Socially safe etiquette
during COVID-19 / 2

Tips to help you when you are out shopping for food and other necessities

By Wanda Potrykus

Etiquette is a way for people to get along in ambiguous situations, which is what we find ourselves in now.

– E. Simon-Thomas

Social etiquette guidelines were formulated in most societies to keep people safe in the company of others. Most of us were taught the majority of the most basic of them by our parents while we were children and they include, in western societies, shaking hands when meeting someone, coughing or sneezing into a handkerchief (later a paper tissue) as well as washing our hands before dinner, or not talking with our mouths full.

In time of a pandemic, some of these guidelines need revising (like sneeze or cough into your elbow) while others need to be formulated.

“Etiquette is a way for people to get along in situations that are ambiguous, which is what we find ourselves in now,” explains Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, PhD., Science Director, Greater Good Science Centre, UC Berkeley. She is a leading expert on the neuroscience and psychology of compassion, kindness, gratitude, and other ‘pro-social’ skills.

Wave and ‘smile with your eyes’ at friends and family

Humans mostly like and appreciate the sense of touch and being touched by others. For this reason, the hug, kiss and handshake were incorporated into the cultural routines of our daily lives (in the western world, at least). Nevertheless, to stay safe in times of a pandemic we need to forgo many of the social conventions such as these and replace them with a smile, a salute, a ‘smize‘, a wave, an “I love you” hand or finger heart sign, a bob, or perhaps even a formal bow comme les japonais, rather than a handshake, hug, kiss, high-five, fist or elbow bump, actions which all bring us too close to one another in this time of physical distancing.

6 ft social distancing -

Image: Mark Fletcher-Brown, Unsplash

Stand or walk a minimum of 6 ft or 2 m away

We are all told to stand at least 6 feet or 2 metres away from someone else to lessen the chance of being sprayed with droplets from a possibly COVID-19 infected person, whether or not they have symptoms. The funny thing is 2 m is closer to 6 ft 7 inches than 6 ft. Guess the powers that be rounded it up by more than 6 inches, to make the metric equivalent seem more of a round number, which in a country that supposedly adopted the metric system some 50 years ago is simply condoning faulty math.

Nevertheless, in practice, it seems most people have no idea what those distances are. One friend says she carries an umbrella that is one metre long and is always surprised when people insist they are keeping the requisite distance and yet they are barely the length of her umbrella away from her. A lady in Winnipeg goes out for a walk brandishing a broom but even that isn’t quite long enough.

Others suggest trying to imagine the distance between people as the length of a hockey stick, or perhaps a fishing rod, except both of those come in a variety of sizes depending on how tall you are.

… try and find a symbol or idea of what the required two metres represent to you and adopt that as your guide when following physical distancing requirements.

I prefer to think of it in terms of people’s height. I’m 5 ft 8 inches tall, which equates to only approx 1.7 m. To reach 2 m in height, it would be equivalent to imagining a person 6 ft 7 inches tall (an average NBA basketball player for instance) stretched horizontally across the sidewalk between you and the next person. (A little weird I know… but pick your favourite tall player and dream.) The fact is, no matter how you choose to think of it, a 2 m distance is a large amount of space to keep apart; and what’s worse we’re told it may not be enough to protect all of us since new research currently circulating suggests people engaging in strenuous workouts may need to stay at least 12 feet from other people, which can be extremely difficult on heavily-trafficked paths and streets.

The point I’m endeavouring to make is most people tend to underestimate what that distance, whether 6 feet, or 6 feet 7 inches, or 2 m represents and let me tell you, the sidewalks where I live aren’t nearly that wide. My advice is to try and find a symbol or idea of what the required two metres represent to you and adopt that as your guide when following physical distancing requirements.

social distancing -

Image: Kate Trifo, Unsplash

Remind people civilly to move back

What happens if someone is passing you, or edging up behind you and breaches that 6-foot distancing guideline? Yes, it’s okay to be vocal about it (or not) but do try to do it nicely using a non-confrontational tone of voice. This is Canada, after all.

