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The Column: Learning the coronavirus etiquette

Fear of the coronavirus may be affecting how

Fear of the coronavirus may be affecting how you behave during social engagements. Credit: Getty Images / miodrag ignjatovic

There is nothing funny about the coronavirus. People are right to be on edge.

So with the utmost respect for the seriousness of the situation, I report to you an encounter with old friends the other night.

These are warm and embracing people, and we were in a restaurant perfectly matched.

You know the sort of place: clubby spot in a quiet village, dark-wood bar, congenial crowd, Diana Krall at exactly the right volume, good food and, in this case, even an upscale Impossible Burger available for the lone vegetarian — me.

Already seated when we arrived, our friends looked up and greeted us with smiles.

“Good to see you.”

“Lovely,” we said.

Simultaneously, my wife, Wink, prepared to hug the husband. His wife was still seated and I bent to kiss her on the cheek, as I have done for maybe 50 years.


Sorry, they said, with exceeding politeness. There would be no touching tonight.

“Oh,” we said. “Really? The virus?”

That was it, all right. The virus.

Laughing at the complexity of the moment and who knows, maybe the absurdity of life, we settled for fist bumps — four adults in a pricey restaurant conducting themselves as might their grandchildren after a hard-fought Little League victory.

Conversation kicked in quickly.

Our friends were just playing it safe, they said. Really, who knew what was best?

One piece of advice they received from a trusted source claimed preventive powers for zinc lozenges.

Zinc lozenges?

I don’t even do well with those funky tasting herbal cough drops. Sucking on something that resembles a metal washer was out of the question. Everyone has limits.

The four of us continued wondering how much precaution made sense and how much was going overboard. Ride on the subways? Travel on a plane? Go to the movies? Join the human wave at Penn Station?

Let’s keep things in perspective, said the husband.

We don’t want to end up like Howard Hughes. You remember Hughes. He was the billionaire aviator, movie director and famous recluse and germaphobe  who once locked himself in a darkened screening room for months eating mainly chocolate bars. Hughes died in 1976, depleted and unhinged.

But, yes, perspective. That is always the trick, isn’t it?

How much risk is too — well, risky? How much just enough?

Some people won’t ride the roller coaster, others skydive and bungee jump. You couldn’t get me to go on one of those survival trips where you mainly eat insects and carry a little bell to repel stray grizzlies. Likewise, no way am I handling snakes, driving a stock car at Riverhead Raceway or squeezing into a spangled jumpsuit to audition for “Dancing with the Stars.”

But, wait, that reminds me. I did once dauntlessly find my inner Fred Astaire, so maybe I spoke too soon.

This was years ago when Wink and I lived in Florida. There was a place in Miami Beach called The Castaways. The floor show featured a belly dancer, named Princess Soraya, who took pleasure in dragging unsuspecting gentlemen to the stage.

My number was up. Beckoned by the Princess, how could I say no?

There is no need to provide extensive details here, but I can reveal that in front of several hundred patrons who had been freely drinking mai tais and Cuba libres, I bumped and shimmied as Soraya instructed.

There was a certain amount of howling from the audience, as I recall, but I persisted long enough for the Princess to award me a small trophy — more a testament to my fortitude than anything that might threaten the Chippendales.

Generally, though, I’m the cautious type and entirely understand those worried about scary news reports and the sudden amplitude of medical experts on TV.

For now, though, I’m not pulling a Howard Hughes. I’ll be going out for walks and ordering margarita slices at our favorite pizza joint. When it warms up, maybe Wink and I will take a ride to the East End for lunch in Greenport. Carry on, I tell myself.  

As for our friends — on the way out of the restaurant, we said good night. This is when we ordinarily would have hugged. Instead, we fist bumped and tapped elbows and shook our heads at the vagaries of unusual times.

And, oh, the zinc lozenges? The next day our friends got in touch. Their reliable source had sent an email after doing some research. Forget the zinc, the source said. Iffy idea. Just remember to wash your hands, and often.

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