When do we wind down the Covid theater?

We need to lock in a sustainable new normal

I’ve stayed in a couple of hotels recently, and as part of their Covid safety protocols, both had their TV remote controls in plastic bags, seemingly to signify that the remotes themselves had been cleaned to prevent infection.

What role the little bags actually played in that sanitization is hard to say. The hotel isn’t throwing out the remotes after each guest and replacing them with brand new ones straight from the factory. And you could wipe down a remote without putting it in a bag or bag a remote without having actually cleaned it. What does the bag do, except generate more garbage?

But the real kicker is that all this surface disinfecting is likely pointless.

There is strong and longstanding evidence that human-to-human transmission of SARS-Cov-2 happens overwhelmingly via tiny aerosols suspended in the air. But we have drones disinfecting the surfaces at outdoor stadiums.

Now to an extent, who cares? Drones are cool, I bet the drone company gave this to the Marlins for free to promote their product, and all things considered, it’s better for stuff to be clean rather than less clean. I’m not the kind of person who gets mad at the people who are wearing masks outside — it’s your life, and you can wear what you want.

But in terms of the cleaning rituals, I think there are three problems:

  • In a capacity-constrained and inflationary economy, improving productivity is important, and having people waste time and resources implementing ineffectual anti-Covid protocols is costly and misguided.

  • To a large extent, useless surface-oriented mitigation measures really do seem to be diverting attention from efforts targeting air quality and ventilation that would have non-Covid benefits.

  • A non-negligible minority of the public doesn’t seem to have processed that, as best as anyone can tell, this virus isn’t going away. There isn’t going to be an “after Covid” when things go “back to normal,” and I think we need to start encouraging institutions to normalize their protocols.

I think it’s very important that we take effective measures against SARS-Cov-2, which looks to me like vaccinations and ventilation-related infrastructure upgrades. But once you’ve done that, there’s not much point in doing other stuff. And if you haven’t done that, there’s really not much point to Marriott’s policy of “requiring all surfaces to be thoroughly cleaned with hospital-grade disinfectants.” If you want to take tough measures against Covid, require people to be vaccinated to stay at or work in your hotel. If you don’t want to do that, then own that choice and move on.

We’re wasting a lot of effort on pointless stuff

It was this Tim Lee tweet that got me thinking more seriously about this issue after he found not a mysteriously bagged remote control but a mysteriously bagged towel, and he asked “how much labor is being wasted on totally ineffective pandemic precautions?”

I wonder, too. It’s clearly not that pandemic-related time-wasting is the key to the whole labor supply situation. But it’s not nothing. I frequently get lunch at Sweetgreen, and they have a system of green (for safe, sanitized tables) and red (for not yet sanitized) tokens so that diners can be sure that each table is thoroughly sanitized between diners. This system is in place outdoors where the risks of transmission are tiny, and it’s also in place indoors where the risks of transmission are not tiny but derive entirely from the fact that people are in there talking and eating maskless.

If it were up to me, D.C. would have a vaccine mandate system for restaurants. But we don’t. I’m vaccinated so I feel okay about it, and the people who aren’t vaccinated obviously DGAF at this point, so it is what it is.

And these places really do get slammed at lunchtime. Now obviously cleaning tables has always been a thing that restaurants do. But the point of the token system is that it allows diners to know what has been sanitized and what has not even when there’s nothing visibly dirty about the tables at all. I feel bad for staffers rushing around to do performative cleaning for the benefit of an indoor-dining public that, for good reason (vaccination) or bad, has decided they’re not especially worried about getting Covid.

Super-strict universities

The flip side of this sanitation theater is the policies in place at an institution like Yale (Slow Boring’s Milan Singh is set to attend next year, so he knows all the rules), which has mandated that all students, faculty, and staff get vaccinated against Covid-19. That’s extremely sensible. Indeed, 18 months ago it was totally uncontroversial that basically all residential colleges require everyone to have a long list of vaccinations. Adding the Covid vaccines to the list is a no-brainer.

But this is really the thing that you can do to protect your community against the virus. It’s good that lots of colleges are doing it, and it’s bad that several states have prevented their public university systems from taking that step.

But, Yale also says “individuals, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear masks indoors while on campus except when an individual is alone in a segregated space, such as when working in a private office or seated in a partitioned cubicle.”

Their “safer sex during Covid” guidelines seem sufficiently self-aware to realize that nobody is actually going to do this, but they do officially suggest that you wear a mask while hooking up with your fellow students.

