The restaurant chain Chili’s, which is reportedly killing it, business-wise, as it dares to open back up during the pandemic, boasted in June about its “cleaning and disinfecting procedures” as “thing of beauty,” and detailed a procedure that involves disinfecting all surfaces every 30 minutes. While employees are apparently aggressively shining up the restaurant, only employees are required to wear masks; as of the end of July, the chain has no mask policy in place for customers. As the scientific understanding of coronavirus shifts from concerns about surface transmission to airborne transmission, we need to ask: What, precisely, are businesses thinking?
Masks worn to block airborne particles have emerged as one of the best defenses against transmission. They are a simple, effective, inexpensive solution. “Hygiene theater,” as The Atlantic has started calling it, does very little to prevent coronavirus spread.“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,” Derek Thompson wrote Monday in The Atlantic.
A recently published article in the medical journal The Lancet, cited in the Atlantic story, explains that early studies that stoked fear of surface transmission were based on “unrealistically strong concentrations of the virus.” The more realistic concern is viral aerosols, expelled when people talk to each other in indoor spaces, regardless of how sanitized their surfaces are.
Temperature checks, another early attempt to curb the spread of the virus in public places, have dwindled, yet sanitizing and disinfecting are still in full swing. Thompson cites “sanitization specialists” at Applebee’s, who have “a laser-focus on high-touch surfaces” as a perfect expression of this now-very-backwards-feeling set of cleanliness priorities.
Where some businesses are hesitant to require masks, they’re more than happy to emphasize creative and rigorous cleaning rituals. Beyond indoor dining in restaurants, where people who are actively eating and drinking physically can’t have a mask on, Gold’s Gym specifically mentions in its COVID-19 safety protocol that masks aren’t required, barring local or state-level mandates. But “enhanced cleaning protocols” are in place to keep people safe.
Thompson mentions Planet Fitness, which posted what’s essentially a movie trailer on gym disinfecting, and in which no one is wearing a mask. (At one point, a maskless employee dances around between weight machines, suited up like a Ghostbuster with a sanitizing spray pack.) And WeWork is bending over backwards to sanitize its open coworking spaces in fancy ways, leaving out the simplest rule at all: making everyone wear a dang mask.
Light-emitting cleaning robots and fancy HEPA systems sound science-y and impressive, but masks remain one of our best tools in preventing the spread of coronavirus. Some businesses, fed up with a lot of inaction from state governors, are starting to pass their own mask rules, but not all of them.
The businesses broadcasting their balletic sanitization routines, but failing to require masks, are only putting their own employees at risk. Ideally, the government would step in and take some of the pressure off of private industries from, you know, keeping us all from killing each other. Until then, those doing the disinfecting so people can run on a treadmill or work at a shared desk are the ones most likely to get sick.
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