COVID vaccine etiquette: Can you ask? Who can gather?

AARP asked etiquette experts and public health experts about the pandemic’s sticky social situations

Mask graffiti lingers even as people who have received their COVID-19 vaccine feel like they can safely go out in public without wearing one.
Mask graffiti lingers even as people who have received their COVID-19 vaccine feel like they can safely go out in public without wearing one. (AP photo)

When just about everything in our public lives changed last March, the behavior guidelines were fairly straightforward: don’t gather in large groups and when you do venture out, wear a mask.

Just over a year later, with nearly half of American adults are fully vaccinated, many are anxious to get together with family members and friends, while others are waiting to get a shot. This disparity creates some tricky etiquette questions surrounding everything from party planning to potentially polarizing conversations over whether someone else is vaccinated.

AARP asked several experts -- a professor of bioethics, professional manners consultants and a syndicated advice columnist -- to help make sense of the place we’re at now. Here are some of the issues they addressed:

If you’re fully vaccinated, how do you handle socializing with those who aren’t?

It is up to the host to establish guidelines, says Syndi Seid, owner of San Francisco area-based Advanced Etiquette.

“I personally would require everyone to be vaccinated to ease the minds of all of my guests,” Seid said.

Doing so can be acceptable in a small group of friends, while asking people you don’t know well about their vaccination status — or questioning coworkers, for example — can seem invasive. Same goes for seeking information on who’s had COVID itself.

What if you’re the guest considering an invite when no such information has been included?

“It’s fine for a guest to ask if everyone has been vaccinated. Then it’s up to the guest to accept or decline the invitation,” she said.

How do you deal with a vaccine line cutter? What’s a little honesty between friends?

Lisa Grotts, an etiquette expert known as the “Golden Rules Gal,” said a little honesty may not actually be the best policy in this case.

“Stay in your lane,” Grotts said.

Most of the experts agreed with Grotts that the best approach is to steer clear of this kind of confrontation. Amy Dickinson, who writes the syndicated advice column “Ask Amy,” says her approach to COVID-related topics is different than the often frank advice she offers in other areas.

“I have turned the corner and have finally adopted a ‘live and let live’ attitude,” she told AARP. “I have been very fortunate. I have been able to live what I would consider a normal life. Because I live in a rural area, I’m outside a lot. I am able to enjoy nature and see other people outside. I still have my job. But I have family members and close friends who have had radically different experiences with the pandemic — and radically different attitudes about the pandemic. And I respect that.”

Besides, Jodi RR Smith, president and owner of Boston-based Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, since people have various health concerns, asking questions about vaccines could step over the line.

“There are a lot of people with medical issues — maybe a temporary illness or a long-term situation that’s not easily visible — and they don’t necessarily want others to know what their situation is.,” Smith said.

Is it rude to go maskless in public after you’re vaccinated?

People are encourage vaccinated people to wear in public to help strangers feel at ease, even after they’re vaccinated. David Coggins, who wrote the book “Men and Manners,” told the Washington Post that is reason enough to cover your mouth and nose.

“Sometimes etiquette follows the law, sometimes etiquette surpasses the law,” Petrow told the newspaper. “We need to continue to think of ourselves as larger communities where we’re each trying to protect each other.”