The New York City subway smells like lemons, store shelves will be low on Clorox wipes until 2021, and a start-up is deploying drones to theaters, misting disinfectant on seats and floors below.
The pandemic has pushed germ removal to new heights in the U.S., and the constant cleanings has made some question whether our emphasis is misguided. SARS-CoV-2 is most likely transmitted via the air, and too heavy a focus on surface sanitation might distract from other measures that are more influential for cutting down spread, like wearing masks, social distancing and improving indoor ventilation.
But this potentially-excessive cleaning, which The Atlantic calls “hygiene theater,” dominates how businesses communicate that they are trustworthy and safe. Visuals mean everything to a consumer — even though the right “look” doesn’t always come with actual security.
Read more: Does Coronavirus Live on Surfaces?
The Power of a Well-Placed Wipe Down
Before getting into why businesses or companies might want to look like they are constantly cleaning, it’s important to emphasize that disinfecting has its place in the pandemic. In particular, high-touch surfaces deserve attention, says Amanda Wilson, who studies surface cleaning interventions at the University of Arizona. “That’s the point of shared contact in a lot of different environments,” she says. What someone might slap onto that handle or door knob with their own hand is something you could pick up when you reach out to the same spot.
That issue brings up another crucial sanitation point: High-touch surface disinfecting has to come with hand hygiene awareness. In a study based on data collected in an office environment, Wilson and her colleagues found that surface disinfection alone cut the spread of a pathogen by about 15 to 30 percent, depending on the virus. But when the researchers gave out hand sanitizer and wipes, spread reduced by between 59 and 88 percent. Remembering to sanitize surfaces you touch all the time — including your phone or steering wheel — and clean your hands can go a long way.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
But in the hospitality industry, what has to happen for risk reduction and what has to happen to make the impression of risk reduction are not one in the same. Yes, there are CDC protocols for businesses and restaurants now, and those are meant to make the likelihood of infection drop off. But businesses also have to cater to our desire for visual sanitation cues — whether or not they actually make us safer.
Prior to the pandemic, restaurant-goers and airplane passengers judged the cleanliness of their environment with their eyes only. Does the staff look neat? Do bathrooms look clean? Table assessments were all about the grime, too. “If they don’t see dirt, they’re fine.” says Haeik Park, who teaches hospitality and tourism at Purdue University Fort Wayne.
We’re also pretty decent at seeing (or feeling) a film. In a small study that asked participants to evaluate kitchen counters and cutting boards, people did a decent job of detecting food films and remnants, particularly on smooth surfaces like glass, stone and laminate. But bacteria or microbes can hang around on things that appear to be in good shape. In that same study, perceived cleanliness had no correlation to how much bacteria sat on the surfaces. That’s why you sanitizing after removing crud and dirt, Wilson says.
Read more: UV Light Wands Are Supposed to Kill Viruses. But Do They Really Work?
The desire for visible precautions persists in the pandemic. Some measures a business might take are easy to see, Park points out, like stickers on the floor of a restaurant marking out six foot increments, or masks on the face of every flight attendant. And if they want customers to trust that their table or seat is virus-free too, wipe down displays might crop up more often as well (or even signs that say a table was recently sanitized, as one chef suggested to Food and Wine). "Even though they clean, and the CDC recommends that behavior, they have to show it — they have to let customers know they’re following these rules," Park says. "What's most important is how safe the consumers need to feel."
It’s possible the sanitation aesthetics will creep into other parts of the public sphere, too. Some interior designers anticipate white or light-colored surfaces will surge in restaurant designs post-pandemic. White conveys a sense of cleanliness, and easily shows dirt — and therefore caters to our instinct to look for signs of trouble.