Hygiene theater: All the hand sanitizer in the world is kinda beside the point.

The Atlantic looks at the problem with the way public responses to the pandemic have evolved into rituals that look “disinfecting” but really aren’t nearly as effective as other, science-supported steps could be:

Surface transmission—from touching doorknobs, mail, food-delivery packages, and subways poles—seems quite rare. (Quite rare isn’t the same as impossible: The scientists I spoke with constantly repeated the phrase “people should still wash their hands.”) The difference may be a simple matter of time. In the hours that can elapse between, say, Person 1 coughing on her hand and using it to push open a door and Person 2 touching the same door and rubbing his eye, the virus particles from the initial cough may have sufficiently deteriorated.

The fact that surface areas—or “fomites,” in medical jargon—are less likely to convey the virus might seem counterintuitive to people who have internalized certain notions of grimy germs, or who read many news articles in March about the danger of COVID-19-contaminated food. Backing up those scary stories were several U.S. studies that found that COVID-19 particles could survive on surfaces for many hours and even days.

But in a July article in the medical journal The Lancet, [Rutgers microbiology professor Emanuel] Goldman excoriated those conclusions. All those studies that made COVID-19 seem likely to live for days on metal and paper bags were based on unrealistically strong concentrations of the virus. As he explained to me, as many as 100 people would need to sneeze on the same area of a table to mimic some of their experimental conditions.

Hygiene theater can take limited resources away from more important goals. Goldman 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.

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.

[via Dr. Schaffner]