“I’m under no illusion that wearing a pair of four-year-old, ratty bike gloves to the grocery store is going to make me healthier,” says the 50-year-old from Oakland, Calif.
“I’ve left them at home, and I realized that it doesn’t change anything,” he says. But “I feel a little naked and, you know, I feel bad.”
Bad for himself but worse for others, because that’s what the gloves are for: “Maybe it’s just sort of a sign that I’m one of the people that’s careful, you know?” says Hasegawa. “In a way, it’s performative.”
No one is touching anything, and everyone is cleaning everything. Despite initial reports warning people that the novel coronavirus can be transmitted from contaminated surfaces, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told Americans in no uncertain terms that the virus is primarily transmitted person-to-person, through breathing, speaking, shouting and singing. While it may be possible to catch the coronavirus from a doorknob or a package, it’s a long shot, and “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” says the agency. (It still recommends disinfecting high-touch surfaces.)
Yet, six months into the pandemic, Americans seem determined to Clorox their way to absolution. They’re wiping down soccer balls, Lysoling beach chairs, touching PIN pads with “touch tools” and gloves, and cleaning bags of Tostitos with diluted bleach.
Which seems harmless enough, provided they’re using their cleaning products safely, but the most important things that will help them avoid catching the virus? Wearing masks, staying more than six feet apart, avoiding enclosed spaces.
There are the things we do to stay safe, and there are the things we do just in case. Just to be sure. What can it hurt?
The term “security theater” went mainstream post-9/11 to describe the anti-terrorism measures that didn’t do much to prevent terrorism at all. Things like making mothers dump out bottles of breast milk at airport security checkpoints, or random bag checks on the Metro, which did not thwart any attacks. The whole show of it seemed part of the idea — possibly the main part.
The pandemic has given that show a sequel, and a new term: “sanitization theater.”
“The surfaces are not really the problem,” says Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Sanitizing surfaces has “been done to excess. And that excess actually gives people a false sense of security. And what they really should be doing is focusing on the main routes of transmission of this disease, which is breathing.”
Among what Goldman considers to be on the theatrical side of the spectrum: New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority shuts down the subway every night from 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. to conduct a deep cleaning — at a cost expected to reach $500 million a year, according to Politico. There are cities abroad that sent cleaners into public squares to spray disinfectant outdoors, where we’re the safest. And there’s one particularly vexing source of sanitization theater: The Disinfection Tunnel, which requires people to walk through a mist of chemicals. A team of scientists published in the journal Public Health called them “a wasteful expenditure of scarce resources.” Many people became familiar with it when a video of the Denver Broncos going through one before a practice went viral.
“Walking through a fine mist for a few seconds . . . I don’t think it probably does any good, and if it does any good, it’s very small,” says Peter Raynor, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
Sanitization theater is real but tricky to discuss for people who understand both the real threats posed by the virus and the prevalence of denial and misinformation about those threats. Why criticize the extra-vigilant, the doubly cautious?
Goldman gets it. He also knows microbiology well enough to read critically reports of the coronavirus living on “fomites” (the scientific term for objects and surfaces that could transmit disease). Goldman argued that prior experiments were based on concentrations of virus that “have little resemblance to real-life scenarios,” he wrote in the medical journal the Lancet. “I do not disagree with erring on the side of caution, but this can go to extremes not justified by the data.”
Some businesses have begun to cut back on more laborious measures. Southwest Airlines has announced it will no longer disinfect the seat belts before boarding, a move that will reduce the time planes spend on the ground between flights. And the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — Anthony S. Fauci’s own office — no longer does a temperature screening at the door.
“We have found at the NIH, that it is much, much better to just question people when they come in and save the time, because the temperatures are notoriously inaccurate,” Fauci said recently at an event with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
But businesses everywhere are investing in touchless thermometers and going full-throttle on the deep-cleaning, which makes some experts concerned. Those measures may be more about making people feel safe than they are about actually doing what it takes to ensure their safety. If the table looks clean, people may be more likely to let their guard down about the preventive measures that actually matter. If no one has a fever, they might think it’s okay to sit closer.
