Hygiene theater can take limited resources away from more important goals. Emanuel Goldman [a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School] 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.
As long as people wear masks and don’t lick one another, New York’s subway-germ panic seems irrational. In Japan, ridership has returned to normal, and outbreaks traced to its famously crowded public transit system have been so scarce that the Japanese virologist Hitoshi Oshitani concluded, in an email to The Atlantic, that “transmission on the train is not common.” Like airline travelers forced to wait forever in line so that septuagenarians can get a patdown for underwear bombs, New Yorkers are being inconvenienced in the interest of eliminating a vanishingly small risk.
Finally, and most important, hygiene theater builds a false sense of security, which can ironically lead to more infections. Many bars, indoor restaurants, and gyms, where patrons are huffing and puffing one another’s stale air, shouldn’t be open at all. They should be shut down and bailed out by the government until the pandemic is under control. No amount of soap and bleach changes this calculation.
Instead, many of these establishments are boasting about their cleaning practices while inviting strangers into unventilated indoor spaces to share one another’s microbial exhalations. This logic is warped. It completely misrepresents the nature of an airborne threat. It’s as if an oceanside town stalked by a frenzy of ravenous sharks urged people to return to the beach by saying, We care about your health and safety, so we’ve reinforced the boardwalk with concrete. Lovely. Now people can sturdily walk into the ocean and be separated from their limbs.