Hygiene theater is giving me a case of the Mondays

When a hypnotherapy session goes awry in the 1999 film Office Space, protagonist Peter Gibbons is released from the anxieties of his soul-sucking job. Returning to work the next week, Peter takes a power drill to his cubicle wall and pushes it open to reveal a clear view of the outside world.

That’s what all of us should be doing to every last vestige of hygiene theater.

For the past year, we were appropriately careful and cautious, and we adopted all kinds of practices to try to shield ourselves from the virus and protect our loved ones. Unfortunately, the spread continued despite our best efforts to keep our hands sanitized, our faces covered, and our bodies spaced according to the recommendations and dictates of public health.

Hundreds of thousands of us got infected anyway, and we lost family, friends, colleagues and neighbors to this disease.

Experience and updated guidelines have both revealed even the most strictly maintained health practices to have been a poor match for this coronavirus. On May 7, the CDC finally acknowledged that COVID-19 is spread mainly through aerosols, smoke-like particles that can float in the air, rather than via larger droplets that have a limited range and fall quickly to the ground.

The official guidance shifted accordingly. The emphasis on deep cleaning, hand washing, social distancing and even to some extent mask usage was downgraded in favor of vaccination and the importance of airflow. 

Experts identified the outdoors as exponentially safer territory where virus particles can quickly disperse. They also found vaccines to be very effective at limiting infection and minimizing the most extreme complications caused by the virus, deeming masks unnecessary for fully vaccinated individuals.

Although local public health officials relaxed the mask mandate, they have yet to make any mention of the CDC’s revised assessment of how the virus spreads. But why? In the weeks since the CDC updated its guidance, none of this has been referenced in the COVID-19 Joint Task Force news briefings, or in presentations to the County Commission.

Officials are still conspicuously masking and unmasking during these news conferences, to the benefit of nobody.

Still frame from the June 3, 2021 COVID-19 Joint Task Force press conference

Shelby County is still holding committee meetings in the first floor chamber, in an attempt to better adhere to distancing recommendations, and commissioners remain cloistered behind plexiglass walls.

While I appreciate the attempt to have kept us safer, social distancing and barriers were meant to protect us from droplets, but unfortunately neither are very effective against aerosols.

A recent study in Science magazine associated desk shields with *increased* illness risk, because they inhibit rather than facilitate ventilation. Good airflow is the feature we need most in an indoor setting, like a classroom or an office space.

Due to poor communication by public health officials, combined with understandable fear, people have continued protocols that offer little to no payoff. Many organizations are still taking temperature checks at the door, despite the fact that these checkpoints have never been effective at identifying infection; they certainly cannot detect asymptomatic carriers. 

Many of these practices serve no scientific purpose. It’s probably true that it causes no harm for a fully vaccinated person to don a mask when they’re outside and alone, wearing it like a piece of “flair.” But these ultra-conservative behaviors are forming a culture that is even more stifling and absurd than the one dramatized in Office Space. 

And I believe that is ultimately harming our young people, especially. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day.

Unlike Peter Gibbons, I won’t be carrying a power drill into the commission chamber. But I would like to take a baseball bat to the attitude that these high profile safety measures need to be continued long after they have been proven unhelpful and unnecessary.