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Podcast: When Can I Take Off My Mask?

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 4/22/2021
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The coronavirus pandemic has led businesses and governments to perform “hygiene theater,” which can give a false sense of security. But how do we thread the needle between being too cautious and too cavalier? Derek Thompson joins James Hamblin and Maeve Higgins to help us understand. Listen to their conversation on the podcast Social Distance:

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What follows is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Maeve Higgins: Can you explain what “hygiene theater” is?

Derek Thompson: I would define hygiene theater as activities that might make you feel safer, but don’t actually make you any safer from the pandemic. A great example of hygiene theater—something that I did a year ago in March and April of 2020—was washing all of my fruits and vegetables with soap. I thought that’s where the virus lived. I thought it lived on apple skins and potatoes. And it just doesn’t, really.

I’ve written a couple of articles about how individuals, but much more importantly companies and even governments, have put too much weight on surface transmission of this disease: shutting down schools to clean the walls and the desks or shutting down the Metro or the subway so that they can wash down the seats. This is an utter waste of money and time, and time and money are scarce and important. And I think we should stop it.

Higgins: Is it still kind of good that everyone’s taking care and being cleaner?

Thompson: This is a totally valid argument. And I constantly find myself having to distinguish between what I think of as hygiene theater and other behaviors that are just fine and not that important. If people want to wash their hands constantly during a pandemic, I’m definitely not going to criticize that behavior. Washing your hands in order to get rid of bacteria is a fine, smart thing to do, pandemic or no pandemic.

Hygiene theater is a problem for a totally different reason: At a conceptual level, we should be fighting this disease where it lives, and not telling people to fight this disease where it doesn’t live. People only have so much time in their day. They only have so much money. They only have so much cognitive capacity that they’re going to spend for this pandemic. We want to tell them the truth. And the truth is that this is basically an indoor, talking disease. You should be cautious when you’re indoors [and] especially cautious when you’re talking, but otherwise, this virus does not seem to spread very effectively. And so we should be encouraging people to go outside and not think so much about this disease living like bacteria on our kitchen table.

If you think about urban-transit authorities, is it good that they’re cleaning the subway a little bit more than they might have been cleaning it years ago? Yeah, that’s totally fine. But in a period when the New York subway is running low on money and they’re having to shut down service at night, I don’t want them spending scarce money on blasting their subways and buses with antimicrobial weaponry. That is a waste of scarce resources. And it builds a false sense of security. In spaces like restaurants, if you see someone scrubbing down a table vigorously and think to yourself that means the restaurant is safe, the virus isn’t living on the table and that elbow grease is totally theatrical. What matters is ventilation in that restaurant, if you’re not vaccinated. I want people to focus on the threat this virus poses and to not focus on the threat this virus doesn’t pose.

James Hamblin: We only have so much energy. We don’t want to feel like we’re getting credit for something that’s not actually doing anything. That leads into your argument about outdoor masking probably being overdone.

Thompson: I was getting drinks with a friend last week and I did something that sort of struck me as kind of funny: I wore a mask while I was alone outside and then I de–masked up at this outdoor patio when I sat close to a person for two hours. From an epidemiological perspective, that’s kind of the opposite of what makes sense. This virus poses no threat to individuals walking alone down the street, but in close encounters and less ventilated spaces, it is more dangerous.

It felt like wearing a seat belt in a parked car and then unbuckling the seat belt just as I put the car in drive. It felt like doing the opposite of what safety precautions should dictate. So I wrote this piece essentially pointing out, based on lots of research, that this virus does not seem to spread very effectively outside and we should probably think about very soon lifting outdoor mask mandates while encouraging vaccinated and unvaccinated people to wear their masks in public indoor spaces.

I want people to live their life as normally as possible while protecting themselves as reasonably as possible. And I think the way to do that is: masks inside, masks in crowds, no outdoor mask mandates for people just living their life outside.

Higgins: If hygiene theater is what we’ve maybe been overdoing, what haven’t we been doing enough of that we should probably do more?

Thompson: I’m really glad that you asked that. I think people listen to me and [often] they’re like: Oh, you don’t take the pandemic seriously. And I do. I just conceptualize of this pandemic very specifically. It’s an indoor, talking disease, for the most part. If you are talking or breathing inside in an exerted way, like at the gym, that’s where the threat is. I think that people have sometimes had a really backward idea of what they should be doing inside.

I wrote this piece last summer about library rules for America. We should have signs on places like CVS or Trader Joe’s that say: Please Keep Your Voice Down. This disease truly does spread through the aerosolization that comes from our talking. So people who go into CVS with their masks on and then pull down their mask to talk more clearly into [their cellphone] have completely misunderstood how this virus works. Don’t do that. Keep your voice down. That’s a very reasonable thing to ask of people in these public spaces.

But I’m for giving and taking. We should take away from people this freedom they might feel to chat loudly on the phone in CVS and Trader Joe’s, while at the same time giving them the removal of outdoor mask mandates. [We should be] giving them the outside, not shutting down beaches [or] shaming people for going out in a park without their masks on. We should be celebrating the outdoors, while more tightly regulating the indoors.

Hamblin: I couldn’t agree more with you, Derek. This is an issue that, in covering health behaviors, I tend to run up against quite a lot. People see binaries. Something is either good or bad. And masks seem to fall in that category where it’s hard to emphasize that things are only good or bad in context.

How do you think about threading that needle for people who are just like: I thought I needed to wear a mask. Now you’re saying I don’t need to wear a mask? I think Dr. [Anthony] Fauci sees that binary and thinks: We need to keep people in the “Masks are good” category and not the “Masks are bad” category.

Thompson: Masks work, period. But they’re not doing that work when you’re outside and alone. Seat belts work, period. Are seat belts doing any work when you’re sitting in a parked car in a parking lot? So it doesn’t make any sense to write local ordinances that say people in parked cars must have their seat belts on. That’s how I feel about masks. I think the public can take a little bit more nuance.

Hamblin: Yeah, I hear you. Masks are good and seat belts are good. But if you blend either of them up into a smoothie and drink them, that’s not good.

Thompson: Yes, good things out of context can be pointless, especially if you blend them into smoothies.

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