Harvard is also in the vaccine mandate and universal masking universe.

Unlike putting towels in bags, these super-strict college rules do have some scientific basis. We know that breakthrough infections happen, and we know that the vaccines are much better at halting serious symptoms than they are at halting low-level transmission from the nose. So adding on a mask does improve outcomes.

But the fundamental question here is: when does this end? When is enough enough?

Covid forever

By all indications, SARS-CoV-2 is going to keep circulating endemically for the foreseeable future. In the fall of 2023, it will almost certainly be the case that some vaccinated Yale students are picking up Covid infections at Toad’s or Mamoun’s or wherever and bringing them back to the dorms. Since dorms are full of young, vaccinated people, it’s not going to be that big of a deal. But it will still be factually true that if you make them all wear masks all the time, the odds of transmission will be reduced.

So are we going to have all-masked universities forever?

Probably not. But if fully vaccinated, Covid-conscious communities can’t unmask now, when can they? That’s not a rhetorical question; it deserves an answer. If institutions say the current level of spread in their community is too high, that’s reasonable, but they should pick a target number, and at that point, the masks come off.

And cities with mask mandates should, similarly, ask themselves what they’re trying to accomplish. Joe Biden was recently caught walking out of Fiola Mare maskless in violation of the rules. In practice, lots of people are breaking these rules and nobody is enforcing them — because the rules self-evidently don’t make sense. Restaurants are full of maskless people eating. Having them wear masks between the door and their table doesn’t change anything. It’s true that having this rule in place also doesn’t particularly harm anyone. But piling ineffective, unenforced public health rules on top of each other turns the whole thing into a joke and distracts from focusing on high-efficacy public health interventions.

Do stuff that makes sense forever

This is an issue where the views of the mass public seem to be a problem. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll finds decent support for mask mandates in school, but mandating Covid vaccines for kids (once available) is very unpopular. This is backward! Vaccines are much more effective than masks, and mandatory childhood vaccination is something we’ve done forever.

But in general, a good way to think about which Covid precautions make sense right now is to think about which Covid precautions make sense forever.

Being more diligent about our hand-washing, for example, is just a good idea. If everyone who lived through the pandemic develops a lifelong habit of being more conscientious about hand hygiene, that’s a good thing. By the same token, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people become habitual mask-wearers in airports or when riding the bus. I think I might be a person like that. Wearing a mask on the bus is not especially burdensome and getting respiratory infections is annoying. And, obviously, adding one more vaccine to the list of required vaccines is a change we could make permanently. Moderna is working on a combination flu/Covid vaccine that people could take annually — I think that works as a permanent change.

But I don’t think asking college students to wear masks in dorms or asking white-collar workers to wear masks in offices makes sense as a forever policy.

And if it doesn’t make sense as a forever policy, it doesn’t really make sense as a “right now” policy either, unless you’re specifically talking about kids under 12 who should be vaccine eligible within a few weeks. Right now, the Delta wave is fading in most places, and we can hope that the worst of all this is behind us. But there might be new variants, and things might get worse in the future.

It sometimes feels as if there’s a joint right-left conspiracy to deny that we just took an incredible L, as a global community, by letting this pandemic get out of control. On the right, people want to deny that this disease is a big deal. And on the left, people want to believe that if we take just the right amount of precaution for just the right amount of time, we can lick this thing. But we can’t. This is a new endemic disease that’s going to be an issue for a while — though we can hope it fades away over the course of a generation like Covid-1889.

But we can do forever stuff. Dr. Linsey Marr wrote a great piece recently about improving air quality, which she points out is important not just for Covid, but also for the flu. Those infrastructure upgrades should also have important benefits related to particulate pollution and even the common cold.

And we can build on the success of Operation Warp Speed. We need more investment in vaccine production capacity. We should make human challenge trials routine so we can swiftly gather data, not just on basic vaccine efficacy but on optimal dose size and timing. We can improve our disease surveillance capacity. We can try to build the CDC into the kind of agency that has actual operational capabilities — like the version of the CDC you see in the movies — or create a new agency from scratch. The extent to which we appear to be shortchanging pandemic preparedness funding is nuts. The point is, these are all permanent changes to address a permanent problem. But we can’t keep students in masks forever, and we shouldn’t burden the country’s landfills with pointless plastic wrap on remote controls.