The Upside of COVID Hygiene Theater

Yes, even at this stage of the pandemic.

A black-and-white photo of a masked woman using a no-contact thermometer to measure another masked woman's body temperature
Scott Olson / Getty

We are now more than a year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic, and we are once again hand-wringing about “hygiene theater,” the various public displays of sanitation and cleanliness that critics attack as unnecessary, wasteful, and even counterproductive. But if detractors mock these measures—temperature checks before concerts, QR codes instead of paper menus at restaurants, outdoor mask wearing—for being useless and performative, it’s worth remembering that not everything we do need necessarily have a use, and that not everything performative is without merit.

This is at least the third wave of the “hygiene theater” debate, each prior flare-up having tracked a wave of the virus itself. The term was coined by The Atlantic’s own Derek Thompson way back in the summer of 2020. Thompson was riffing on security theater—the intrusive and cumbersome airport security protocols adopted in the aftermath of September 11 that, experts suggest, are largely ineffective and serve mainly as the visible illusion of security. Five months ago, just before the Delta variant surged in the United States, a flurry of articles lamented the “maddening persistence” of hygiene theater and the “false sense of security” it offers. More recently, an article in The Hill warned that hygiene theater might lead to a perpetual landscape where “health bureaucrats will frighten Americans with new variants to get us to continue to accept their ‘inconveniences’ based on false claims of the safety they provide—much as the TSA has done with terrorism over the last 20 years.”

The word theater in these contexts is meant pejoratively, indicating empty gestures with no reasonable justification. Hygiene theater, like security theater, is almost always described as a “waste”: a waste of time and a waste of money. But attempting to quantify these things in those terms is to miss much of their point. Anthropologists are quick to tell you that theater, after all, evolved first out of ritual, and ritual, to take a pretty standard definition from the anthropologist Edmund Leach, is nothing more than “stereotyped behavior which is potent in itself in terms of the cultural conventions of the actors, though not potent in a rational-technical sense.” What we’ve taken to calling “hygiene theater” is indeed a series of conventions whose value is not rational, but that doesn’t mean these actions have no power. Even if we began these practices thinking they had a rational basis in keeping us safe, for some of us they’ve evolved into having a ritual benefit instead.

A number of these gestures are no doubt overkill, and I’ve let a lot of personal practices go myself. But I’m also okay with friends and loved ones who maintain elevated levels of vigilance, and I’m okay with people who continue to do this knowing full well that it’s not informed by the latest science.

Rituals are always important, but they are acutely so when other sources of authority have failed us. Early on in the pandemic, neither the Trump administration nor the CDC was capable of or interested in giving us straightforward protocols with clear and easy-to-understand rationales and explanations. There were a great deal of unknowns, and what was known was confusing, contradictory, constantly being revised, ignored, suppressed, or politicized. Left to our own devices, we had to create ad hoc protocols, which not only worked to keep us physically safe—they became rituals unto themselves, daily performances that proffered some measure of structure and security. I don’t miss the days of coming home and embarking on a decontamination routine like something out of 12 Monkeys, but I do recognize the way that such rituals at the time gave me a measure of control over my environment. And I do remember the way that the excessive routine—my clothes changed, my hands washed, my phone wiped down—gave me a feeling, afterward, of being, finally, safe.

Those annoyed by this behavior have begun to conflate institutional hygiene theater with personal decisions, seeing the latter as intrinsically political, the work of anti-Trump liberals whose showy performance was meant to shame red-staters through sanctimonious action. Reason magazine’s Robby Soave complained back in April that “many people—predominantly liberals—who claim to Follow the Science and Trust the Experts no matter what are nevertheless captivated by pandemic panic porn,” which for him included beliefs “that social distancing and masks should be mandatory even for the vaccinated.” Nor is this attitude found entirely on the right—Salon’s Amanda Marcotte recently argued that the “reality is that … some folks got caught up in the culture war drama of the mask and were happy to use them as a social signifier of their liberalness forever,” as though the only possible purpose for mask wearing is to “own the conservatives.” But this attitude—that the sole explanation for nonrational action is political—seems a rather blunt denial of the level of trauma so many of us across the political spectrum have undergone. Many rituals persist long after the initial danger passes, and become an extended process by which we remember and process trauma. (Just think of Passover, where the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt and flight to freedom is remembered each year in a ritualized meal.)

