Temp checks, digital menus and 'touchless' mustard: The maddening persistence of 'hygiene theater'

·10 min read

WASHINGTON - At an ice cream shop in Rockville, Md., gloved servers scoop the frozen treat into cups, but a sign taped to the front window says "No cones: Covid." At McDonald's outlets along I-95 in Virginia, yellow police-style tape cordons off self-serve beverage stations. And at Nationals Park, baseball fans use a QR code and digital menu rather than ordering directly from the person who hands them their hot dog.

None of these precautions provide meaningful protection against the spread of the coronavirus, safety experts say. Instead, they are examples of what critics call "hygiene theater," the deployment of symbolic tactics that do little to prevent the spread of the coronavirus but may make some anxious consumers feel safer. (The term is widely credited to Atlantic writer Derek Thompson, who catalogued ineffective but showy anti-covid tactics last summer.)

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As the covid death rate plummets in America and the number of vaccinations soars, the persistence of these practices is seriously frustrating folks who argue that their vaccinated status should free them from such annoying restrictions.

"We really should be scaling back on these precautions, especially on the steroidally boosted cleaning of surfaces," said Lindsey Leininger, a Dartmouth College business professor who specializes in public health and runs a coronavirus information site called Dear Pandemic. "I look at all these unnecessary restrictions that degrade the customer experience and, as a vaccinated person, I'm like, 'Why?' "

Months after it became clear that surface contact is not a significant transmitter of the virus, Danny Pearlstein wonders why cleaning crews are still disinfecting New York City subway cars - and whether the transit system might provide better service if it weren't spending so much on scientifically invalid measures.

"They're power-washing the outside of cars as if New Yorkers were going around licking the exterior of subway cars," said Pearlstein, policy director of the Riders Alliance, which represents New York transit users. "It's hygiene theater, and it has no place in the public discussion about covid now."

"After all the disinformation of the Trump years, we really need our leaders to level with us," he said.

Many such precautions were first adopted early last year, when public health officials suspected the virus might linger on surfaces and spread via touch. But closer study determined that the risk of infection from doorknobs, buttons and the like was extremely low. In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that "contact with a contaminated surface has less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of causing an infection" - a smidgen higher than a person's lifetime chance of being struck by lightning.

Defenders of hygiene theater argue that some restrictions that seem nonsensical or outdated may nonetheless be useful in helping people dive back into society. Leininger said she isn't ready to "shame businesses for hygiene theater because I have so much empathy for employers. Sometimes the way we mitigate risk is through emotions."

After the 9/11 attacks, Americans became accustomed to seeing security measures that experts said could do little to deter terrorism but might make people feel safer. Two decades later, lobby attendants in many office buildings still insist on seeing an ID card, any ID card, before waving a visitor along. Airline passengers still approach security checks where bins overflow with confiscated toothpaste tubes and cosmetics containers.

Amid such enduring examples of what critics dubbed "security theater," many people wonder if scenes from hygiene theater also will become permanent fixtures of public life.

The danger of hanging on to lockdown-era practices is that "if you're spending X million dollars on cleaning, where's that coming from and what's not being done?" Leininger said. "We need to talk about how we're going to dial back from where we are."

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When indoor concerts resumed last month at Washington's Kennedy Center, patrons were greeted by an array of anti-covid precautions, including a temperature check, frequent reminders to remain masked at all times and announcements that there would be no printed program describing the evening's offerings.

Nearly 160 miles away at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., shows have resumed with no more temperature probes, no more mid-show disinfectants, and tentative plans to revive printed programs and scrap mask mandates for the fall season.

"Romeo really can't kiss Juliet from six feet away," said Kelly Burdick, who helped develop the theater's covid guidelines. "There are protocols we had in place last spring that we wouldn't have today because the scientists know more about how the virus is transmitted."

The Staunton theater consulted with a local infectious-disease expert (who happened also to be a Shakespeare buff) and guided the theater away from some precautions that no longer made scientific sense. For example, Anthony Fauci, the top infectious-disease expert in the Biden and Trump administrations, has called temperature checks "notoriously inaccurate," and the National Restaurant Association recommends against their use.

Following the CDC's statement that surfaces are not a significant vector for the coronavirus, the theater is focusing on precautions that might ease customers' anxiety about being part of an audience.

Some patrons still want to wear masks for fear of bringing the virus home to their children, Burdick said, though science suggests that is a relatively small risk for those who have been vaccinated.

This fall, the theater is considering letting vaccinated patrons make their own choice about masks, which would allow food and beverage service to resume.

"We want to go with straight science, but we have to recognize that people are in different places," Burdick said.

Similarly, the Kennedy Center may resume printing programs sometime in the coming season and will return to accepting cash at concession stands, said Ellery Brown, the center's senior vice president for operations. "We want to acknowledge the traditionalists who want things the old way," he said.

