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Altar wine to beer pong: Flu fears curb rituals

In offices, churches, hospitals, college dorms and schools — and even at yoga classes and in apple orchards — the fear of swine flu is turning age-old rituals on their head.
/ Source: The New York Times

Yolanda Ray works in the kind of place where people “really love to eat and snack.” Colleagues are quick to tempt one another, she says, with homemade dishes and sugary treats laid bare for the taking on desktops.

Before the age of swine flu, the arrangement was fine. But now, employees at Rudd Equipment in Louisville, Ky., have new company-wide directives: No sharing of unwrapped candy. Cakes and pies must be cut and wrapped at home. Food needs to be served with utensils.

“Someone brought in crackers and a cheese dip,” said Ms. Ray, the director of personnel management, who confesses to seeing potential disaster in chocolaty brownies and bowls of candy corn. “I put a hand sanitizer right there on the table.”

She added, “Sometimes I feel like the swine flu police.”

In offices, churches, hospitals, college dorms and schools — and even at yoga classes and in apple orchards — the fear of swine flu is turning age-old rituals on their head. What used to be O.K. is not anymore, as the flu has ushered in new standards of etiquette that can be, in turns, mundane, absurd and heartbreaking.

Students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., are being asked to refrain from playing beer pong, a communal drinking game, after an outbreak of illness that officials feared might be swine flu. Roman Catholic parishioners of the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., have been instructed by the bishop not to shake hands at the sign of peace, and wine is not being offered for the sacrament of communion.

And when 5-month-old Danica Deneault was admitted last month to a hospital in Providence, R.I., her older siblings were not allowed to visit as hospitals and health care systems in Rhode Island and more than a dozen other states have prohibited children from visiting patients. (Some exceptions are made for terminally ill relatives.) Health officials worry that children might spread the swine flu virus to patients and staff members.

“We’re trying to balance emotional needs, physical needs and infection-control needs,” said Dr. Henry Blumberg, an Emory University professor and epidemiologist at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, where such visits are also banned.

The new round of precautions, officials say, are less rushed and more thoughtful than the scramble last spring that accompanied the new bug’s arrival. The sense of panic has given way to a recognition that people are in this for the long haul, that the threat does not seem to be going away any time soon. The pressure, something like an imperative, is for all of society to just do something, anything, to stave off the dreaded flu.

At Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sandy, Utah, pastors have small bottles of hand sanitizer in pockets under their flowing vestments. And new sanitizer stations have been added in the sanctuary.

“Basically, what we’re doing, it’s not much,” said Denise Petersen, the membership director. “But we didn’t know what else to do.”

According to the experts, little changes like the ones at Good Shepherd may have an outsize impact when it comes to keeping the population healthy.

“I tell you, a lot of people don’t know how to wash their hands,” said Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, a professor and chairwoman of the department of environmental health sciences at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

While people may balk about some of the more inconvenient changes, Dr. Lichtveld says the best antidote to unwillingness is an oft-repeated message.

“You have to create opportunities and peer pressure,” she said, “and model the behavior.”

In “The Flu, Your Parish and You,” a newsletter from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in Florida, church officials said that hymnals and collection baskets would be put away in the event of a severe flu outbreak, holy water fonts would be emptied and there would be “no large group baptisms, weddings or funerals.”

“Because this is a new flu virus, almost all of us will be able to catch it,” church leaders wrote in the newsletter.

Swine flu fears can apparently even get someone out of jury duty. In Chicago, a prominent trial is wrapping up for James Degorski, who was convicted last month of killing seven people in a suburban chicken restaurant in 1993. Jurors were in the middle of hearing testimony to decide whether Mr. Degorski will receive the death penalty when the judge dismissed a juror whose wife and child were at home sick. An alternate took his place, as the judge feared contaminating the jury if the illness turned out to be swine flu.

The holiday party is canceled this year at the HarborOne Credit Union in Brockton, Mass. Public school students in St. Cloud, Minn., are not having their annual “family fun night” next week. And workers at Foley Hoag, a law firm based in Boston, have received flu survival kits with hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes. The firm is also setting up home offices in the event of mass illness.

“We wanted to really get ahead of this and be preventive so we can maintain client services,” said Tom Block, the chief operating officer.

At County Line Orchard in Hobart, Ill., Ryan Richardson, the owner, set up extra hand-washing stations throughout the apple fields and put in dozens of sanitizer stations for employees working behind the scenes.

“Seems like the day after we hung all of those Purell things, I got sick,” Mr. Richardson said. “Of course it was not H1N1, it was just a cold.”

Marilyn Kier, a massage therapist in Northfield, Ill, is spraying her table with Lysol between clients. And Jennifer Buergermeister, a yoga teacher in Houston, said instructors were doing all they could to minimize physical contact.

“It’s hard because we’re so touchy-feely in the yoga community,” Ms. Buergermeister said. “We’re either touching people to adjust them or hugging them.”

And as Halloween approaches at Rudd Equipment in Louisville, Ms. Ray, the personnel manager, wants to make sure everyone takes precautions while not completely killing the fun.

“Bring in candy, make it festive,” she said she told the employees. “But make sure it is individually wrapped.”

Emma Graves Fitzgerald contributed reporting.

This story, "From Altar Wine to Beer Pong, Flu Fears Curb Life’s Rituals," originally appeared in The New York Times.

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