Sure, there are some who hope never to shake a hand or hug an acquaintance again.
But for many, a year and a half of bumping elbows and waving from across the street just hasn’t cut it, and the chance to hug friends is one of the highlights of reopening.
So, is it safe to hug people and shake hands? And which of the two is safer?
Dr. Anthony Fauci has famously said he hopes the handshake never comes back.
“I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” said the White House health adviser back in April 2020. “Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease, it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.”
Closer to home, however, two noted University of Washington infectious-disease specialists say both are safe under the right circumstances. We’re human, they said, and touch is important to us.
“You can’t stop everything for very long,” said Dr. Christopher A. Sanford, a family physician with a background in public health and tropical medicine.
“They’re an important part of our culture, and I think it’s fine if you keep precautions,” said Dr. Ferric Fang, professor of laboratory medicine and microbiology who oversees the clinical microbiology laboratory at Harborview Medical Center.
Though each person will ultimately have to determine their own level of comfort with contact in various situations, both Sanford and Fang said that among vaccinated people, both handshakes and quick hugs carry very little risk when followed with proper hand hygiene.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, an emphasis was placed on not spreading contagions and disease on surfaces and through touch. But we then learned that the virus is airborne and most likely to be spread in crowded indoor conditions with poor ventilation, according to Fang.
The risk of getting COVID-19 from a hug or a handshake depends on the vaccination status of the people involved, the transmission rate in a community and the location. Hugging or shaking hands outdoors will always be safer than in a crowded indoor bar with poor ventilation, said Fang.
With a hug, people’s faces are near each other’s air spaces, but the contact is typically so brief that the risk remains low, he said.
Sanford said that while he will not be shaking hands and hugging “indiscriminately,” he certainly feels the slight risks are worth taking for close friends and family.
“If both people are vaccinated, it’s very reasonable,” he said.
But what about greeting unvaccinated friends, or going to a wedding in an area with low vaccination rates or surging cases?
Again, it’s a calculated risk assessment, the experts said.
Fang said handshakes and hugs pose very slight risks to the vaccinated — the risk is to the unvaccinated.
So, it could still be reasonable for a vaccinated individual to decide to touch and greet friends at a wedding in an area of the country with low vaccination rates, even if fellow guests include people who’ve chosen to forgo the shot, said Fang.
There are no hard and fast answers, he said; each person will have to decide their own level of comfort. You might consider asking “Hug?!” before going in for one to ensure that boundaries are respected.
“For right now you can reassure people they do not have to be too neurotic about these activities that we’ve been missing out on. The risk is not zero, but with precautions the positive benefits are greater than the risk,” Fang said.
The one thing Fang is definitely not going to do, though?
Go to a crowded bar to sing karaoke or yell for sports teams.
“That is the kind of thing that leads to superspreader events and still sounds like a bad idea to me,” he said.