COVID etiquette

Imagine what questions an advice columnist would be asked today!

I just started reading The Madness of Crowds, the newest Louise Penny book. It’s part of a quintessentially Canadian murder mystery series set in fictional Three Pines, Quebec. Penny’s books are beautifully written, tightly woven, plot-driven masterpieces; and she’s put out a new one every summer since 2005 like clockwork. Last year, while writing The Madness of Crowds, she faced an interesting problem: would COVID hit Three Pines? If it didn’t, the books – which feel very current – would shift from contemporary to historical fiction. But how much appetite would readers have for characters trapped in lockdown?

Tough call

Decisions about how much real life we want in fiction are tough. Film and TV producers have faced the same choices this past year. But content creators are not the only ones who’ve gotten good at navigating hard questions during COVID. We’ve all had to make decisions about totally new, sometimes bizarre situations. And the pandemic restrictions – crucial as they have been to saving lives – occasionally lack logic. I will never forget this sentence as reported by CBC last October: “Experts say you can still celebrate Thanksgiving in person with members of your own household.” Oh, CAN WE? Thank you so much. We’ll cancel our plans to celebrate individually in our bedrooms, then.

Such are the strange regulations and days we have lived through. And are still living through. Forget questions about which fork to save for dessert! If Ann Landers, who ran an advice column in the Chicago Tribune for 47 years, were still alive, she’d be flooded with pandemic-related dilemmas. Not life and death questions but those complicated and sometimes painful choices about whether to meet up with family and friends. And where. And how.

Imagine what Ann might get asked today!

Dear Ann,
I run the GEMS girls program at our church. Some parents want us to resume business as normal this fall, others won’t send their girls unless everyone wears masks. No one wants to do another year of online lessons. I really want to find a way to help these girls explore their faith, but our committee can’t agree on how. What would you recommend?


Dear Ann
My father’s in the hospital undergoing treatment for Stage 4 lymphoma. They only allow one family member in at a time. It has to be the same person every day. I live closer than my brothers but I’m not sure I can commit to daily visits. What should we do?

A Loyal Son

Dear Ann,
I’m getting married in October! After postponing the wedding last summer, we finally decided to go ahead with it. The venue is booked and we kept the guest list short, just in case things change, but I’m pretty worried about this fourth wave. Can I add vaccination status to the RSVP?

Betrothed in B.C.

Dear Ann,
My son-in-law is taking all these rules very seriously. He won’t let us visit our new grandbaby. We’ve only seen her once and she’s already nine months old. How will she get to know us if I have to keep this mask on when I’m holding her? She needs to see our faces.

Grandpa in Grand Rapids

Dear Ann,
On our way to visit friends up at their cottage, we stopped at one of those big highway rest stops – you know, the kind with Starbucks, Tim Hortons and a tourist shop. When I went inside to use the facilities, I couldn’t believe the huge line for the women’s washroom! My husband squeezed past about 15 women – he had no line up! – while it took me 20 minutes just to get around the corner. Once inside, I saw that every other stall was taped shut. OK, fine. I found an empty one. Then there were line-ups to use the sinks – the ones that weren’t covered in caution tape. So the next time that COVID precautions make the task take so long that the risk of catching the virus dramatically increases, should I just pee in the woods instead?

Sick of Line Ups

an illustration of a map
Map and Mend

After a year and more, we know our pandemic etiquette by rote. Don’t shake hands. Circle around strangers on the sidewalk. But those are the easy ones. It’s harder to get past conversations with loved ones where you don’t see eye-to-eye; events you weren’t invited to; invitations you turned down.

And that brings me to the theme of Christian Courier’s donation campaign this year – Map and Mend! Our writers are mapping the landscape of mid- and post-pandemic life, offering wisdom from their lives as followers of Christ and hope when you feel lost. Our stories acknowledge the suffering in the world while also, crucially, highlighting the ways God and his people are at work mending it. All of that may help you navigate your own tough decisions. Though my letters to Ann Landers are fictional, there’s nothing but real life in the pages of CC.

Edging closer

Louise Penny, by the way, settled on a hopeful middle ground: the pandemic is over in Madness – vanquished by vaccines. Masks are only a memory. It’s winter and the characters reminisce about meeting in bubbles the previous Christmas. So it seems the setting is actually the future – is it December 2021? Will all of Canada be, like Three Pines, post-COVID in four short months?

“I wanted to believe that we would emerge,” the author says in her acknowledgements. “That families, friends, strangers could get together again, unafraid. Unmasked. That we could embrace, and kiss, hold hands and have meals together.”

Amen to that. May it be so!


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