Businesses and cities across the country are requiring people to wear masks, which some people say infringe upon their individual rights.
Even if you spend a majority of your time at home, some social interactions are inevitable. You may pass by a group of friends with their faces uncovered on the street. An unmasked food delivery worker may hand off your order. A leaky faucet or clogged pipe may require a plumber to enter your home.
When you’re required to remain at least 6 feet apart, wear masks and avoid extended contact with others outside your immediate home, interactions that you may not have otherwise given a second thought become unnerving. And given the contentious, sometimes political tone of mask-wearing discourse, it may be easier to avoid telling someone – especially a stranger – to wear a mask.
But etiquette expert Michèle Oricoli says it’s possible to remain safe and be polite, even during a pandemic.
“First and foremost, give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not intentionally aiming to harm or disrespect you,” Oricoli, who runs the etiquette training program More than Manners, told USA TODAY.
Fact check: What’s true and what’s false about face masks?
There’s a fine line between preserving your own safety and well-being and not inflaming unnecessary tensions with a stranger. Here’s how to navigate possibly tense masking situations.
How to approach a delivery worker or mail carrier not wearing a mask
In general, most major delivery services you’ll interact with are required to wear a mask.
USPS, UPS and FedEx all confirmed in separate statements to USA TODAY that their employees are required to wear masks, as applicable by state and local law. UPS requires it for employees, regardless of regional mandates.
USPS and UPS no longer require signatures for packages, and FedEx says “most packages” won’t require a signature, further reducing the number of interactions between workers and recipients.
Food delivery services Uber, DoorDash and Grubhub all have different guidelines but generally adhere to policies state-by-state. They also offer options for no-contact delivery.
Fortunately, in instances where you do have to meet face-to-face with a delivery person – whether it be a food delivery worker or a mail carrier – carries “very low risk,” says Dr. Matthew Grant, an infectious disease specialist at Yale Medicine.
In these scenarios, you should be wearing a mask to protect yourself and the delivery worker, regardless of whether the delivery worker is. You should also wash or sanitize your hands after grabbing and signing for a package or food delivery.
“For employees whose job entails interacting with relative strangers and therefore potentially exposing themselves to some degree of COVID-19 risk, wearing a mask while you are within 6 feet of them is the respectful thing to do,” he said.
What about a repair person not wearing a mask?
The rules change when someone new enters your home. If a plumber, electrician, or any sort of contractor stays for a couple of hours to perform a repair, for their sake – and yours – they should be wearing a mask. You should also be wearing a mask, Oricoli says.
“From investigating transmission chains, nearly all established person-to-person (COVID-19) events have been indoor exposures,” Grant said.
Oricoli suggests asking anyone who enters your home to abide by your house’s policies on mask-wearing and thanking them for following the rules immediately afterward.
“If the person gives you a difficult time,” she said, “you can offer up a reason such as ‘I’m immunocompromised or ‘Thanks for understanding, I care for my elderly parents.'”
It’s also a good idea, she said, to inform a worker beforehand about wearing masks: It gives both parties clear guidelines on the rules of the house before any interaction takes place.
“Asking a repair worker before they arrive to wear a mask is an ultimate show of respect and consideration,” she said. “Keeping it personal and based on ‘I’ statements ensures you are taking responsibility for your emotions, beliefs and reactions.”
If they’re not wearing a mask, Grant has an easy solution: “If these people aren’t wearing masks when they arrive at your door, I would kindly offer them a mask to wear.”
Otherwise, Grant advises finding a different service provider – one who ideally will wear a mask.
What about talking to unmasked people on walks?
You should be wearing a mask and social distancing when outdoors, but not everyone will. Regardless, the risk for transmitting COVID-19 in these situations, Grant said, is “extraordinarily low,” regardless of whether they’re traveling by foot or by bicycle.
It’s also worth “choosing your battles mindfully,” Oricoli says. Do the best you can for your own safety, and keep in mind that others are often trying to do the same thing.
“You can’t police or control everyone around you,” she said. “Some people have legitimate reasons for not wearing a mask.”
That may change if, say, you end up chatting with a stranger – or running into an acquaintance – and stand around for an extended period of time. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, close contact for any longer than 15 minutes is considered close exposure.
But Grant says the risk of spread is negligible – even without masks – as long as you are standing at least 6 feet apart.
How should you respond when someone tells you they refuse to wear a mask?
In these situations, Oricoli says, it’s often preferable to remove yourself from the person – especially if they become combative, aggressive or are noncompliant.
If you do opt to engage with someone, it’s preferable to focus on your own concerns rather than shame them for theirs.
“If your delivery is non-attacking, more about yourself, your fears and concerns and less about their behavior or lack of sensitivity, you have a shot at reaching an understanding,” she said.
Follow Joshua Bote on Twitter: @joshua_bote.
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