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  1. Life & Culture

Touching makes us human. Coronavirus makes it complicated.

Coronavirus is disrupting one of the things we do most as human beings.

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How many of us this week were in our car, at our desks or behind a shopping cart playing a game of chicken between an itchy nose and the hand that could so easily relieve it?

Perhaps you proudly resisted, only to catch yourself a bit later in the middle of vigorous eye rub before you remembered: the eyes, nose and mouth could be prime ports of entry for coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

Three people have tested positive for the virus in Tampa Bay, with an additional case in Santa Rosa County. And much like Smokey Bear put it on regular folks to not set the woods on fire, stopping coronavirus feels like a personal responsibility. Only you can prevent yourself from smearing COVID-19 in your mucus membranes.

It can be stressful to realize you’ve screwed up, which doesn’t help, because face touching is a way humans respond to stress.

German scientists who monitored brain activity after people touched their faces believe it helps regulate emotion and overtaxed working memory. Australian scientists who monitored medical students on video found they touched their faces on average 23 times an hour.

There may be no better example of the struggle than the director of a public health department in Santa Clara County, California. During a coronavirus press conference, she instructed people to “start working on not touching your face,” before licking her finger to turn the page in her notes seconds later.

Humans are complicated. When you see a man at Chick-fil-A wearing a face mask and rubber gloves, you realize he was willing to go pretty far for safety, just not so far as abstaining from a fried chicken sandwich at a crowded restaurant.

We like to touch ourselves, and we like to touch each other. We shake hands at church, or a business meeting or at the end of a high school softball game to show good sportsmanship.

Fr. Felipe Gonzalez, left, gives a wafer to Joseph Grabowski, 60, center, during the Holy Communion at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa, Florida on Friday, March 6, 2020.
Fr. Felipe Gonzalez, left, gives a wafer to Joseph Grabowski, 60, center, during the Holy Communion at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa, Florida on Friday, March 6, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

We have been touching each other to build bridges for centuries. One of the earliest known depictions of people shaking hands is believed to be a stone carving from around 845 B.C. showing Assyrian King Shalmaneser shaking hands with a new Babylonian ally.

And handshaking has always spread germs. Even before this new coronavirus, some doctors recommended banning the handshake from medical settings. Making it policy, they said, could prevent the “social, political, and even financial risks” that come with leaving someone hanging.

During services at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, worshipers are normally encouraged to “pass the peace of Christ” to each other by shaking hands. It’s a reminder, said Rev. Magrey deVega, that “the peace Jesus gives us is not to be kept to ourselves." This week, he’ll ask the congregation to pass the peace via a wave, a thumbs up or a peace sign. In his weekly email to members, he quoted Isaiah 7:4, “Be careful and stay calm,” but noted that if anyone wasn’t feeling well, they could stream the Sunday service online.

Fans are still showing up to local Spring Training baseball games and high-fiveing strangers. Major League Baseball has advised players to avoid shaking hands with fans or accepting pens or balls from fans while signing autographs, but has yet to ban Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.

Hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching me, touching you.

Detroit Tigers left fielder Cameron Maybin, left, greets New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone before a spring training baseball game, Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Lakeland, Fla.
Detroit Tigers left fielder Cameron Maybin, left, greets New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone before a spring training baseball game, Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Lakeland, Fla. [ CARLOS OSORIO | AP ]

Lawyers shake more hands than most. “It is a major part of the culture,” said St. Petersburg Bar Association president Tara Lynn Scott. During adversarial litigation, it’s a way to “remember the person, instead of just seeing them as someone on the other side,” a sign of professionalism that ultimately benefits the client.

Grace Yang, a lawyer and president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association, extended her hand Wednesday. The other person extended their hand. Then, they both stopped midway and pulled away.

Hundreds of lawyers will meet in St. Petersburg for a Bar event this week. That would normally mean 1,000 handshakes. But executive director Melissa R. Byers will be giving out hand sanitizer instead. She made a sign that reads, “We also support anyone who prefers not to shake hands.”

At an Athena Society lunch in Tampa on Thursday, attendees of the influential women’s leadership group greeted each other with elbow bumps. Goody bags placed on every seat had miniature bottles of hand sanitizer.

Politicians have to grip and grin, especially on the campaign trail. Neither the Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden campaigns responded to request for comment on handshaking strategies, but both were photographed grasping supporters’ hands this week. Vice President Mike Pence shook hands with cadets from Sarasota Military Academy days before a student from that school was placed under precautionary quarantine for possible exposure.

“You always shake hands. That’s what I was trained to do 20 years ago,” said Jim Diguiseppe, a sales manager at Genuine Motorcars, a luxury dealership in St. Petersburg. “I haven’t seen it stop yet, but it will be interesting to see how things go.”

A proper handshake is as follows, said etiquette coach Elaine Swann: Web-to-web, one to three pumps up and down, always with the right hand.

But it is fine to decline a handshake, she said.

“Right now, I’m not shaking hands, but it’s very nice to meet you,” she advises saying. Clasp your own hands together in anticipation of an unwanted hand and nod politely. If you extend your hand and get left hanging, don’t take it personal and don’t linger on it.

Consider the fist bump. It spreads 20 times fewer germs than a handshake, according to a 2014 study from Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom, which also found that a high five spreads 10 times fewer germs.

Dean Montalbano, left, face paints Bella Mea Brown, 6, from his vendor booth at the Strawberry Festival in Plant City, Florida on Friday, March 6, 2020.
Dean Montalbano, left, face paints Bella Mea Brown, 6, from his vendor booth at the Strawberry Festival in Plant City, Florida on Friday, March 6, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Regardless of what you do with them, keeping your hands washed often and thoroughly is important. The Centers for Disease Control recommends 20 seconds with soap and water.

But while you’re mitigating risk, consider the risk of a world with no touching at all.

The screenwriters of 1994′s Demolition Man imagined a Utopian future in which high fives stop several inches from contact and all infectious diseases have been eliminated. It turns out to be a dystopia where every restaurant is Taco Bell, there are fines for using profanity and humans have lost what makes them human.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: What you need to know after Florida’s first positive coronavirus cases.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.

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