For now, however, the Kennedy Center is sticking with temperature checks, Brown said, conceding that "some of it is psychology."

"If somebody's spent a lot of money for a ticket, this helps us notify people that we care about them."

Last year, worldwide sales of surface disinfectants soared by more than 30%. CDC official Vincent Hill now says the aggressive disinfecting that many businesses still conduct may produce a "false sense of security" and amount to hygiene theater.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said this spring that disinfection is only recommended in indoor settings such as schools and homes when "there has been a suspected or confirmed case of covid-19 within the last 24 hours."

Still, the connection between surfaces and infection lingers in the public consciousness and many public places continue to fuel that notion.

"Earlier in the pandemic, it was good to see barriers and aggressive cleaning," said Brad Engle, a corporate reputation consultant and Washington Nationals fan who, like many who visited Nationals Park, was stymied by the "touchless condiment" dispensers that showed up this season. "What they're doing now is making people feel less comfortable."

Some fanstook to Twitter to lament the loss of ketchup pumps and open bins of onions and relish at the condiment tables. Others welcomed the new machines, even if the globs they delivered at the wave of a hand sometimes slathered hot dogs with ruinous puddles rather than delicate drizzles of mustard.

"I'm glad we are at the point I can complain about something other than covid, but the @Nationals condiment situation is criminal," Engle wrote in a tweet. In an interview, he said the Nats created longer queues and tighter crowds of people by prohibiting cash transactions, requiring use of QR codes to order at some concession lines and adopting touchless technology that confused many customers.

"I understand that the Nationals needed to take precautions," said Frank Miller, a longtime season ticket holder, "but I feel they missed the mark."

Miller said the team's no-bags policy had no apparent connection to covid safety, the touchless dispensers created "a lot of confusion," and the no-cash concessions "created more big gatherings" of fans.

Nats spokeswoman Jennifer Mastin Giglio said some safety rules will change midseason. The team now allows vaccinated fans to go maskless. Last week, the Nats lifted the ban on small bags and, after The Washington Post passed along fans' complaints about touchless condiment dispensers, got rid of those machines.

"Guidance shifts and changes pretty regularly as [health officials] learn more and more," Giglio said. "As a result, we have shifted, too."

"It can be tough to communicate broad, sweeping changes mid-homestand - tough on staff who have to implement the changes and enforce them, and tough on our fans who need to know what to expect when they arrive," she said.

Americans craving clear, consistent rules are in for some disappointment in the coming months. Businesses are adding, subtracting and altering restrictions in every direction.

Southwest Airlines announced it would resume serving alcoholic drinks on some flights, then scrapped that plan - a response to widespread reports of unruly passenger behavior across the industry. Major hotel chains say they're sticking with check-ins via smartphone and enhanced cleaning regimens. But perhaps tellingly, they say their policies are evolving according to the science - and customer feedback.

Touchless check-in screens have been added at many airports, but confusion over how to scan QR codes and use finger-hovering screens to check in or get baggage tags has resulted in more crowding - the opposite of the social distancing that the new technologies were meant to enhance.

Many covid-related restrictions were intended from the start not just to inhibit spread of the virus, but to ease consumers' anxieties and to save money, especially in industries where revenue was crushed by the pandemic.

When New York City shut down its famously 24/7 subways during the small hours of the night, the announced reason was to let crews conduct rigorous cleaning of all surfaces. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D, called the move vital to protecting the safety of passengers and workers.

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But when round-the-clock service resumed last month, the transit authority said it had figured out how to keep the deep cleaning regimen going even as the trains rolled.

Many transit systems, such as San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), are keeping or even adding cleaning workers to telegraph to riders that it's safe to come back. BART spent a year using hospital-grade disinfectant in stations and spraying disinfectant mist onto its train cars.

Last month, the system announced it would return to "traditional cleaning methods," dropping the daily fogging because "covid-19 is primarily transmitted through the air" - yet BART said it was nonetheless hiring dozens more cleaners.

Restaurants are picking and choosing from a vast menu of covid caution procedures. In many eateries, food menus that went all-digital early in the pandemic have stayed that way, despite guidance from the National Restaurant Association that because infection from surfaces is unlikely, "restaurants can consider going back to regular print menus, table condiments, etc."

"We think we're on the other side of covid," said the association's senior vice president for science and industry, Larry Lynch. He never liked temperature checks ("It was confrontational and it wasn't always accurate"), is happy to see the return of paper menus and regular tableware, and is ready for buffets to reopen, though some are shifting toward cafeteria-style service rather than letting diners dig into food trays themselves.

"Everything restaurants were doing was so customers could see they were doing everything they could," Lynch said. "The message was, 'Hey, we care about you.' It's not about theater but about wanting customers to feel comfortable about going out. Going forward, it won't have to be as showy."

As customers get more comfortable, plexiglass barriers will come down and so will servers' masks. "People want to see servers' faces," Lynch said.

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