“Hygiene theater” during COVID: a false sense of security?


It is becoming increasingly obvious that social distancing, masks and avoiding indoor crowds are the best methods to deal with transmission of the COVID virus.

The likelihood of getting infected from doorknobs, tables, etc., is very small compared to the aerosol transmission by humans.

In other words, this pandemic is a people to people problem. For the social animals we are, it is hard to do but probably necessary.

“…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 each other’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.“

“Surface transmission of COVID-19 is not justified at all by the science,” Emanuel Goldman, a microbiology professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told me. He also emphasized the primacy of airborne person-to-person transmission.“

“My point is not to relax, but rather to focus on what matters and what works,” Goldman said. “Masks, social distancing, and moving activities outdoors. That’s it. That’s how we protect ourselves. That’s how we beat this thing.”

14 thoughts on ““Hygiene theater” during COVID: a false sense of security?

  1. The Atlantic writer is being clever, but to a fault. Had he looked up the definition of the word fomite:

    An inanimate object or substance, such as clothing, furniture, or soap, that is capable of transmitting infectious organisms from one individual to another.

    he might have realized that face masks are fomites. Thus, he might have avoided insisting that fomite hygiene is a waste of time.

    I witnessed an example of such sloppy thinking yesterday at 7-11. Two young men came into the store together. The counter clerk called out to them, “Do you have masks?” because their faces were naked. They turned around and went right back out, me following, where I heard one man say to the other, “There’s a mask in the car. It’s dirty, but you can use it.”

    I take the Atlantic writer’s point that too much hygiene can be overkill, even wasteful when you take the hazards of inadequate ventilation into account, but his judgement remains questionable.


    1. The point as I understood it was not that too much hygiene was bad, but it was misdirected to fomites. A dirty mask may or may not have as much virus density as a sneeze or even vocal aerosol production, but it is the aerosol that can spread more efficiently.

      Why do we have such sloppy thinking in your anecdote about the 7/11? We will always have the ignorant among us. But why are they getting all the publicity?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ” But why are they getting all the publicity?”

        It’s that old media axiom “blood sells”.

        We tend to be guilty of it ourselves. Testing of several vaccines has started in earnest and his moving quickly. Phase three testing started this morning in Georgia on Moderna’s (I believe it is theirs), and none of us have mentioned anything about it, the speed the process has been moving, and the potential good news coming out of all of it. And the media reporting has been minimal. Mentioned, but not really hyped.

        All we get here is things about how good hydroxychloroquine may or may not be in treatment.


          1. “I think there is more info than we notice.”

            Kind of the point I was making. It’s out there, but we (me included) focus on things like Sweden’s response (good/bad/who knows), the debate of hydroxychloroquine, and cancel culture.


      2. RE: “Why do we have such sloppy thinking in your anecdote about the 7/11?”

        You should have noticed that the Atlantic writer demonstrates some pretty solid ignorance of his own.

        I’m of the view that masking the general public is futile when it comes to slowing the spread of Covid-19. As recently as a few weeks ago, this was the stated position of the CDC and the WHO, based on the best available science. The science hasn’t changed, but clever fools like the Atlantic writer act as if it has.


          1. You said just a “few weeks” ago. Those advisories were in March or April when masks were in seriously short supply and the science was young. That’s 3 months and 125,000 bodies ago.

            Liked by 1 person

          1. Your Snopes link and the paper it is based on support the inference, not the empirical certainty that masking the general public would be effective in slowing the spread of Covid-19. As the paper states in its conclusions: “Mask wearing may be instrumental in preventing a second wave of infections from overwhelming the health care system – further research is urgently needed here.” Italics added.

            This is the same science-based inference I posted about here several months ago where I noted that a face mask probably does little to prevent the wearer from avoiding infection, but might prevent the wearer from spreading infection to others. Then as now, the inference is certainly valid, but it remains an inference, not a fact.


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