An example of a proper response advocated by Lorna Somers, an etiquette coach interviewed by CBC News is: “Apologies… I can’t move any farther ahead. If you give us (me) a little more space, we’ll (both) be in a lot better shape.” Her advice underscores that by taking it on yourself it makes it more acceptable for the other person. “I think you’re fine to say something but it’s all in how you say it. The tone, the smile, softens how you’re saying something,” says Somers.

Try to keep your cool when waiting in line

While waiting in line to cross the street or for a bus, or at the store, respect the physical distancing guidelines of at least 6 ft /2 m apart. For a slow-moving line outside a store, try bringing a book to read, or listen to music (with headphones please) to make waiting less tedious. Play ‘I-spy’ with the kids during the wait that is if you have to shop with them.

Be polite at all times

Don’t yell at others to get out of your way or when they approach too close to you. Ask them nicely to please move away. These are anxious times and some people suffer more than others from social anxiety, which can result in people behaving more inappropriately, especially those who appear only to be thinking of themselves.

The fact is if you behave rudely, the other person will usually reciprocate in kind and the tension escalates creating an endless circle. Peter Post, the Boston Sunday Globe’s etiquette columnist explains, “…when you are acting rudely towards others, you tend to feel more stress, which leads to more rudeness which leads to more stress in a never-ending circle.”

social distancing in stores -

Image: Brittani Burns, Unsplash

Follow the safety measures in stores

Many larger stores, pharmacies, and supermarkets request you to wash or sanitize your hands before entering and have instituted one-way aisles. Be aware and follow the arrows on the floors. Try to keep at a safe distance. In particular, respect the space distancing lines while waiting to pay.

Try to shop without the family

Shopping solo is the new normal. Fewer people means fewer distractions and equates to less time in the store with fewer people possibly exposed to the virus. Thus keeping those in your household, as well as the store staff, safer.

If leaving your child or children behind at home isn’t realistic (single parents for instance) have the older one(s) help you shop. Make detailed lists and assign specific items to each child. Give alternatives. Engage them in the process. For instance, if you send them to find items on the shelves, teach them how to follow the directional arrows and explain the reasons why they are there. Put the smaller one(s) in the cart or request they walk holding onto the cart (and remember to wipe it down when you return it) and don’t let them run around the store.

Don’t over-handle the produce

This means, no squeezing or picking through (i.e. picking up and placing back) the tomatoes, the avocados, peppers, or any fruit such as apricots, peaches, plums, apples, pears, strawberries, blueberries, etc. Look for bruises without handling the fruit to check for soft spots. Don’t strip the coverings from the corn on the cob (maize), or the wilted leaves from the lettuce or cabbage. Wait until you get home to do that. Even though most food is not thought to be a likely source of transmitting the virus, we don’t know for sure and it’s more the idea of it doing so that adds to the anxiety of those watching you pick through or manhandle the fruit or vegetables.

picking produce -

Image: Sydney Rae, Unsplash

Don’t put the item back on the shelf once you have picked it up

If you’re carrying the virus, even unknowingly, touching items can spread germs to those who might pick up what you put back down. So, take the time to observe or consider if you need the item before you reach for it and once you pick something off the shelf consider it yours.

Only take what you need for that week or two

Depending on how often you usually shop (weekly or bi-weekly since the daily shopper should by now have given up that practice if only because of the extended time shopping now takes with access to stores limited to fewer people in the store at one time, equating to long line-ups in effect at stores in most towns and cities) so the current request is that people take only what they need.

So far, the government is assuring the public that stores will continue to receive supplies. This might be hard to believe when your local store has so many empty shelves, leading to a feeling of panic among consumers. To help with this, most grocery stores have instituted a two or three-item limit for most packaged products (exceptions are most fruits and vegetables).

Be flexible… and maybe creative

If the store doesn’t have exactly what you want, be flexible, opt for a substitute or do without. This is not the time to comparison shop or go from store to store looking for what you think you need. Be creative. Plan before you go for alternative ingredients and menus.

