Pointing out the “maddening persistence of ‘hygiene theater,'” a feature story published by the Washington Post cited safety experts who conclude that widespread pandemic measures such as disinfecting surfaces, temperature checks, digital menus and “touchless” mustard offer no meaningful protection against the novel coronavirus.
Post reporter Marc Fisher noted the term “hygiene theater” is widely credited to Atlantic writer Derek Thompson, who used it to describe largely ineffective but showy anti-COVID tactics that apparently are meant only to keep anxious consumers feel safer.
But months after it became clear that surface contact is not a significant transmitter of the virus, the mitigation efforts persist. In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said “contact with a contaminated surface has less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of causing an infection.” That’s only slightly higher than a person’s lifetime chance of being struck by lightning.
The Post cited the head of an advocacy group for transit users in New York City who said the city is “power-washing the outside of cars as if New Yorkers were going around licking the exterior of subway cars.”
“It’s hygiene theater, and it has no place in the public discussion about COVID now,” said Danny Pearlstein.
After consulting with a local infectious-disease expert, the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, plans to resume its plays this fall without temperature probes, mid-show disinfectants, a mask mandate and digital-only programs.
Kelly Burdick, who helped develop the theater’s COVID guidelines, told the Post that he will still consider the anxiety some people have about being part of an audience, making masks optional.
“We want to go with straight science, but we have to recognize that people are in different places,” Burdick said.
The Kennedy Center, plans to stick with temperature check, even though Dr. Anthony Fauci regards them as “notoriously inaccurate, conceding that some measures are about the “psychology.”
“If somebody’s spent a lot of money for a ticket, this helps us notify people that we care about them,” said Ellery Brown, the center’s senior vice president for operations.
Nationals Park, the home of Washington’s Major League Baseball team, will no longer have the “touchless condiment” dispensers that, the Post said, “sometimes slathered hot dogs with ruinous puddles rather than delicate drizzles of mustard.”
The Post said 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.”
The National Restaurant Association has issued guidance saying that because infection from surfaces is unlikely, “restaurants can consider going back to regular print menus, table condiments, etc.”
The association’s senior vice president for science and industry, Larry Lynch, said that everything restaurants did in response to COVID was “not about theater but about wanting customers to feel comfortable about going out.”
“Going forward, it won’t have to be as showy,” he said.
Masks ‘not associated’ with slowing spread
The Post didn’t put mask mandates in the category of “hygiene theater,” but prior to the COVID-19 pandemic health officials didn’t advise the general public to wear them, and studies have shown that mask mandates didn’t help slow the spread of the virus.
In March, Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a practicing physician, used the term “theater” when he confronted Dr. Anthony Fauci‘s insistence that people who have been vaccinated must continue to wear a mask.
Paul asked Fauci what scientific studies he could cite that indicated people who have had the infection or a vaccine will spread the coronavirus.
“If we’re not spreading the infection, isn’t it just theater? You’ve had the vaccine and you’re wearing two masks, isn’t that just theater?” the Kentucky senator asked.
A new study by the University of Louisville found that while “mandates induced greater mask compliance,” the use of masks “are not associated with lower SARS-CoV-2 spread among US states.”
The researchers found that “masks may promote social cohesion as rallying symbols during a pandemic, but risk compensation can also occur.”
The first large, randomized controlled trial of its kind showed no statistically significant difference in COVID-19 cases between people who wore masks and those who did not.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control in October indicated that Americans were adhering to mask mandates, but they didn’t appear to have slowed or stopped the spread of the coronavirus. And further, it found, mask-wearing has negative effects.
The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons has compiled a page of “Mask Facts” showing that the consensus prior to the coronavirus pandemic was that the effectiveness of mask-wearing by the general public in slowing the spread of a virus is unproven, and there’s evidence it does more harm than good.
The most recent CDC guidelines still recommend mask use for anyone 2 years or older in public settings and when around people who don’t live in their household. However, in March 2020, the CDC said masks “are usually not recommended” in “non-health care settings.”
The same month, the World Health Organization recommended people not wear face masks unless they are sick with COVID-19 or caring for someone who is sick.
“There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health emergencies program in March 2020.
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