I smile and say “Good morning, Jose,” to my super as I walk out my front door. But Jose can’t really hear me through the hazmat suit he has been wearing for weeks. The co-op board of my building in Queens, NY, sends us emails every time someone in the building tests positive for COVID-19. We’ve gotten three this week.
They don’t tell us the name, but they tell us which floor the person lives on. I’m perplexed as to how this is supposed to protect me from COVID-19; do I triple-mask on my way down the hall? Should I jump out my window rather than risk walking past their apartment?
The only impact of the board’s emails seems to be more work for our super, who now spends most of his day disinfecting every surface in the building (one can hardly breathe in the lobby from the clouds of bleach floating in the air). I feel bad for the extra work he has to do, but I’m more annoyed by this hygiene theater.
We have known since last April that COVID-19 is rarely transmitted through touching contaminated surfaces. Yet it seems like everywhere I go, someone is mopping down floors and following me around wiping down anything I have touched.
It’s not just that we’re overusing disinfectants, which can be hazardous; it’s also that it’s likely giving us a false sense of security. We’re so busy wiping down our groceries that we forget about masking, social distancing, and good ventilation, which we know help slow the spread. In that way, hygiene theater isn’t benign — it’s harmful. Bruce Schneier, who coined the phrase “security theater” in 2003, wrote that “it creates more security than is warranted.”
Some restaurants in New York are still using plastic utensils and paper plates. My super mops the lobby floor many times a day; the disinfectant stench is overpowering. Perhaps it helps us feel in control of a situation that seems endless and uncontrollable. Perhaps it’s that habits die hard. In talking about hygiene theater, Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers Medical School, quotes Shakespeare: What is done can’t be undone. Our inability to change course from the advice we got in the pandemic’s early days keeps us from paying attention to newer and more useful research.
This is borne out at my gym. I approach a weight machine, only to find the entire seat and backrest dripping with disinfectant. Even given the 1 in 10,000 chance that COVID-19 is transmissible from surfaces, I am quite certain that my fully clad buttocks are in no danger of picking up a hitchhiking viral particle. Interestingly, few of my fellow gym-goers are wiping down the handles of the machines, or the weights themselves, where our hands leave all sorts of other cooties that can infect others. The kicker? Masks are optional.
As my friend — a pathology teacher at a New York college — says, “Doing something gives people a sense of control, even if it doesn’t do any good at all.”
As a fully vaxxed and boosted human with evidence of antibodies and no comorbidities, I am not overly concerned about contracting COVID-19 again (although I have heard stories of people contracting it two or even three times). But in the interest of public health, I wear my mask and dutifully show my vaccination card wherever it’s required. In New York City, that’s just about anywhere I want to go inside.
Another friend of mine, however, who is a professor at a community college in New York City, is frustrated and confused because of the mixed messages her school is giving (she asked to remain anonymous to protect her job). The school decided back in November to return to mostly in-person classes, but when my friend attended an in-person workshop last week, someone tested COVID-19 positive the first day. The class wasn’t informed until the following afternoon (the administration clearly doesn’t have their fingers on the pulse like my co-op board does), at which point they had to move the rest of the week’s class online.
“So we’ll all go back to the classroom at the end of January, which means we’ll be in big groups again, and someone will test positive, and in two days we’ll all have to go back to online classes!” she told me. As a teacher, she said, she prepares and teaches very differently online than she does in the classroom. The uncertainty makes her job that much harder, and she feels that her teaching suffers.
This confusion, alas, continues throughout my life in New York City, making me a pariah when I don’t sanitize my hands at the door of the pizza parlor. I’m hesitant to say anything for fear of being seen as a COVID-19 denier. Now that some mask mandates have been lifted in New York state (and across the nation), I expect more confusion and conflict around where we need them and where we don’t; on the other hand, I am as tired of masks as everyone else is, so walking down the street without one will be a treat.
But misinformation, misconceptions, and fears around coronavirus remain, so for now, I succumb to peer pressure. I’ll use hand sanitizer when I walk into the grocery store. I’ll bring a towel to the gym to wipe off the disinfectant puddles, and hope that we’ll all eventually focus on what we know works — stay socially distanced, get tested, and mask-and-vax.