so came to the forefront on June 16, when it was reported that New Zealand had two new positive cases of COVID-19 – the first in 24 days – after giving two foreign visitors an exemption to the 14-day quarantine for them to visit a dying parent.[1]

This should give us pause as we start moving around more freely, creating social circles and getting Canadians back to work, be that as restaurant or retail staff, construction workers, medical professionals or office employees. We are asked to continue to follow the safety measures and be conscious of how our behaviour affects others.

But what is the true etiquette of our ‘new normal’?

Do we, for example, wear a mask at all times when we leave the house, only when we enter an establishment, only when it is difficult to maintain a 2-metre perimeter or only when an establishment demands it? Robert Kahn, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota said that “masks aren’t personal protective devices, they’re social protective devices ”,[2] and predicts that wearing a mask will become common place and accepted, even beyond COVID-19, in heavily congested areas and during certain times of year such as flu season.

When you go for a walk and another person is walking towards you on the sidewalk, what is the etiquette for maintaining physical distance as you pass each other? Who is expected to move onto the grass or street? Do the elderly or parents with young children or strollers get the right of way or do you enter into a game of chicken to see who flinches first? To alleviate the confusion, cities across Canada, such as Kentville, N.S. and Westmount, QC[3], have posted sidewalk etiquette recommendations on their website. Their suggestions include walking on the right side of the sidewalk, walking on the edge of narrow sidewalks, moving aside for those less agile, and keeping dogs on a short leash.

COVID-19 etiquette has even influenced how we converse with each other via email. Where just a year ago it could seem trite to start a business email with a generic Hope you are well, these days it is equally important to wish someone good health as it is to keeping emails concise and to the point. William Rose, CMO at Harqen said that “we’re all living in an unprecedented and scary time, so showing your concern for others is undoubtedly the right thing to do.”[4]

Once non-essential offices begin to open up, office workers across the country may be using an elevator for the first time since the COVID-19 lockdowns were implemented. As those who live in high-rise condo buildings well know, many elevators are too small to allow for proper physical distancing. Do you ride one person at a time, do you wear masks, or do you simply take the stairs?

Whichever way you choose to stay safe, COVID-19 etiquette asks that you consider the health and well-being of not only yourself but those around you. Be courteous, be kind and be smart. And if you decide to wear a mask, wear it properly.