Use sanitizing wipes to cleanse the handles of the shopping carts and/or wear gloves and, if possible, wipe the cart down both before and after using it (as a courtesy to the person coming after you). Wash your hands and gloves upon returning home. If your children have touched more parts of the cart than you have, wipe those areas too.

Be prepared to pay by debit or credit card and use the ‘tap’ feature

I am not sure where that leaves those who possess neither of these cards, i.e. the homeless, refugees, or asylum seekers, the temporary seasonal worker, or those who have declared bankruptcy and have limited access to bank cards, or, as this pandemic shutdown continues, potentially those who have reached the limit on their credit card. The fact is nothing much is being said about these vulnerable groups or how they are to pay for their groceries and/or medications.

reusable bag -

Image: Nicolas Weldingh, Unsplash

Use a one-use or reusable bag and pack your own

In some places in Canada, grocery chain stores and pharmacies such as Provigo/Loblaws/Pharmaprix and IGA/Sobeys have waived the 5 or 15 cent fee for plastic bags but many of the stores in Quebec and elsewhere no longer have a stock of these bags as they have already phased them out, so are requesting that customers bring a reusable bag (which should be frequently cleaned) and pack their purchases.

When out, wear a mask

Yes, the advice on this directive is contradictory and not always helpful although Teresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, has recently come out in favour, as has the U.S. CDC and although, at the moment, it remains voluntary, as more time passes this may change. Thus, wear a mask, as it seems this idea does appear to bring a modicum of comfort to some. But don’t yell at those not wearing one or wearing it incorrectly. It’s abusive, frightening and not helpful.

Fun fashion trend

It is likely that very soon face coverings could potentially become a major fashion statement for all ages despite some widely publicized anathema to some of them. Some variations on the theme are already beginning to appear on those ubiquitous online ads incorporating hats and plastic face-shields as well as the somewhat old-fashioned ‘outlaw’ type scarf, or bandanna face coverings from the cowboy movies of some of our childhoods. An inventive friend of mine has made herself a homemade plastic face shield from a 4-litre water bottle. I’m also willing to model any of the home-sewn facemasks that you’re willing to send me, especially those in bright colours. Contact me at

For other ideas as regards to the various styles of face-covering options already out there, Rolling Stone magazine (that now somewhat mainstream bastion of style whose creators, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, originally intended to be “a barometer of the artistic tastes and political sensibilities of the student generation”) has recently published a comprehensive run-down of some of the facemask ‘alternatives’ available for purchase in the U.S., so prices mentioned are in U.S. dollars; however, the good news is there are a wide range of price points out there.

MTL Strong

I also like the stylish ‘MTL or Canada Strong’ ones produced by local Montreal Esports performance clothing fashion house H4X (pronounced HACKS) on their Mask Army website. Their colourful “It’s going to be OK” ones are cool too. Also check out the styles they make for kids, especially the spectacular tiger one. Some other Canadian brands producing non-medical facemasks can be viewed here.

Why not pick your style and become a facemask trendsetter or, in social media parlance, an ‘influencer’? We might as well all try to be as safe as we can and have some small modicum of pandemic fashion fun along the way.

Wash after use

And remember, wash your hands and your mask with soap when you get home. All homemade masks need to be washed after each wearing, so it’s probably safest to have several on hand.

Mask-up everyone!

Feature image: Julian Wan, UnsplashBouton S'inscrire à l'infolettre –

Read also: other articles by Wanda Potrykus


Wanda Potrykus is a writer, editor, translator and poet. A graduate of McGill, she has spent most of her career in marketing communications, PR, event and media relations specializing in international aviation, telecommunications, education and the marketing of the arts.

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  1. Shaun Fawcett

    Thanks Wendy. Clear, common-sense advice! You are the only one that I have noticed so far that has pointed out that 2 m. is actually a bit more than 6″ 6″.

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