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After More Than A Year Of Social Distancing, Is It Time To Shake Hands?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Have you done this yet? We finally went to dinner at somebody's house a couple of weeks ago. We were vaccinated, they were vaccinated, all seemed fine, but there was still the question of shaking hands when we arrived. In this case, we all ended up hugging. In some other cases, we've been doing elbow bumps or still that awkward wave from six feet away. Resuming handshakes can feel like a big step. So what is this moment like for politicians who shake hands all day long? That's where John Lee of our member station WYPR in Baltimore begins his story.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Three, two, one.

(CHEERING)

JOHN LEE, BYLINE: At a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new farmer's market, Baltimore County executive Johnny Olszewski is pressing the flesh. I ask Olszewski how many hands he shook during his last campaign.

JOHNNY OLSZEWSKI: One hundred and seventy-five thousand (laughter).

LEE: That is obviously just a guesstimate, but it's not entirely unreasonable because politicians are professional handshakers. Olszewski is a huge extrovert, and in the depths of the pandemic, he says he missed that human contact. He started shaking hands again around two weeks ago.

OLSZEWSKI: Just as I was worried it would never come back, It was sort of natural to start doing it again, so - and I think it is - it's just one more sign that the end is truly in sight.

LEE: Another politician that's working the crowd at the market is Maryland State Senator Johnny Ray Salling.

Are you shaking people's hands?

JOHNNY RAY SALLING: Yes, I am. I sure am.

LEE: Yeah, you just stuck your hand out to me.

SALLING: I did.

LEE: But when someone presents Salling a fist bump or an elbow instead of a hand, he quickly pivots.

SALLING: Some people want to give the, you know, elbow. We do that. If they want to shake hands, I'll do that also.

LEE: But even now, with nearly half of Americans fully vaccinated, is handshaking a good idea? In April of last year, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, memorably said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: I don't think we ever should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you.

LEE: Hands, after all, are loaded with germs that we're picking up all over the place. COVID aside, mask wearing and social distancing, as well as no handshaking, kept a lot of us from catching colds and the flu this past winter.

KERI ALTHOFF: If you're going to bring your handshake back, just make sure you're also bringing your hand sanitizer.

LEE: That's Keri Althoff, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She says the handshake is safer if we keep up the COVID practices of washing hands and not touching our faces. Althoff says she'll soon start shaking the hands of friends and family she knows are vaccinated.

ALTHOFF: 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.

JOHN MICHEL: I don't know if we know the etiquette yet.

LEE: John Michel is 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.

MICHEL: People have gotten used to not doing it for the past year. And so I think people are starting to see that, well, you know, maybe that's not the only way to greet one another.

LEE: 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 farmers market, Kathy Hewitt, who sells jams and jellies, is keeping up that tradition.

KATHY HEWITT: It's time to get back to what we were used to and stop being afraid.

LEE: At another booth, Cristi Demnowicz says she wasn't much of a handshaker to begin with.

CRISTI DEMNOWICZ: I've always been more of, like, a waver or a doffer.

LEE: Perhaps those greeting options will be more common in the post-COVID new normal. For NPR News, I'm John Lee in Baltimore County, Md.

(SOUNDBITE OF MY DAD VS YOURS' "TANZ MIT UNS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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