The hotel elevator at the Courtyard Cocoa Beach Cape Canaveral seems like an unlikely place for a confrontation. But on a recent morning, I witnessed an unusual COVID-19 disagreement.
The sign in front of the elevator limited each elevator to two riders. My son and I, both wearing masks, stepped in. An unmasked guest followed us. She apologized for her lack of face covering, but she said she'd left her mask in the room.
Then she asked us if we'd been vaccinated. When we told her we had, she said she felt relieved – because she hadn't been.
It all happened so fast, I didn't have time to think. But if I had, I might have suggested that she take the next elevator.
If you think COVID-19 disagreements during the pandemic were remarkable, wait until the virus heads for the exit. With more people vaccinated and a confusing patchwork of rules and regulations in place, my elevator encounter will seem downright polite.
"Oh, there will be flashpoints galore this summer," says Jodi RR Smith, an etiquette consultant from Marblehead, Massachusetts. "People who do not social distance in lines. Passengers who refuse to wear their masks. Riders who exceed the limit on elevators. Diners who rise from their tables sans mask to walk indoors. Beachgoers who put their towel too close to yours. Concertgoers and sports fans who sing, scream, and cheer with their spittle flying freely."
So let's break it down, fellow travelers. When it comes to pandemic behavior, even travel employees are confused. That's because the rules are confusing. Fortunately, the solution to this summer's COVID-19 disagreements isn't.
Even travel industry employees are confused
It's not just travelers who are confused about proper post-pandemic behavior. People who work in the industry are, too. Consider what happened to Gregg Jaden on a recent flight from Calgary to Los Angeles. He wore a mask, but a flight attendant told him he wasn't wearing it correctly and told him he had to pinch the metal bridge on his nose. "As far as I recall, the requirements were that the mask should cover the mouth and nose – but nothing about pinching it tightly around the nose," says Jaden, a photographer from Manhattan Beach, California.
It quickly devolved into a heated argument, with Jaden unable to hear the flight attendant's instructions behind his mask and the attendant unable to hear Jaden's responses. Finally, Jaden apologized for questioning the airline employee and obediently pinched his nose.
But just for the record, Jaden is right: there's no nose-pinching requirement.
Another unruly passenger incident: Delta flight forced to divert after flyer is detained by passengers and crew
The rules are all over the map
The problem is that there are layers upon layers of pandemic rules that continue to change. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues advisories. States have their own rules (or lack of rules). The TSA has rules about mask-wearing. Airlines, hotels and theme parks have policies. There are rules for specific situations, like restaurants and elevators. And there are exceptions to the rules.
Worse, pandemic etiquette has been tainted by politics. As one reader recently told me, wearing a mask indoors in her state basically means you're a Democrat. To etiquette experts – and safety experts – that's regrettable.
"I think it is critically important to accept that you can't change anyone's mind," says Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University and Stanford University and a former civility ambassador for the American Psychological Association. "It is also critical to be sure tensions don't escalate to confrontations with strangers. These never end well for anyone, and people can get hurt."
What’s a traveler to do?
Etiquette experts warn that the post-pandemic landscape will be more confusing than ever. Employees may enforce rules with which you disagree. Guests and passengers might try to force their views on you. This is no time for a confrontation.
"You will likely see it all – and some of it may really frustrate you," says Carol Barkes, a conflict resolution expert. "Let it go. If you are traveling for leisure, focus instead on what brings you joy on trips: visits with loved ones, sightseeing, and the excitement of novel and fun experiences that travel offers."
Other experts agree. Instead of lashing out at the person who is violating a rule, it's best to focus on what you can control.
"When it comes to resolving disagreements, it's often best to take a giant step back and try to have compassion and empathy for the person committing an etiquette crime against you," says Nick Leighton, who hosts the weekly etiquette podcast, "Were You Raised by Wolves?" He adds, "Then you can decide whether or not it's better to politely engage or simply ignore it and move on."
Following the rules has never been more critical than this summer, during the busy travel season, says Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Texas.
"Be aware of your surroundings and the comfort level of those around you," she advises. "Keep your social distance, and when traveling, go above and beyond to pack your patience along with your sunscreen. Do your part to make it a positive experience for yourself, your family and the people around you."
That's always good advice. But this summer, avoiding a COVID-19 disagreement could mean the difference between a great vacation and one cut short by a visit to the emergency room.
Summer travel guide: Yes, airports will be mobbed. No, masks aren't optional.
How to avoid a COVID-19 disagreement this summer
Set boundaries respectfully. That's the advice of Dr. Leela Magavi, a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry. That includes practicing social distancing and frequent handwashing. "Verbalizing and naming emotions allows you to understand different perspectives and makes a request appear more like a request rather than a criticism."
Offer to help. That's what Douglas Liantonio, a marketing outreach analyst for a payment systems company in Cumming, Georgia, did when he saw a maskless passenger at the airport recently. It turns out a strap on the traveler's face covering had snapped. "I gave him my spare mask, and he thanked me," remembers Liantonio. Sometimes, it's as simple as that. You can avoid a confrontation by being helpful.
Wear a mask anyway. "I believe the most contentious flashpoint will be from those who are fully vaccinated not wanting to follow mask protocols mandated by private organizations and entertainment venues," says Rachel Wagner, a protocol consultant. Travelers have to remember that private companies can set their own rules to facilitate all guests to feel safe. If you can't follow the rules, don't travel.
Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Summer travel: How to keep COVID-19 conflicts from ruining your trip