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Is Swine Flu End of Miamiâ™s Kissy Culture?

It figures that just when the Gringo in me has become totally at ease with the whole cheek kiss thing, along comes a pandemic to put the kibosh on public puckering.

It took me years not to freeze like a deer in the headlights when one of my Latin friends swooped into my personal space for the greeting peck. I've come to accept that even important and somber discussions must halt so any newcomer to the group can have her turn smooching every single one of us. I've even made peace with the serial kissers, those women who mwah me even though they mwahed me just an hour earlier. (Can they really be that happy to see me again?)

In a single day in Miami, I will share a kiss with at least two dozen women and men, none of them my husband.

I've taken glee in exporting this Miami tradition to the far Outer Reaches of our keep-your-distance country just to mess with the people who live there. Places like Virginia, Iowa and Orlando, where uninvited kissing and touching are usually grounds for a cocked rifle.

I've come to really like the cheek kiss as a way to cut the social edge and let some people know I really do enjoy seeing them. If you begin a conversation with a cheek kiss then you are starting with trust and mutual appreciation. At least that's how I now view it.

Then the Swine Flu came along and authorities started quarantining kisses. Halting the cheek kiss was one of the earliest recommendations from health officials in Mexico. At a news conference last week announcing the elevated pandemic level, World Health Organization Chief Margaret Chan suggested it was time for Europe, too, to rethink the traditional three kisses on the cheek. Even Lebanon has issued an edict discouraging the traditional Arab peck-on-the-cheek greeting, although no one has come down with the virus there.

In this country, Dr. Richard Besser of the Centers for Disease Control suggested we wash our hands a lot then immediately followed it up with advice to avoid greetings kisses. Even closer to home, the Archdiocese of Miami has stopped until further notice the shaking of hands in the sharing of peace at every Mass. But at my Latin-dominated Catholic church, the handshake of peace has always been an invitation for something more intimate. Members of my parish spend every Sunday smooching everyone within lip reach of their pew.

Epidemiologists call the precautionary no-kiss rule "social distancing." The idea is simple: If you keep people who have the virus away from others, you can stop the chain of person-to-person transmission. CNN's chief medical correspondent has twittered that we should rule out all nonessential kisses and instead "el-bump," or bump elbows, as a greeting.

Uh, right. I don't know about you, but that's the one part of my body I reserve for opening public restroom doors. And now you want me to start rubbing it up against other people?

Even with the growing panic, I still don't see too many people here signing off of the kiss program. It's going to take a lot more than a silly little unsavory-sounding flu to stop the enthusiastic lips of Miami.



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