So while New York City spends $15 million a month blasting its subways with antimicrobial sprays, the Japanese keep their trains safe with a cheaper tactic: masking up and shutting up.
If Americans imported Japan’s subway rules to our public life, we might be able to accelerate our return to a more muted form of normalcy. Several times in the past few weeks, I’ve heard people talking loudly on their cellphones in grocery stores and pharmacies, sometimes with their masks pushed aside from their mouths to improve the clarity of their diction. Such behavior displays a total failure to understand how the disease spreads.
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Here’s one solution: Library rules for America. Every time you walked into a school, a medical clinic, a drug store, a barbershop, an office, an airplane, a train, or a government building, you should see a sign that read: Hush for Your Health; or Make Good Choices, Lower Your Voices!; or Keep Quiet and Carry On. “In terms of the science, I am convinced that something like this library rule would reduce all modes of viral transmission,” Jimenez told me.
Signs and guidance can only do so much. The backlash to masks among some Americans—mostly conservative men—suggests that a certain segment of the population might rebel against library rules by, say, filming videos of themselves purposefully yelling into a barista’s face.
“What we’ve learned from the mask experience is that many Americans don’t like being told what to do if they don’t understand why it’s necessary,” Jimenez said. “People need to understand that this virus is in the air, and that they breathe out 10 times more virus when they are shouting or speaking loudly.”
Most Americans aren’t used to thinking about any auditory dimension of this pandemic. For example, online shame-mongers often post pictures of ostensibly crowded beaches. These snapshots don’t capture several important factors, such as how long people are standing right next to one another. Crucially, they don’t tell us anything about sound. Are those sunbathers under a big umbrella shouting at each other about beach decorum, or quietly immersed in a book? In a plague spread commonly through the air, the soundscape of our interactions is as important as the photo image of our behavior.
A superior focus on exhalation science and aerosols might help people understand what environments are surprisingly safe, or surprisingly risky. In many cities, restaurants have recovered faster than movie theaters. But movie theaters with spaced-out seating, universal mask wearing, and complete silence might be less risky than indoor restaurants, where diners are talking and chewing without masks. “I can’t name a movie-theater outbreak in the contact-tracing literature,” Jimenez said, while also stressing that movie theaters cannot be considered risk-free, given that they are poorly ventilated indoor spaces where people spend several consecutive hours. “I can tell you that theaters don’t seem nearly as dangerous as a loud restaurant or bar, where people have to speak loudly to be heard.”