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opinion

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs

A jogger keeps his distance from a woman walking her dog in downtown Toronto, on March 24, 2020.GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

My sister-in-law has this thing about avocado pinchers. You know, the shoppers who paw through the selection with thumb and forefinger to find one that is just right. She hates it and has always argued that like the Spanish, we ought not to handle fruit and vegetables we don’t buy.

In Spain, I once committed the ultimate foreigner faux pas when I barged into a produce store and loaded my basket with fruit and vegetables from the bins. I didn’t understand I should have asked the shopkeeper for what I wanted. What appeared to me hyper restrictive then, makes a lot more sense now as we up our hygiene standards in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Until last month, I myself was an avocado pincher, although I preferred to think of it more as fondling. I would pick up a likely suspect and give it an ever so gentle squeeze to gauge its level of ripeness. Too much give and you know there is a mess of blackish rotten pulp beneath the skin. But last week, after watching people in action during my weekend grocery shop, I sent my sister-in-law a text telling her she was obviously right. Even though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the virus doesn’t survive well on surfaces, including fruits and vegetables, it suddenly seems socially unacceptable to handle other people’s food.

COVID-19 has changed everything. It hit me full force on Week 1 of the physical distancing order. The shelves in my local shop were almost as bare as a Cuban grocery store. There were no chickens, no frozen vegetables and only a few packages of pasta left for the taking. But there was still plenty of produce, and that’s when I saw the tomato squeezer, rifling through a bin of tomatoes with bare hands that had touched who knows what.

She must have picked up and rejected at least eight back to the bin. I had a visceral reaction to her behaviour and started to think more carefully about transmission of disease of all types. COVID-19 might not spread easily on the surface of fruits and vegetables, but other viruses like hepatitis A sometimes do.

In one month, the pandemic has rewritten the book on social etiquette, even for activities as simple as walking the dog. Most sidewalks aren’t wide enough to allow two metres of physical distancing, so when you encounter someone else, who steps onto the grass or road? Runners, who are typically younger and nimbler, usually hop onto the street. Dog walkers typically veer toward the grass, since that’s what the dogs like anyhow. Families with kids tend to sprawl across the sidewalks with trikes and strollers, which seems reasonable to me.

Habits, like spitting and littering, that seemed mildly repugnant in the past, are now off the dial on the unacceptable scale. Yet there is still the man whom my neighbours have nicknamed The Spitter walking and spitting as he goes. And I still see the occasional runner clearing a nostril on the fly. To them I say run fast before someone knocks you flat. As for the jerks who toss used face masks and gloves on the ground, exactly who do they think wants to pick them up?

And enough with the mask backlash. About two weeks ago, on a chilly morning I pulled a ski neck warmer over my nose and mouth for the weekly grocery shop. It was uncomfortably warm, but it was all I had, and I’d been reading about countries where people all wear masks and the outbreak was less severe. I felt self-conscious to begin with and even worse when a man yelled at me saying, “that makes it worse.” It doesn’t of course; we know that now, so long as we physically distance and wash our hands and masks as well.

I predict that within another month and for a long time to come we’ll all be wearing masks to shop and take transit. What once seemed to many a foreign conceit, will soon be regarded as imminently polite behaviour for people living in cities. Just as we might scoff at some of Miss Manners’s outdated advice, so too will we shake our heads at the unhygienic habits we are learning to part with today.

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