Plex Dining
Two diners enjoying a meal under hanging plexiglass domes. Photo credit: Leslie Agan / WhoWhatWhy

Welcome to WhoWhatWhy’s occasional COVID-19 roundup. There’s a lot of virus coverage out there, so this feature will give you a dose of the latest news.

Not Related to COVID-19, but We Need Good News

In the best news we’ve heard all week (month?), China announced that it is now malaria-free. After witnessing a horrific 30 million cases during the 1940s and then a decrease to 5,000 cases in the 1990s, the country just completed its third consecutive year without any native cases. Using genetics-based research and tracking, Chinese scientists are better able to track drug resistance and determine whether or not a case came from another country. It joins 39 other countries that have received the World Health Organization’s malaria-free certification.

Shame, Shame

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) threw shade at Brooklyn last week, noting that six of the state’s 25 ZIP codes with the lowest rate of COVID-19 vaccinations are located in the borough. In stark contrast to the 70 percent statewide vaccination rate, hipster Williamsburg has the highest rate of unvaxxed residents, a sorry 32.7 percent. Maybe they’re too busy making lavender honey cold brew and collecting indie vinyl records to walk to a Walgreens? 

Speaking of Shame…

Cats and dogs are finally getting revenge on their human counterparts for making them wear those mortifying “cones of shame” after an operation. In yet another effort to make eating out safer during the pandemic, a modern French furniture company developed Plex’Eat, a protective plexiglass bubble that hangs from the ceiling and encloses the heads of individual diners. Look who’s laughing now. 

Hygiene Theater, Part 1

We’re all aware of the plexiglass dividers taking over retail stores, restaurants, offices, and schools in an effort to stop any coronavirus spray. Because of this pandemic trend, sales of Plexiglas tripled between March and May of 2020 as everyone rushed to put the clear barriers in place. But do they actually work? Some doctors assert these plastic dividers can reduce transmission risks while other experts say there hasn’t been enough research to show whether they are truly effective in slowing the spread of the virus. Instead, they may just be giving us a false sense of security.  

Building scientist Marwa Zaatari, a pandemic task force member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, says that plexiglass “does not help,” especially in schools or offices. “If you have plexiglass, you’re still breathing the same shared air of another person.” Their presence may even worsen things by preventing air movement, creating areas of stagnation in which it is easier to inhale a large dose of coronavirus particles. Not to mention that most people these days simply talk around the barrier with no protection at all.  

plexiglass partitions, Fort Huachuca

With plexiglass partitions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Thanksgiving meal looked a bit different on Fort Huachuca. Soldiers enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal Nov. 26, 2020, with all the traditional components at Weinstein Dining Facility. Photo credit: FORT HUACHUCA PUBLIC AFFAIRS / Flickr

“There are, to my knowledge, no peer-reviewed studies assessing the efficacy of these barriers,” says Dr. Michael Fischman, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.  

Joseph Allen, an indoor-air researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is even more blunt. “We spent a lot of time and money focused on hygiene theater,” he said. “The danger is that we didn’t deploy the resources to address the real threat, which was airborne transmission.” 

It turns out that simply opening the windows is much more effective, albeit much less sexy, than Plexiglas cocoons. 

Hygiene Theater, Part 2

Allen also co-authored an op-ed in The Washington Post along with Charles Haas and Linsey C. Marr questioning the “small fortune” we’re spending to clean every surface in sight. Although fomite transmission is possible, it’s not the most effective way the coronavirus spreads. It looks good to be wiping down surfaces and requiring patrons to sanitize their hands before entering a store, but to effectively slow the spread, “We should shift our effort toward cleaning shared air, not shared surfaces.” 

However, it’s certainly good for the companies making disinfecting products, as global sales of disinfectant in 2020 grew by 30 percent compared to sales in 2019, with US consumers alone spending a total of $4.5 billion. As boring as it sounds, washing your hands (with soap and water if possible) is your best bet; no need to fret too much about wiping down your bus seat. 

Then why have we been performing this style of hygiene theater? Because it’s easier to clean surfaces than improve ventilation systems — especially in the winter — and consumers have come to expect disinfection protocols as a sign businesses are taking the pandemic seriously. That means governments, companies, and individuals will continue to invest vast amounts of time and money in these less-effective deep-cleaning efforts.  

Hygiene Theater, Part 3

Meanwhile, the ubiquity of single-use plastic utensils, plates, and cups continues in restaurants and the surge in take-out foods because of fear of spreading the virus. But we’ve all seemed to conveniently forget that all that plastic is going to end up in landfills, and then, unfortunately, in our drinking water and beyond. A study shows that the tiny, nonbiodegradable microplastics — pieces of plastic that are smaller than 5 mm in size — have been found on both the maternal and fetal sides of normal, healthy human placentas. Microplastics come from a plethora of items we use every day, such as synthetic clothing fibers and paints. In the Before Times, we banned plastic straws for their impact on marine life. But now look around; plastic is everywhere. It’s time to dig out your stainless steel straws and hope they’ll start letting you bring your own cups for your lavender honey cold brew again. 

Color Me Happy

For the dozen of us left on earth who still give a hoot about fashion, here’s some good news to leave you with. Harper’s Bazaar noted that next season’s color is RED. Bright, happy, optimistic, and energizing. That means we can gleefully say bye-bye to the horrible color that showed up before the pandemic and for some reason will. not. leave. We speak, of course, of Pantone 2446 — a depressing, muddy, taupe-ish mauve that one person dubbed “the color of despair.” It looks good on exactly no one; even Beyonce can’t pull off leggings this color. So we’ll happily buy some pants, shirts, and coats in tomato red, cherry red, and cardinal red while saying goodbye to the color of COVID-19.


  • T.J. Ford

    T.J. Ford is the health and medicine editor for WhoWhatWhy. She is also a death and dying consultant and writes about health, medicine, and bioethics. She lives, works, and runs in New York City.

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