5 bogus coronavirus protection measures that are just ‘hygiene theater’ — and 2 things that actually do work

  • As businesses reopen and strive to bring back customers, public displays of sanitization dubbed "hygiene theater" have increased. 
  • This includes deep cleaning and frequent, visible sanitization, which, according to experts, does little-to-nothing to address the most concerning sources of contagions in public.
  • Careful cleaning doesn't hurt, but it's more important to maintain good ventilation indoors, avoid overcrowding, and enforce social distancing and mask-wearing to prevent coronavirus spread. 
  • Here are some common examples of hygiene theater, compared to prevention strategies that actually work.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Nightly deep-cleaning with floor-to-ceiling spray downs. Temperature checks at the gym. Plastic or plexiglass dividers to try to block the flow of contagious viral particles. Movie theaters doused in disinfectant claimed to last a month or more. 

These are common refrains in advertisements as businesses strive to convince customers its safe to return.  

But those measures, while visually impressive, might be just that, and no more. According to experts, they will do little-to-nothing to protect you and the people around you from the most risky sources of infection. 

Welcome to hygiene theater. Coined in July 2020 by The Atlantic, the term describes attempts at coronavirus precautions that are, at best, only mildly protective at the cost of large amounts of time, energy, and resources. At worst, hygiene theater can instill a false sense of security, and potentially worsen the risk of viral spread if people let their guard down. 

"A lot of restaurants and business are advertising that they're doing a lot," Dr. Sy ra Madad, senior director of NYC Health + Hospitals System-wide Special Pathogens Program, told Insider. "I'm not saying you shouldn't do cleaning and disinfecting, but it's missing the point of the most important ways people can get sick."

Disinfecting the streets in China did nothing to stop the coronavirus from spreading.

Hygiene theater as a concept has been around since the emergence of COVID-19 itself, according to Madad.

It started with massive clouds of disinfecting spray, often dispersed from huge trucks or at checkpoints in Wuhan China, and it didn't seem to make a difference then, either.

Our understanding of the virus has vastly improved, but some businesses are still ineffectively trying to mist away any threat of infection. 

Floor-to-ceiling cleaning in hotels and offices is just a waste of resources. Just the door handles will do.

Cleaning is not worthless — it can help prevent contagious viral particles if it focuses on the right areas, according to microbiologist Dr. Miryam Wahrman, author of The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-filled World.

But the important items to sanitize are high-touch areas like door handles, counter tops, and the like. Floor-to-ceiling cleansing is unnecessary and likely a waste of resources. 

"You have to prioritize cleaning in terms of targeting those risks and not extending a lot of resources in dusting the tops of doors or deep cleaning the carpets," Wahrman said. "No one's going to kneel down and lick a carpet."

No form of sanitizer can keep a surface germ-free for long.

No amount of sanitation can keep an environment germ-free if it's full of people. For businesses promising extensive overnight decontamination, all it takes is the first person walking in every morning to break the sterility of even the most thoroughly cleansed office, according to Wahrman. 

"No matter how hard you scrub a surface, the minute someone walks by, your work is super-ceded by the introduction of new germs. Whatever you clean, someone walks in and touches it, it's now contaminated," she said. 

As such, high-profile deep cleaning plans like the MTA's subway sanitization in New York City, aren't fool-proof as long as people are still using the subway — important risk factors are how many people are in the car, how well ventilated it is, and how long you're riding. 

Temperature checks are not a reliable way to tell if someone is sick.

Another strategy to prevent viral spread is to screen out people who might be infected in the first place. Many businesses have advertised routine temperature checks for this purpose, since fever can be a tell-tale sign of COVID-19.

But, as Dr. Anthony Fauci has previously said: "The benefit is marginal." Temperature checks are notoriously inaccurate and unreliable, as Business Insider previously reported.

Evidence also suggests people with coronavirus can be highly contagious without initially showing symptoms, and some may never have symptoms.  

Plexiglass barriers aren't effective at stopping the virus is an enclosed space.

Person-to-person infection is still believed to be the main spreader of coronavirus. Risk factors include being in physically close to a contagious person, since particles can spread directly from their mouth and nose, particularly if they're not wearing a mask.

But evidence is growing that enclosed spaces are equally risky, since airborne viral particles can spread throughout the area if there's not sufficient airflow or filtering, and can even be spread by air conditioners. 

As a result, simple barriers such as the plexiglass shields used in the vice presidential debate aren't enough to block airborne viral particles, which can disperse in a way similar to cigarette smoke, according to experts. 

Improving ventilation, enforcing mask-wearing, and social distancing are strategies that work.

Strategies that experts do recommend include upgrading ventilation systems to filter potential contagions, and keeping people a safe distance apart. That can help prevent the person-to-person transmission that is believed to be the main source risk of infection. 

"We want to make sure the focus is on the primary drivers of COVID-19, which are droplet transmission, airflow transmission," Madad said. "That's where ventilation and physical distancing strategies are extremely important."

Another evidence-based strategy to reduce your risk is to keep public activities outdoors as much as possible, which both allows for plenty of space between people and lots of airflow. 

"Being outdoors decreases the potential for transmission tenfold compared to indoor activity," Madad said. 

You can also protect yourself by wearing a mask and being 'germ aware.'

Fortunately, the best techniques to keep yourself safe involve being germ-aware, regardless of what a business is doing, according to Wahrman.

"It's more effective to think of personal hygiene to reduce your own exposure, You have to assume where people are, there are going to be germs," she explained. 

Properly and consistently wearing a mask in public is key, and so is washing your hands frequently, Wahrman added. It's also best to avoid being in close quarters with other people, particularly for long periods of time. As such, it's less important to see how well a business is sanitizing, and more about how well they're social distancing. 

"If I walk into a store and people are not wearing masks and are clustered in groups, i would walk out. I need to protect myself, it's not worth the risk," Wahrman said.

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