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Ilene Prusher Covid vaccination status is the new social dividing line in America. It demands its own etiquette.

We need to create a culture in which it is not only acceptable but also admirable to ask whether others have been vaccinated before making plans.
Image: A healthcare worker prepares a dose of Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine in Denver on Feb. 20, 2021.
We need a pandemic etiquette that worries less about making a social faux pas and more about stopping the spread.Chet Strange / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Last week, I suggested going on a walk with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while.

“That would work,” she replied by text. “A few questions for you. Are you vaccinated? Do you wear a mask at all times when you are inside public spaces? Also, we need to walk at least three feet apart if the above answers are yes.”

I need to make sure that I’m doing what I can — even if socially awkward or limiting — to keep my family and community safe.

I answered in the affirmative and also expressed great admiration for my friend’s willingness to ask the difficult questions regardless of the possibility of insulting me or hurting my feelings. Perhaps because we are living in Florida, one of the worst states in terms of Covid-19 infection rates, or perhaps because she’s a rabbi married to an emergency room physician, she is more attuned to the moral and medical implications than most. Either way, she was wise enough to raise the questions, unabashedly.

I’ve yet to exhibit such courageous audacity, but I’m getting there. Just like I needed to do my part by getting vaccinated in the first place, now I need to make sure that I’m doing what I can — even if socially awkward or limiting — to keep my family and community safe and take steps to prevent further unnecessary loss of life. If we don’t get better at navigating these uncomfortable conversations, it’s hard to see a way to stop the spread and end this pandemic — and to know that we did all we could in the effort to save lives.

The first step has been to stop assuming that friends in my peer group — college-educated urban or suburban adults with ample opportunities to get the jabs — are all vaccinated. Or even if they are, to assume that they’re taking precautions vis-a-vis the possibility of catching the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus despite their vaccination statuses.

Over the summer, we spent an evening with friends in their late 50s. They invited us to visit their house for a catch-up, and then we headed out to a nearby restaurant with outdoor seating. This felt like a comfortable option for us, given that we’d have two unvaccinated children under age 12 with us. Only at the end of the evening, when we’d already been in their home, hugged them several times and spent more than three hours together total, did they offer, quite nonchalantly, that they were happily unvaccinated.

Afterward, I found myself stewing. I was angry at them for not telling us ahead of time that they had chosen not to be vaccinated while knowing that we had our elementary school-age kids in tow. And I was angry at myself, because I could have asked some questions before making plans with them but didn’t.

A year and a half into this disastrous pandemic, it sometimes feels like we’re in the midst of a civil war in which we’re divided, not into the North and the South, but into the masked and the unmasked, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Some of us avidly advocate for our respective camps, while others treat the subject like religion or politics — best kept to ourselves.

Despite standing solidly in the trust-the-science camp, I’m one of millions of Americans who are reluctant to approach people we know who are unvaccinated or unmasked, fearful of damaging relationships and further alienating our friends and family by asking nosy questions that cross invisible lines of privacy and propriety. Moreover, as Americans, we’re so used to celebrating individual liberties and respecting dissent that we find it difficult to recognize that this may be a moment when dissent = death. (For what it’s worth, senior leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union argued this week in an op-ed that vaccination mandates do not violate civil liberties.)

All of which makes it harder to accept the state we’re in. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced back in March that vaccinated adults could socialize indoors without masks and that vaccinated grandparents could safely have visits with their unvaccinated grandchildren, we started to let our guards down. It was, in a word, blissful.

Nearly six months later, we’re in a very different place, although naturally it depends on where you live and work. For me, that’s Florida, where only 53.4 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Mayo Clinic’s tracker, far below the approximately 80 percent that experts say is needed to achieve herd immunity in the U.S. With so much vaccine hesitancy, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the Covid death rate in Florida reached a new high last week.

The political posturing isn’t helping, with Gov. Ron DeSantis kowtowing to the anti-vaccination MAGA masses by barring school districts from imposing mask mandates and threatening fines of $5,000 for businesses that require their employees to show proof of vaccination.

That environment makes any effort to ask others to wear masks, let alone get vaccinated, that much harder — if it’s even permissible to do so. I got cursed out by a Lyft driver last week when I noticed he wasn’t wearing a mask and asked him whether he would put one on. He said DeSantis says he doesn’t have to and called me a string of names before driving off.

After that encounter, I headed to the large university campus where I teach feeling rattled and trying to gear myself up for a three-hour class in which many of my students have similarly dismissive attitudes toward masks. Since at all public universities here masks are not required but individual schools can tell faculty members and students that masks are requested or “expected,” only about two-thirds of students in my courses wear face coverings in class. Naturally, I have no idea what proportion of them are vaccinated, and I’m not allowed to inquire.

We can ask our friends and family members about being vaccinated, though, and we should. In fact, we need to create a culture in which it is not only acceptable but indeed admirable to ask about others’ vaccination statuses and their life/work habits before inviting them over or accepting invitations out. We need a pandemic etiquette that worries less about making a social faux pas and more about stopping the spread.

For me, with the Jewish High Holiday season starting Monday, I find myself pining for the big family meals around the table that currently feel like a distant memory. I’m tempted to call relatives and invite them over. But still not wanting to ask the hard questions, for now I’m refraining. Instead, I’m settling into another fall of keeping it small.

We might think that avoiding this touchiest of topics is a way to avoid the possibility of having to say no to a friend or a family member. But in fact, it’s in the void opened by these avoided conversations that the virus spreads. As my friend taught me, we need to ask the brave and bold questions without apologies. The friends who don’t like being asked those questions or challenged about their views should ask themselves why. Feelings may be hurt. Being put on a ventilator or losing a loved one hurts more.