Apocalypse: Now What? Hug it out

A reader asks: When will it be safe to hug our loved ones?

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, right, bumps elbows with a worker at the seafood counter of the Uwajimaya Asian Food and Gift Market

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, right, bumps elbows with a worker at the seafood counter of the Uwajimaya Asian Food and Gift Market, March 3, 2020. Because of health concerns and social distancing, people have been encouraged to avoid handshakes, hugs and high-fives as COVID-19 could accidentally be transferred from hands to the face. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Coronavirus has changed our reality for the foreseeable future, prompting questions from you about how to navigate our strange new normal. In this weekly column, we hope to answer them with practical advice, ideas and solutions. Ask your question at the bottom of this story.

Question: When can we HUG?

That ping-ping-ping sound you’re hearing is the stirring of my normally dormant, risk-assessment-obsessed heart, swelling roughly to the size of a raisin at the yearning within your very simple, very human question. 

One of the toughest things about life in the time of coronavirus is the lack of human contact. In service of the greater battle against this soul-sucking pandemic, most of us are forgoing physical touch outside our household. No bear hugs, no tender embraces, no awkward dude one-arm-closed-fist hugs, no Euro sneak-one-on-the-cheek hugs (especially not those). The benefits are more than just emotional: Physical affection lowers stress responses and their ensuing hormones and promotes a healthy immune system — which we all really need right now. 

It’s also clear that with the coronavirus dogging us through the summer, the rest of the year and beyond, we’re going to need to evolve our approach to maintain collective sanity and physical health. (Even terminology matters: Epidemiology experts like Michael Osterholm are recommending we retire phrases like “social distancing” in favor of “physical distancing,” so we can emphasize new kinds of connection to fight isolation.) Ideally, the hugs of the near future will not involve DIY body gloves or deep-sea diving suits

So in light of that: Go ahead and hug. Sniff.*

*MAYBE. You didn’t think a risk assessor would stop risk assessing just because he had a single feel, did you?

A reader also asked: Will Seattle survive this chaotic period?

This is not a free pass to run around town spreading love like Baby Hugs Bear (looking at you, Dorothy). Experts disagree about the precise risk that hugging represents when it comes to spreading COVID-19, but the proximity the act requires ensures it isn’t zero. Evidence for aerosol transmission is building, so being close to someone’s nose and mouth and the droplets they expel undoubtedly increases risk. But since we don’t yet know the dosage required to get infected or pass on the coronavirus, we can’t know by how much. 

Hugging is typically a reflexive, spontaneous act. Not anymore, softies: Like jogging or ordering a taco, they are now subject to new social rules designed to protect yourself, others and the fate of civilization. Hugs are serious now, y’all.

Ten rules for hugs

  1. Are either hugger or huggee feeling symptoms? If so, don’t hug (in fact, don’t be in the presence of anyone).

  2. If the hugger or huggee are especially at-risk, seriously consider skipping the hug. Think of it as investment that will net a gajillion percent return when you cash in once things get safer.

  3. Do it outside. Most of the best things in life — dogs, cats, mimosas — are better outdoors, anyway.

  4. Be sparing. Imagine a hug as a $1,000 bill: Sure, you’d love to give everyone one, but you’re not going to. And for those lucky enough to get it from you, one oughta be enough.

  5. Keep hugs brief and body contact minimal. Avoid touching faces or masks to any body part. Get in, share the love, get out of the droplet zone. Save the epic squeezes for later (see No. 2).

  6. Wear a mask. Since going to the grocery store is now like visiting a lame Marvel Universe, where everyone has masks but no superpowers, this should be obvious.

  7. Keep your faces away from each other as much as possible: back-to-front hugs, faces in opposite directions and waist or knee-level hugs for children are best.

  8. Don’t talk or cough (eew), and consider holding your breath for the duration. If you’re having trouble holding your breath, you’re hugging too long. 

  9. This is tough, but: No crying! Activating the mucous membranes and liquids around your eyes and nose increases risk of droplet transmission. Drink a tall glass of harden-the-heck-up, Dorothy!  

  10. After: Wash your damn hands!

It may seem perverse to attach public-swimming-pool-style rules of conduct to something as basic and elemental as hugging. But the reasoning behind them stems from the exact same place as the hug itself: It’s an act of care to show someone we love them, and the lengths we will go to in order to protect them and keep them in our lives. 

Hmm. Did I just feel a ping in the ol’ raisin again? Eh, I’m probably just hungry.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.