Q: When I went to a restaurant the other night, there was a group of older men and women celebrating a birthday like they’d been asked to illustrate the don’ts of social distancing. They were backslapping; hand-holding and sitting on one another’s laps. Did I have an obligation to alert them to the dangers of their behavior?
A: I might not be the best person to field this question. Perhaps you should have asked a smoker outside of the restaurant, who was told by a passerby that cigarettes are bad for his health. Or a pregnant woman inside of the restaurant, who was tsk-tsked by another patron for taking a small sip of wine.
In short, it’s safe to assume that your fellow diners are familiar with the risks associated with various behaviors. And even if they’re somehow in the dark, there is no polite way of bringing the relevant research to their attention.
Of course, if one of the celebrants had attempted to slap your back or hold your hand, you would have been well within your rights to step back and say, firmly but kindly, “Sorry, but I’m trying to keep interpersonal contact to a minimum during these crazy times. Happy birthday!” (Regardless of global pandemic status, an unsolicited lap sit is reason to signal for a manager.)
Part of the problem is once you decide to patronize a restaurant, you’ve surrendered the right to criticize what other people do there. It is in no way a breach of etiquette for someone who’s self-quarantining to explain his or her strategy to friends and relatives, or even to point out how the practice could hasten a slowdown of the virus’ spread. But you can’t have your creme brulee and eat it, too.
So long as you restrict your meals to restaurants that comport with S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control cleanliness codes, wash your hands frequently, dine with people in your immediate social circle and sit at spaced-out tables, restaurant-going in and of itself doesn’t pose a major threat. The wisdom of leaving one’s house is another matter, but coronavirus isn’t transmitted by food.
Still, there are no guarantees that another customer won’t stand relatively close behind you in the bathroom line, or party with impunity. And when that happens, you must keep your mouth shut. Because you know what does transmit COVID-19? Respiratory droplets.