For the first time in its 116 years of existence, New York City is shutting down its subway system every night for disinfection. National chains like Applebee’s have created “sanitation specialists” to scrub down surfaces that otherwise wouldn’t be touched, such as menus and window ledges. Hilton now puts a “room seal” on the door to assure guests that no one has entered the room since it was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. There’s even an app to determine which COVID precautions your favorite restaurants are currently taking.
But are these measures really keeping people safe? Or are they just creating the perception of safety?
It turns out that although some COVID precautions do mitigate risk, others don’t do all that much at all.
- Surface Sanitization. At the beginning of the pandemic, experts warned about surface spread and encouraged people to sanitize all surfaces that might contain viral particles. Some early studies showed that the virus could last on surfaces for close to thirty days. These studies were carried out in controlled environments, though, in complete darkness, and at a constant temperature and humidity. Outside of the laboratory, it’s a different story: UV rays, changing temperatures, and fluctuating humidity usually kill microbes on surfaces relatively quickly. Study after study has shown that surface spread is almost never the primary method that this virus spreads.
Obviously wiping down tables and other eating surfaces between customers is a wise idea, and disinfecting surfaces in hospitals just makes sense. But in general, cleaning all surfaces that other people may have touched doesn’t do much to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
- Temperature Checks. Again, in the early stages of the pandemic, forehead thermometers were a rite of passage whenever you needed to enter a public place, be it a doctor’s office, a store, or a hotel. Unfortunately, forehead thermometers are extremely inaccurate. Many people in the early stages of infection have a very low fever, or no fever at all. And of course, many are asymptomatic entirely. The number of people who would knowingly enter a public location with a tangibly high fever is low, and anyone dishonest enough to do so could easily take a fever-reducing medication to pass the test. That doesn’t mean that temperature checks are completely ineffective, just that their usefulness is relatively low.
These precautions are often disparagingly referred to as “hygiene theater,” because they masquerade as measures that increase the hygiene of an environment, making viral transmission less likely. So which mitigation measures actually do help reduce risk?
- Ventilation Improvements. Viral particles spread primarily through airborne transmission, which is why proper ventilation is so important. As a business owner, replacing your HVAC system can go a lot farther towards keeping people safe than adding in miles of plexiglass and investing in thousands of antiseptic wipes.
- Contactless Service and Amenities. Minimizing interaction between people, especially indoors, can also lower risk. For example, hotels that offer in-room dining have a safer risk profile than those where guests must eat in a communal dining area. Contactless check-in at both hotels and airports, as well as other tech solutions to replace face-to-face interactions, can help as well.
- Improved Employee Policies. When an employee at the Holiday Inn LAX experienced severe headaches and body aches back in July, she was given the day off to test…but was told she had to come back to work until the results came back several days later. By the time her positive results came back, she had come into contact with dozens of guests and potentially infected them. Employers should instead create policies that incentivize employees to report exposures or symptoms, and allow them to take time off to follow COVID protocols. This would go a long way towards creating safer workplaces.
- Other Mitigation Strategies. Other best practices include swapping out electric hand dryers for disposable paper towels (hand dryers can harbor and spread disease), limiting the number of people in a given indoor location (e.g., a hotel gym), and mandating the use of face masks in areas where social distancing is not possible.
The Benefits of “Hygiene Theater”
If it’s so clear that many of the safety measures companies are taking during the pandemic are virtually ineffective, why are they still taking them?
Keeping those who patronize your business safe is obviously your highest priority. But actually convincing them that your business is safe can be a challenge.
The most helpful mitigation strategies during this pandemic are predominantly invisible to your customers. They are not aware of your quarantine rules, sick leave policies, or air flow mechanics. What they do see are your increased cleaning staff, informational signage, and screening questions. These create an environment that feels safer, even they don’t do much to actually mitigate risk. In fact, 81% of travelers feel more comfortable staying at hotels that have enhanced safety and cleaning protocols.
In 2021, business owners have no choice but to accept that hygiene theater is a necessity. So embrace temperature checks, sanitizing stations, and plexiglass barriers. And after you make changes to your cleaning protocol or social distancing practices, share the news! Put up signs and send out emails explaining those changes. Keep in mind, however, that these are marketing techniques, rather than actual mitigation techniques. So do not forget to take the steps that will truly protect everyone those who patronize your business, as well as yourself and your employees.