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How to ask if someone is vaccinated and other pandemic etiquette

From schools to restaurants to a neighborhood barbecue, asking someone their coronavirus vaccine status can be a landmine.
Mha’siyah Blake, 12, prepares to receive a COVID-19 vaccine administered by first year USF physician’s assistant student Caroline Cubero at a back to school health clinic at Middleton High School in Tampa in July. Some parents might be concerned about unvaccinated teachers. Conversely, there are teachers who may want to know if their older students are vaccinated. But how to ask without hurting feelings?
Mha’siyah Blake, 12, prepares to receive a COVID-19 vaccine administered by first year USF physician’s assistant student Caroline Cubero at a back to school health clinic at Middleton High School in Tampa in July. Some parents might be concerned about unvaccinated teachers. Conversely, there are teachers who may want to know if their older students are vaccinated. But how to ask without hurting feelings? [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 10
Updated Aug. 15

With school starting and social groups trying to return to normal, asking someone about their coronavirus vaccination status can feel like self-protection for your business or your kids. It can also be a landmine that leads to hurt feelings.

Actress Jennifer Aniston said even a Friends star has lost some friends over it. “I’ve just lost a few people in my weekly routine who have refused or did not disclose,” she told In Style magazine. “I feel it’s your moral and professional obligation to inform, since we’re not all podded up and being tested every single day.”

She’s not the only one struggling with a polite way to broach the topic. It’s been a frequently debunked myth that it’s illegal to even ask the question because of privacy included in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — better known as HIPAA. The short answer is anyone can ask, but you don’t have to answer.

Related: This Anna Maria Island restaurant is turning away unvaccinated diners

Etiquette experts recommend avoiding a confrontational tone when inquiring about someone’s vaccination status, and to be willing to drop the topic once you have an answer.

“We can’t afford not to be talking about it,” said Thomas P. Farley, an etiquette expert professionally known as Mister Manners. “This is not like asking someone their age.”

Vaccines in school

If a child is too young to be vaccinated, some parents might be concerned about them being in school among unvaccinated teachers. Conversely, there are teachers who may want to know if their older students are vaccinated.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 80 percent of pre-K-12 teachers, school staff and child care workers across the country had received at least one vaccine by the end of March.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said on Meet the Press on Aug. 8 that 90 percent of teachers in the AFT are vaccinated against COVID-19, noting teachers are “probably the most vaccinated profession right now.”

Nurse Joy Brockert gives Andrew Ranger, 30, of Palm Harbor, a vaccination card before administering a COVID-19 vaccine dose during "Shots on Ice" a Lightning vaccination event at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Thursday, June 24, 2021.
Nurse Joy Brockert gives Andrew Ranger, 30, of Palm Harbor, a vaccination card before administering a COVID-19 vaccine dose during "Shots on Ice" a Lightning vaccination event at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Thursday, June 24, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

A parent can legally ask individual teachers if they’re vaccinated, but the teacher doesn’t have to answer, said a recent advisory in Education Week, a journal of K-12 education news.

“Anyone can refuse to answer the question, but they should be prepared to be treated as if they are unvaccinated,” wrote Sarah Whitley Coles, a University of Arizona College of Medicine professor, in Dear Pandemic, a website and newsletter that offers family-friendly medical advice.

Pinellas County teachers and administrators have been forbidden to ask anyone their vaccine status, said Nancy Velardi, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, but the district so far hasn’t addressed how they should answer questions from parents, she said.

Velardi said she knows “some teachers will be more than proud” to share their vaccination status with parents, and won’t have an issue with being asked.

Parents of children with complex medical needs who are at greater risk for serious COVID-19 symptoms might especially want to know if their child’s teacher or aide is vaccinated, Education Week noted. It could be possible, the journal said, to include in the student’s individualized education program that the child be placed with vaccinated teachers.

Related: Answers to frequent questions about kids, school and the delta variant

Frank Reyes, the president of the Hillsborough County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, said his organization was fielding the pro-mask and anti-mask battles throughout the last school year and just kept telling parents to speak up and advocate for their child. The council backs the Hillsborough superintendent’s recent change in policy to require face coverings unless parents opt out, Reyes said, because it follows CDC guidelines. The vaccine question, he said, is a similar discussion, but a bit more personal.

“The vaccine topic is touchy, and I’m not about to tell anyone what they should do,” Reyes said, “I can see why a parent would want to know. But I wouldn’t know how to approach that.”

They should ask the question in private, Reyes suggested, try to keep it nonconfrontational, and he hopes principals warn teachers that they should expect the question and be ready for an answer. But never put your child in the position of asking the question, he said.

“If it’s important to you, it’s the parent’s duty,” Reyes said. “You need to ask the question yourself.”

Vaccines and party invites

When it comes to something like a neighborhood party, Farley suggests that when getting the invitation, ask the question, seemingly as an afterthought. “You could say, ‘I’m kind of just putting my toe back in the water of getting together with people again. Can you tell me whether we will be indoors or outdoors? Will people be masked or not masked?’”

That could then lead to the topic of vaccination, he said.

A vaccination card and stickers following a vaccination at Raymond James Stadium.
A vaccination card and stickers following a vaccination at Raymond James Stadium. [ SUE CARLTON | Times ]

If you want to only invite the vaccinated to your barbecue or require masks, it’s your right to set the ground rules for your own event — but don’t be a jerk about it, advises the Cleveland Clinic in its Health Essentials newsletter. If questioned, offer your viewpoint without questioning someone else’s choice.

Etiquette guides also suggest posing open-ended questions such as, “What are your thoughts on vaccination?” which can prompt revealing discussions. Keep in mind there are many reasons why someone might not be vaccinated, such as medical concerns, so probing further is usually unwise.

Amy Dickinson, who writes the syndicated advice column “Ask Amy,” has written that her approach to COVID-related topics is much less frank than the advice she usually offers. “I have turned the corner and have finally adopted a ‘live and let live’ attitude.”

The bottom line, says Dickinson, is that some tolerance may be in order. “I personally feel that anybody else’s vaccination status is their own business.”

Privacy laws and vaccines

Schools can ask teachers if they’re vaccinated, but the teacher doesn’t have to answer, according to Education Week. Legal experts have advised schools they cannot ask employees why they haven’t gotten vaccinated, as that question could be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects employees from having to share information about their disability with their employers.

Privacy laws generally keep schools from sharing a teacher’s vaccination status with parents. But schools can release information about aggregate staff vaccination rates, according to Education Week.

Related: Politifact: No, HIPPA doesn't prevent businesses from asking about vaccine status

As for private businesses, Florida has so far lost its battle in court to ban cruise lines from demanding that its customers be vaccinated. And many companies are grappling with whether to require their employees to get the vaccine. The issue has largely been supported by the courts, at least so far.

Robert Schapiro, a University of San Diego law professor, said companies may require workers to do things that help their business. “Making sure that they are properly vaccinated during this pandemic is certainly one of them.”

The mandates have withstood legal challenges, thanks in part to a 116-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a city’s authority to punish residents who refused to get smallpox vaccines.

Still, the toxic political climate surrounding vaccine mandates has many companies considering alternatives while seeking the safest path for their employees, their customers and their families.

“It’s keeping executives up at night,” said Meredith Caiafa, an Atlanta employment lawyer representing health care, technology and hospitality companies.

The onslaught of the highly contagious delta variant has made companies more likely to impose vaccine mandates, Caiafa said. “The situation being the way it is now is just tremendously frustrating to employers and employees who want to keep themselves and their families safe.”

Information from Tribune News Services was used in this report.