“I think it suggests that we have some control over this,” says Raynor, the Minnesota professor.
That kind of reassurance is high in demand. A report from Deloitte urges frequent, visible cleaning as a way to build consumer trust. “There’s definitely a decision that’s been made to have that overt sanitation be part of the norm,” says Anthony Capozzoli, whose official title at Restaurant Associates, a company that manages eateries for institutions and museums, is covid-19 safety czar.
Capozzoli knows ventilation and distancing — which the company is also addressing — are the most important. For customers, there “is a delicate and necessary balance between the perceived safety and the actual safety,” of any measures taken, says Capozzoli. “I think this level of sanitation is here to stay.”
A showily thorough disinfection regimen — like wiping door handles every 30 minutes — could reinforce the idea that surface transmission is how people should be worried about getting sick.
Still, covid-19 or not, all that Lysoling isn’t in vain.
“A lot of the stomach viruses that cause stomach flus — those horrible, gut-wrenching stomach flus we go through in the winter times — you know, many of those are transmitted through the contact route,” says Susy Hota, a clinician investigator specializing in infection control at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute.
Really, the amount of cleaning we’re doing now only serves to illustrate how much we weren’t doing before.
“The concept of washing your hands is something we always should have been doing all along,” says Hota. “Maybe the silver lining for this pandemic is we’re going to raise a generation of children who grow up knowing that this is the norm.”
Sanitization theater arose out of the confusion in the early days of the pandemic. Experts believed in good faith that objects and surfaces were vectors of transmission, and urged thorough cleaning, while de-emphasizing masks. By the time that thinking reversed, for some, the habits were set.
Like wiping down groceries. A March viral video about sanitizing groceries by a Michigan family medicine physician, Jeffrey VanWingen, bore into viewers’ brains in the early days of the pandemic. For some it stayed there, despite reports that refuted VanWingen’s recommendations.
And so another kind of sanitation theater took form: the kind nervous Americans perform for themselves.
Dawn Shapiro, 67, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., isn’t taking any chances. She has all of her groceries delivered, and “Before delivery is left at my doorstep. I put on my gloves, and I put on my mask,” she says. “Bag by bag, I unpack a little bit at a time, spray it down and disinfect everything, wipe it all down real good, and put it away.”
But wait, there’s more: “I wipe down all my counters that the groceries have touched. And then I go back and wipe down my front door and my door handles, and refrigerator door, and counter handles, and pantry door,” says Shapiro. “It makes me feel better. I feel safe, and it doesn’t take that much time, and it’s not that much effort to give me peace of mind.”
Not even Fauci does that level of cleaning after a grocery run. “I will take the materials out of the bags, then wash my hands with soap and water,” he told The Post, and he lets items sit for a day.
Listen. We’re in the middle of a freaking pandemic, an election year, a period of civil unrest and a climate crisis. If spraying down your groceries is one of the things that keeps your sanity intact, then you might as well do it, says Baruch Fischhoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies the psychology of risk.
“It’s very easy to criticize people and psychologize them. But I think most people are doing the best that they can. And they are being woefully let down by both government and industry,” says Fischhoff. “Blaming people for the phobia, or whatever — you know, it just lets the institutions off the hook.”
Speaking of hooks: In the past few months, companies have started selling small gadgets called “touch tools” — small hooks that allow people to open doors, press buttons and sign electronic receipts without using your hands.
Sanitation theater, now with props. (“I’m sorry, but dude, why don’t you just wash your hands?” says Hota, the Toronto infection-control specialist.)
“I think that people are more aware of what they’re touching, and what they don’t want to touch, when they’re out in public,” says Dan Fallak, the founder of Touchie, a company that makes no-contact tools.
After use, of course, the Touchie itself must be sanitized.