I want to thank Derek Thompson for his use of a phrase in his most article in The Atlantic that I feel deserves more currency—”hygiene theater”:
As a covid-19 summer surge sweeps the country, deep cleans are all the rage.
National restaurants such as Applebee’s are deputizing sanitation czars to oversee the constant scrubbing of window ledges, menus, and high chairs. The gym chain Planet Fitness is boasting in ads that “there’s no surface we won’t sanitize, no machine we won’t scrub.” New York City is shutting down its subway system every night, for the first time in its 116-year history, to blast the seats, walls, and poles with a variety of antiseptic weaponry, including electrostatic disinfectant sprays. And in Wauchula, Florida, the local government gave one resident permission to spray the town with hydrogen peroxide as he saw fit. “I think every city in the damn United States needs to be doing it,” he said.
To some American companies and Florida men, COVID-19 is apparently a war that will be won through antimicrobial blasting, to ensure that pathogens are banished from every square inch of America’s surface area.
But what if this is all just a huge waste of time?
In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines to clarify that while COVID-19 spreads easily among speakers and sneezers in close encounters, touching a surface “isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” Other scientists have reached a more forceful conclusion. “Surface transmission of COVID-19 is not justified at all by the science,” Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told me. He also emphasized the primacy of airborne person-to-person transmission.
There is a historical echo here. After 9/11, physical security became a national obsession, especially in airports, where the Transportation Security Administration patted down the crotches of innumerable grandmothers for possible explosives. My colleague Jim Fallows repeatedly referred to this wasteful bonanza as “security theater.”
COVID-19 has reawakened America’s spirit of misdirected anxiety, inspiring businesses and families to obsess over risk-reduction rituals that make us feel safer but don’t actually do much to reduce risk—even as more dangerous activities are still allowed. This is hygiene theater.
I think that is exactly right. In the Aughts we spent trillions of dollars on measures that didn’t actually make us more secure; now we’re doing things that won’t actually make us any safer from disease.
While I think that some of the other measures being prescribed to avoid spreading COVID-19 are also being oversold, none is being oversold as much as the impulse to disinfect everything. The problem with all of the overselling is that there are tradeoffs and all of these measures have the potential to do actual harm. Insisting on two meters of distance makes it hard for sit-down restaurants to turn a profit; facemasks may promote a feeling of invincibility leading to excessive risk-taking; disinfecting surfaces may foster the development of “superbugs”. And then there’s “prevention fatigue”:
Hygiene theater can take limited resources away from more important goals. Goldman shared with me an email he had received from a New Jersey teacher after his Lancet article came out. She said her local schools had considered shutting one day each week for “deep cleaning.” At a time when returning to school will require herculean efforts from teachers and extraordinary ingenuity from administrators to keep kids safely distanced, setting aside entire days to clean surfaces would be a pitiful waste of time and scarce local tax revenue.
New York City’s decision to spend lavishly on power scrubbing its subways shows how absurd hygiene theater can be, in practice. As the city’s transit authority considers reduced service and layoffs to offset declines in ticket revenue, it is on pace to spend more than $100 million this year on new cleaning practices and disinfectants. Money that could be spent on distributing masks, or on PSA campaigns about distancing, or actual subway service, is being poured into antiseptic experiments that might be entirely unnecessary. Worst of all, these cleaning sessions shut down trains for hours in the early morning, hurting countless late-night workers and early-morning commuters.
My suggestion? Be prudent. Avoid crowds. Maintain social distancing if only to illustrate the behavior you’d like to see from other people. Wear facemasks as required but don’t fetishize their use or overestimate their effectiveness. They protect other people from you more than they protect you from other people. Take the measures that are best-suited for your particular circumstances. Don’t confuse your living room with a hospital operating room.
Here’s what I do. I avoid going out. I wash my hands after touching surfaces I’m unsure of. I wear a facemask in the store and when walking around the streets of downtown Evanston or around the office. I don’t wear a facemask when driving (that’s dangerous). I maintain more than two meters of social distancing to the greatest degree possible. I obey the rules of the road when walking on the sidewalk or on the trail.