With much of the U.S. practicing social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic, people are wondering just when, or if, their lives will get back to normal.
One normal social convention might not come back: shaking hands. If fact, some believe it shouldn’t.
President Donald Trump suggested as much Thursday. He’s stuck to an Easter date of “reopening” the country, but said the country won’t stop with guidelines the White House has issued to stop the spread of coronavirus.
"And, frankly, much of the guidelines like shaking hands — maybe people aren't going to be shaking hands anymore,” Trump said. “You know, Tony had mentioned to me, Tony Fauci, the other day that — I don't think he would be too upset with the concept of not shaking hands.
“He was saying that the flu would cut down, the regular flu would be cut down by quite a bit if we didn't do that, if we didn't shake hands."
Trump isn’t alone. Infectious disease doctors nationwide have discussed ending the typical social greeting, said Dr. Paul Pottinger, an infectious disease professor at the University of Washington. Thoughts of ending the handshake didn’t begin with the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
“As an infectious disease doctor, I think I speak on behalf of almost all of my colleagues — if not all of them — when we say, 'Yes, we’ve been worried about handshaking forever,'” Pottinger said. “This is clearly a great way for people to spread germs, including dangerous germs, from person to person. That’s always been true.”
Pottinger said most respiratory infections and many gastrointestinal infections can be spread through shaking hands.
“To be clear, it’s not a disaster if you shake hands with somebody, but before you then eat or touch your face or pick your nose, it’s so important to wash your hands,” he said. “When we shake hands, microscopic amounts of bacteria and viruses, they can spread from one hand to the next and, therefore, it is a potential root of the spread of germs.”
Dr. Mark Sklansky has avoided shaking hands for years. Sklansky, the chief of pediatric cardiology at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, trialed “handshake-free zones” a few years ago and said shaking hands is “a terrible custom from an infectious disease standpoint.”
Sklansky, who said he doesn’t deny when people call him a germaphobe, has written about the dangers of handshakes in health care settings.
“We spread disease frequently and very commonly through our hands,” Sklansky said. He added that there’s societal pressure to shake hands since it’s so ingrained in American society.
“Now, with all the social distancing… very few people are shaking hands,” he said. “The fact is, after the COVID-19 crisis is over, we are still going to be living in a world filled with viruses and bacteria, many of which can be transmitted via handshakes. My hope is that people’s reluctance to shake hands now will persist well beyond this current crisis.”
Sklansky and Pottinger agreed that it’s past time to start looking at alternative ways to greet people. Pottinger prefers an “air bump,” or a fist bump that stops just short of the knuckles touching. Sklansky has gone with a Namaste bow and stressed the importance of a smile and good eye contact.
Sklanky said that when he has to shake hands, he does so reluctantly. He then immediately washes his hands.
"It's not going to change overnight," he said. "Cultural things like this don't change overnight. Smoking — people recognized for years how bad smoking was — but it took a long time for people stop smoking. We needed to develop smoke-free zones to help change the habit.
"I think handshake-free zones, likewise, would make it easier, after this COVID-19 epidemic has passed. It might make it easier for people to continue to avoid shaking hands."