In rural northern Wisconsin, winter can stretch from November into April. I once read a history of my county’s early European settlers that said winter was their time for social gatherings. That’s when swamps were frozen and it was easier to get around. In a normal winter, we sure don’t let a little snow or cold keep us from enjoying the company of our neighbors. But it looks like this won’t be a normal winter — again. And we’re kind of stumped on the etiquette of sharing indoor airspace with other people in social situations. Navigating the changing rules of pandemic behavior is as stressful as driving at dusk during the rut.

Many people seem to think getting Covid-19 is as inevitable as hitting deer while driving on rural roads. Some who have already been infected by this novel coronavirus believe exercising the body’s natural immune response is preferable to taking a vaccine without a long track record. That catching the virus again as new variants emerge is preferable to surrendering autonomy over their bodies. That – if I trust the vaccine – it shouldn’t matter to me if they’re vaccinated or not. That the vaccine is akin to putting a deer whistle on your car — feel free, if it makes you feel better. That the virus is “just the flu”. It’s kind of like the conventional wisdom of rural driving: Never swerve to avoid hitting a deer (or coyote, or raccoon, or turkey, or bear), because swerving often leads to worse outcomes. And it’s just a car.

Having survived one serious car crash, I’m not as confidently optimistic about Covid as some people. I didn’t die in that crash, but the aftermath included surgeries, rehab, extra expenses, lost income, and years of PTSD. If a vaccine against drunk drivers became available I would be first in line for it. 

I wasn’t first in line for the Covid vaccine, but I got the shots as soon as I was eligible. Even so, we continued masking and social distancing until summer. Even then, we made careful choices. As the situation changes, we’re making more hard choices.

My history of respiratory illnesses makes me want to do all I can to avoid the potential consequences of a Covid infection, both to my own health and to those around me. I’m less afraid of dying from the disease than of economic ruin related to a long illness. It took us 10 years to pay off the high deductible on my health insurance from when I had to have a biopsy and respiratory testing and therapy. Another major respiratory infection in 2016 and a relapse left me too exhausted to pursue contracts so my self-employment income was impacted for a couple of years. For the record, I got that infection on a business trip, and suspect I was infectious while flying home. At that time, it never occurred to me to wear a face mask like so many Asian travelers have done since the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak

My heart goes out to people who are in close contact with others every day because of their jobs, including health care workers, educators, food chain workers, and small business owners and their employees. My heart breaks for those trying to balance economic necessity and the other needs of their families and communities, including physical health and mental health. People I know and love are deeply divided on just about everything except this: They all just want it to be over.

For a short time last summer, we thought maybe we could see light at the end of the tunnel. Now it feels like that light was an oncoming train. In the last two weeks of September, my rural county’s Burden of Illness from SARS-COV-2 became Critically High (1,259.0 per 100,000). Two students from one of the county’s school districts were hospitalized due to Covid-19. It seems that more people in more age groups are sick, and we are once again taxing the capacity of our rural health care system. The vaccination rate here for at least one dose is under 50%. 

Many people will neither vaccinate nor mask in public spaces. They say “My body, my choice.” Others believe vaccination and masks should be required in public spaces — especially in health care settings and schools. Both groups express themselves in language often used by people diametrically opposed to their positions on other matters.

Pointing out rhetorical backflips is not appreciated when both sides are so dug into opposing positions. A report published on Frontiers In Public Health offers some insight into individual behaviors and attitudes toward social and cultural attitudes about face masks. My takeaway is this: It’s complicated.

So I guess that leaves us resorting to manners.

In polite society, certain behaviors are expected and accepted. You follow the rules of the road and expect others to likewise stop or yield at intersections. But this pandemic is like driving at night during the deer rut in unfamiliar territory where other drivers don’t use headlights or heed arterial signs or lane lines. 

Maybe we can do better. 

It’s a world gone mad when I look to the wedding industrial complex for guidance on pandemic etiquette. But as a model for social situations in rural communities, you just can’t ignore celebrations where people might travel great distances to spend hours with multiple generations of shirttail relatives and plus-ones breathing heavily while doing the chicken dance. Here’s my take on what I learned about pandemic wedding etiquette:

  • If the happy couple ask that guests be fully vaccinated and/or have Covid tests, wear masks, or have temperatures taken at the door, comply or don’t go and don’t argue about it. 
  • If the happy couple does not communicate Covid expectations and you don’t want to risk a table assignment that puts you cheek-by-jowl with people whose status you won’t know (or will and it’s not compatible with your comfort level), don’t go and don’t argue about it. 
  • When you’re a guest, you don’t get to grill members of the wedding party or other guests about their vaccine status or why they do or don’t wear a mask, or lecture about science or personal freedoms. Having too much to drink at the reception is no excuse.
  • When you’re a host, you cannot expect others to read your mind, and that includes vendors and their employees. If you want people to respect your wishes, be clear about what they are. That’s not a bad habit to cultivate for a marriage as well as the wedding.

Of course, wedding etiquette can’t guide you through every confusing social situation in this crazy pandemic world. We would all probably be more forgiving about difficult questions and awkward evasive movements if the whole situation weren’t so politicized. As things stand, though, we might find it useful to practice a few key phrases that could come in handy (choose all that apply):

  • “I’m vaccinated, but am going to keep a mask on because I’m around people who may not be (or can’t be yet, or have significant risk factors…).
  • I’m not vaccinated, and want you to know in case that factors into how we interact.
  • I’m not comfortable with this situation, so I feel my best option is to ____________.
  • I’m sorry you are uncomfortable in this situation. 
    • To make you more at ease I’m willing to ____________. Or…
    • I respect your decision.

To be honest, my husband and I are still torn about some choices we will have to make this winter. It’s been great to see family and friends this summer — outdoors. And for a while we even went into the library without face masks. But now, we’ve switched from homemade washable cloth face masks to disposable KN95 or FFP2 masks for situations where we might be in an enclosed space with other people for more than a few minutes. Even so, there are people I love but don’t want to rub elbows with. 

I’m sure some will see our choices as akin to not driving at dusk in November. After all, you can do just as much damage hitting a deer in daylight or after dark. They’re not wrong. Neither are the ones who say, “Darn right you can ask people about their vaccination status. We have to normalize that.” I see their point. 

But for now, the best I can come up with is careful courtesy.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin.

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