Is there a polite way to ask someone to practice good COVID-19 etiquette?

Is there a polite way to ask someone to practice good COVID-19 etiquette?
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TORONTO -- Adjusting to new social norms in the midst of a global pandemic is no easy feat, especially as rules and recommendations surrounding COVID-19 evolve.

Encouraging friends or family to practice good pandemic etiquette can be a touchy subject. But asking a stranger to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines can be particularly challenging.

So, how do you approach the person failing to maintain their distance or the store employee who has let their mask slip without inciting conflict?

Health experts agree that etiquette surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic can be thorny. But they note that asking others to wear a mask or practice physical distancing is not only important to your own health, it may help prevent community spread.

“On one hand, if you say something, the fear is people will get defensive,” Dr. Iris Gorfinkel, a family physician and medical researcher in Toronto, told by phone.

“On the other hand, if you say nothing are you failing in the moral imperative? These people could be a risk to others—in fact, they could be super spreaders.”

Recent viral videos have proven just how difficult these conversations can be. In one instance, a woman was caught coughing on another customer inside a New York bagel store after the two women got into an argument over wearing a face mask.

But Gorfinkel says how you approach the situation is largely dependent on the outcome.

“Going on the defense is going to create a very defensive, angry reaction that could rapidly escalate and go against what you’re trying to do,” she explained.

“If the goal is trying to engage and create more of a community, it’s always better to start off with the perspective of how it makes you feel. For example, ‘I feel uncomfortable mentioning this, but I’m concerned because...’ or, ‘I feel protected when you wear your mask.’”

Gorfinkel notes that it’s important to strike a balance between politeness and public health. In other words: pick your battles.

If you notice a store employee disrespecting COVID-19 guidelines, for example, it may be more important to speak up compared to a customer running in for a quick errand.

“Here’s someone who is going to be working long hours, whose job it is to have constant contact with people and their coworkers,” she said. “Think what does this mean to me, to other customers, to that person’s coworkers.”

Gorfinkel notes that all concerned parties should remember to approach the situation with community in mind.

“This is not a question of us versus them. It comes from a community perspective,” she said. “If enough people were able to [speak up], the beauty is you would get to that place you need to be to truly protect the community.”


Those going back to work face similar challenges with both customers and colleagues.

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), workers are entitled to a safe and healthy workplace under any circumstances. But the CCOHS notes that the COVID-19 pandemic presents new challenges to both employees and employers.

The agency encourages employees to speak up if they encounter issues with fellow employees or their employers, starting with their immediate supervisor.

“If they find it difficult to talk to their employer or supervisor, they can go to their health and safety committee or a worker representative if you have one. You can also speak to a union member if they’re present in the workplace,” Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist of occupational health and safety at CCOHS, told by phone.

“The next step, if you don’t get resolution within the workplace, you can call your ministry or department of labour.”

Non-medical masks are now required in public spaces in several cities and jurisdictions across Canada, providing employees more authority to refuse service to any customers not following the rules.

CCOHS has also provided a digital resource centre for business outlining pandemic safety recommendations for retail, service and other industries, including ways to encourage physical distancing within work environments. 
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