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To Shake Or Not To Shake: Coming To Grips With Handshaking

Credit: John Lee
Credit: John Lee

Are you shaking hands yet? Deciding whether to do that after more than a year of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic can be a big step. Experts say there are things you can do to get a grip on handshaking and make it safer.

“If you’re going to bring your handshake back, just make sure you’re also bringing your hand sanitizer,” said Keri Althoff, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

She said the handshake is safer if we keep up the COVID practices of washing hands and not touching our faces.

Politicians are professional hand shakers. Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski laughingly guesstimates he shook as many as 175,000 hands during his 2018 election campaign. For the record, he got nearly 187,000 votes.

Olszewski said he’s a huge extrovert and in the depths of the pandemic he missed that human contact. But he said he started shaking hands again around two weeks ago.

“Just as I was worried it would never come back, it was sort of natural to start doing it again,” Olszewski said. “And I think it is one more sign that the end is truly in sight.”

Olszewski was pressing the flesh on Friday at the ribbon cutting for a new farmer’s market in Essex, as was State Senator Johnny Ray Salling. When he approached someone at the market, Salling extended his hand. But when presented with a fist bump or an elbow instead of a hand, he quickly pivoted. Salling said he wants to be respectful.

“If some people want to give, you know, the elbow, we do that,” Salling said. “If they want to shake hands, I’ll do that also.”

But even now, with more of us vaccinated and the COVID-19 positivity rate declining, is hand shaking a good idea?

In April of 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, memorably said, “You don’t ever shake anybody’s hands. That’s clear. I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again to be honest with you.”

Hands after all are loaded with germs that we are picking up all over the place, from doorknobs to elevators. COVID aside, no hand shaking as well as mask wearing and social distancing kept a lot of us from catching colds and the flu this past winter.

So far, Althoff, the epidemiology professor, has been hands off from hand shaking. She expects that will change with friends and family she knows are vaccinated.

“When we’re starting to talk about shaking hands in a professional setting when you’re mixing with a lot of people, you don’t know their vaccination status, that type of thing, I think that’s where I put forth a bit more caution for myself,” said Althoff, who adds she has three children younger than 12 who cannot yet be vaccinated.

“I don’t know if we know the etiquette yet,” said John Michel, an associate professor of management at Loyola University of Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business. He expects the handshake is here to stay in the business world, but what may be different is that it will be acceptable to skip the shake.

“People have gotten used to not doing it for the past year and so I think people are starting to see, well, maybe that’s not the only way to greet one another,” Michel said.

The handshake has been with us a long time. A 9th century B.C. stone relief shows an Assyrian king putting it there with a Babylonian.

Back at the Essex farmer’s market, Kathy Hewitt with Windlass Run Farm in White Marsh is keeping up that tradition.

“It’s time to get back to what we were used to and stop being afraid,” Hewitt said.

But Cristi Demnowicz who runs GroGive, a company that asks people to sponsor tomato and pepper plants to give to those living in food deserts, said she wasn’t much of a handshaker to begin with.

“I’ve always been more like a waver or a doffer,” Demnowicz said.

Perhaps those greeting options will be part of the post-COVID new normal.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2