You will no longer have to wear masks in public from next week. They will only be legally required in healthcare settings, while people are advised to wear them on public transport, and to exercise their own judgement in schools and shops.
But where is the guidance on everything else? Covid put an end to handshaking and hugging hello and gave us the perfect excuse to cry off social engagements because we had (real or suspiciously convenient) cold symptoms. So are we now going back to coughing on the 46A bus and air-kissing everyone hello as though the last two years never happened? Like hell we are.
Here’s a rough etiquette guide to those pressing questions about what changing restrictions really mean for you. (Note: this is not public health advice. For public health advice, go to hse.ie)
Do we now go back to shaking hands?
Yes, “if you’re comfortable and you feel safe,” said Taoiseach Micheál Martin. No way, say many other people who responded to an informal poll on social media.
A handshake used to be a way to build trust, seal a deal, send positive signals of respect and equality. Now, to most people, an outstretched hand represents a sweaty petri-dish of biohazards barrelling towards you. “The origin of the handshake being to check if the other person is carrying a weapon, it’s a custom which has far outlived its usefulness. Now is a good time to end it,” says Conor Winkle, owner of Winkle’s bookshop in Athy succinctly.
Still, however some of us feel about them, it seems handshakes are on the way back. PR Consultant Aileen Eglinton was at a networking lunch on Tuesday. “People were so thrilled to be back, I got three hugs, and only one stupid elbow thingy. We’re back!”
“Handshakes all round at a meeting I was at yesterday,” confirms another PR consultant, Brian Nolan.
“It was a bit of an awkward adjustment after a long time of staying apart and being careful. Likewise for masks which most people wore arriving, but which were quickly removed. The previous regime had the merit of clarity.”
‘At a work lunch, I got three hugs, and only one stupid elbow thingy. We’re back!’
Don’t rush into offering your hand, suggests Orla McAuliffe, chief executive of the Professional Training Centre. “People have realised that not only is Covid transmissible with handshakes, but they’re also very cognizant of other illnesses like the flu that can be transferred.”
Her own strategy is to get greet people with a smile and “nice, open body language. And if I do happen to shake somebody’s hand, I’ll have hand sanitiser with me” and use it immediately.
Some employers have come up a novel solution to help people navigate this awkward phase of the transition: colour-coded wristbands. A Salesforce conference in San Francisco last September greeted people with three choices. Green signalled “OK to hug” or handshake. Yellow meant “let’s do the elbow/fist bump”. Red was “let’s wave hello”.
Still there are some areas of Irish life in which handshakes remain deeply rooted, and they include politics and funerals. “For those of us in politics, it can be difficult, but it is noticeable that the handshake is definitely becoming more common again,” says Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne.
At funerals, “you never needed to say anything. It was the handshake, the hug. How we deal with grief is significant as we emerge from the last two years”.
Is social hugging back too?
No, McAuliffe says. “Before you go to shake hands or a hug or anything like that, I think you have to be a little bit aware of the boundaries and other’s people’s health situation.”
The death of both hugs and handshakes has been an unexpected relief for some women in professional settings, says one who prefers not to be named. “Social distancing has meant an escape from unwanted touching from certain men in professional and personal situations – the hug that feels more like a grope. Nodding hello or touching elbows has been a very welcome reprieve and would prefer not to return to that.”
But not everyone is averse to hugs. “Hugs are back,” says Siobhan Murray, pscyhotherapist and author, joyfully. “And none of this back tapping lark.”
She wants “big, hold-me-now hugs”.
If you have cold symptoms, should you stay home?
The days of thinking the pile of used Kleenex in your wastepaper basket is a mark of your commitment to your employer are gone. “If you have cold or flu symptoms, just keep them to yourself. Have respect for other people’s health situations and if you’re sick, absolutely do not go into work,” says McAuliffe.
Don’t take your hacking cough to a restaurant or pub either, even if you know it’s not Covid. “That’s just really selfish.”
This is also really good news for people who’ve been using the “I’m a close contact” excuse to get out of everything for two years now.
Can you have a sandwich at your desk?
The most important question that should be asked here, says McAuliffe, is “how smelly is the sandwich? If it’s egg and onion, that’s not ideal.” (Clearly this has little to do with public health, and a lot to do with creating a positive office environment.)
What about office birthday celebrations?
Because everyone has different ideas of what’s safe, the shared Swiss roll in the office kitchen is a health, safety and HR nightmare. “It is a minefield,” says McAuliffe. “Individual cakes or buns would be a better option for the time being.”
What about eating on the bus, or ordering from the sandwich trolley on the train?
For “long flights or long train journeys, people have to rehydrate and eat something. I think we have to be realistic. We can be overcautious, but you have to live as well,” says McAuliffe. However, you’re unlikely to starve on the 25 minute commute to work, so avoid eating, and keep your mask on.
Where else should you wear one?
The regulations say you should still wear a mask in healthcare settings. Anecdotally, many people plan to wear them in lots of other places too. “It’s an individual’s personal choice. It would be wise to have a mask handy for situations where you’re in very close contact with people,” says McAuliffe.
“While the rhetoric previously was all about protecting others now I feel we’re all about protecting yourself. I’ll be masking in areas I don’t feel safe – mainly crowds or confined space with others. I don’t want to get sick,” says Killian Byrne, a health and fitness advocate.