But it’s also important to stress that we’re not there yet. The impatience that pundits seem to have with those who maintain these rituals reveals an ignorance of (or indifference to) not only how traumatized many of us still are, but also the fact that this pandemic continues to quietly rage on. We just passed 750,000 dead in the United States alone, a milestone hardly noted by anyone, even as 100,000 of those have died in just the past two months. Even if as a public we seem to have decided not to care about this, it’s still happening. There are still children under 5 years old and still people with compromised immune systems; ERs are still packed, and the post-Delta infection rates seem to have stalled out at a high level. Rates are creeping up in Germany, which until now has served as a model for mitigating the pandemic. Things are better, to be sure, but we’re far from out of the woods, and as The Atlantic contributor Alexis C. Madrigal recently wrote, getting back to normal is possible only until you test positive.

The frustration with hygiene theater is really nothing other than misplaced frustration with the pandemic itself, which has been unfazed by premature pronouncements of its demise. As Francis S. Collins of the NIH recently remarked, “We have to keep convincing people that this is not something being imposed upon them by the government. It’s being imposed on them by the virus.” If we are made uncomfortable by mask wearers and restaurant protocols, it’s because they are glaring reminders that we’re still in the middle of something. These behaviors remind us of the bad old days of 2020, the time that we are desperately trying to forget, even as 2021 has turned out to look depressingly the same. (Additionally, heaping derision on people is a terrible way to get them to change their behavior. People adopt irrational beliefs for a host of psychological reasons, and lambasting them for their irrationality backfires spectacularly. This is true of conspiracy-theory belief, religion, and superstition, and it stands to reason that this tactic will also fail against mask wearers.)

The TSA’s security theater has raised legitimate questions not only about wasteful governmental spending, but also about the agency’s potential need to exaggerate threats and heighten paranoia in order to justify its existence. But the wasted time and money of hygiene theater is of a significant magnitude smaller, and there’s little risk of bureaucratic bloat from wiping down restaurant tables or asking bookstore patrons to keep their mask on.

Rather than see hygiene theater as waste and nonsense, we might see it as the continued and gentle performance of care. When the Kennedy Center announced that it was continuing with temperature checks for its guests, even after health professionals suggested that they’re unreliable, Senior Vice President for Operations Ellery Brown explained that “some of it is psychology … If somebody’s spent a lot of money for a ticket, this helps us notify people that we care about them.” Similarly, the National Restaurant Association’s senior vice president of science and industry, Larry Lynch, suggested that much of the hygiene theater in restaurants “was so customers could see they were doing everything they could … The message was ‘Hey, we care about you.’ It’s not about theater but about wanting customers to feel comfortable about going out.”

And rather than denounce personal decisions about masks and other precautions as liberal virtue-signaling, we might look at them as the trauma response of the walking wounded. We might recognize that the pandemic has changed us forever, that we’ll bear these scars all our lives, that things will never be quite the same, and that for some people, once-temporary protective measures will become—for better or worse—a part of their life going forward. If you had grandparents who lived through the Depression, you may have witnessed their attitudes on food waste, and how a scarcity problem from the 1930s imprinted itself—decades later—in how they carried themselves, how they saved, what they spent, what and how they ate. This will be true of COVID-19 as well; decades from now, survivors will still act in specific ways traceable to how these years changed our behavior forever.

As we force ourselves back to “normal,” such rituals may end up being one of the few ways we remember this time and what we’ve lost. After all, it is in the security theater of the modern airport—and not in the anniversary ceremonies—that most of us actually remember September 11. The TSA checkpoint may be uncomfortable and infuriating rather than solemn, to be sure, but like it or not, it’s the one place where travelers are forever reminded of the legacy of those terror attacks, where they’re not only forced to enact out a series of ritualized gestures but reminded of why they’re engaging in such actions. It is grim and unpleasant, to be sure, but why should the memory of a traumatic event be anything but?

Hygiene theater may be with us for good, but if so, it won’t mean the end of the world. Rather, it will mean that we made it to the other side of the apocalypse. With any luck, masks and bottles of hand sanitizers on restaurant tables will someday become this generation’s Passover—a reminder of the hardships we once endured and of our eventual deliverance.