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‘Hygiene Theater’ Doesn’t Work, but Effective Cleaning Does

Cleaning services continue to evolve in the pandemic era

In the early days of the pandemic, we were in the dark about how coronavirus was transmitted. CDC issued guidance that said cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting surfaces would lower transmission risk, leading to a boom in frenzied cleaning of just about everything. For the commercial buildings that were still open, janitorial services went into high gear, doing all sorts of ‘deep cleaning,’ temperature checks, and spraying of disinfectants.

Now that we’re 19 months into the pandemic, how much has changed? For one thing, CDC has long updated its guidance and admitted the possibility of catching the virus via contaminated surfaces is slim to none. Many commercial facilities have, in turn, changed their cleaning practices to reflect the updated science and knowledge of COVID-19 transmission. But there may still be remnants of the hyper-cleaning left over from the mad frenzy at the pandemic’s beginning.

In the spring of 2021, an article in The Atlantic coined a term for all this aggressive but ineffective cleaning: ‘hygiene theater.’ The idea is that making a public show of intensive cleaning practices can make people feel safe, even if what they’re doing isn’t backed by science. Hygiene theater is similar to ‘security theater’ and the enhanced security measures taken by most everyone in the post-9/11 world. No one’s quite sure whether the TSA has ever prevented a terrorist attack, but it makes most of us feel safer. The same goes for hygiene theater in the pandemic era.

But now that there’s evidence that disinfecting and sanitizing everything does little to nothing to prevent COVID-19 transmission, it’s time for building owners to re-evaluate their cleaning procedures (if they haven’t already). Of course, high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and elevator buttons can still be disinfected, and there are other gray areas—it’s not all-or-nothing. But wasting time, energy, and resources on hygiene theater should be a thing of the past.

‘People were really freaked out’

In April 2021, CDC officially recognized what scientists had long been saying: the risk of catching COVID-19 from contaminated surfaces is very low. According to a brief from CDC at that time, the risk is “generally less than 1 in 10,000.” Except in hospital settings, CDC recommended only using disinfectants on surfaces in indoor and outdoor settings when there has been a confirmed or suspected case of coronavirus within the last 24 hours. Researchers said CDC’s updated guidance was long overdue, and many facilities breathed a sigh of relief about not having to do expensive deep cleanings anymore.

CDC acknowledged the best way to reduce COVID-19 risk was to continue wearing a mask correctly and consistently, social distancing, and washing hands regularly. In most cases, cleaning a surface with soap or detergent, not a disinfectant, is good enough. The virus spreads primarily through exposure to respiratory droplets carrying the infectious disease, CDC said. So, facilities can spend more time and energy educating tenants about mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand-washing, not disinfecting surfaces.

“We have to put things in context,” said Steve Ashkin, CEO and President of the Ashkin Group, a consulting firm in the professional cleaning industry. “When COVID came on the scene, and we started getting reports from places like New York City with hospitals filling up and people dying, we didn’t know how [the virus] was transmitted. Academic studies talked about how COVID would live on surfaces for days, if not weeks. And, you know, people were really freaked out.”

Ashkin said commercial buildings and others threw the ‘proverbial kitchen sink’ at the problem when it came to building cleaning, which was understandable at the time. He said there was a substantial increase in the use of chemical disinfectants, which weren’t always appropriately used and still aren’t at times.

“[Disinfectants] are often misused,” Ashkin said. “These chemicals need to be on the surface for a specified amount of time for the chemicals to actually kill or deactivate the pathogen on the surface. In some cases, people apply the disinfectant, and they leave it there. And so, they’re not actually cleaning. They may kill the pathogen that’s on the surface, but they leave it there, and they leave the chemical residue and all the other contaminants on the surface, as well.”

PDC (Public Displays of Cleaning)

There’s been a general trend toward more cleaning in buildings in recent years, and that’s not such a bad thing. Some experts, especially psychologists, also suggest aspects of hygiene theater may not be too bad, either. “It gives people a sense of security, even if it’s a false sense of security,” UBC Clinical Psychologist Steven Taylor told CityNews Vancouver. “But it doesn’t lead [people] to do dangerous things.” Others say aggressive cleaning in the pandemic era shows tenants that facilities care, and they’re going the extra mile. All of this can’t be such a bad thing, given building owners are trying to entice employees back into the office.

Public displays of cleaning show tenants and employees you care about their health, and regular facility cleaning is always a good idea, especially as cold and flu season approaches. Despite the evidence that COVID-19 isn’t transmitted via surfaces, some building owners may prefer to err on the side of caution. Cleaning experts like Ashkin also say that, besides coronavirus, disinfecting surfaces eliminate other types of infectious agents.

“We still worry about viruses like influenza viruses, bacteria like E. coli or salmonella or staph,” Ashkin said. “There’s plenty of reasons to keep cleaning, and we have to figure out how to do it effectively and do it well.”

Worth its costs

Another aspect of building cleaning in the pandemic era is the frequent changes and vague language from CDC. Some building owners have complained that CDC’s guidance changes so often that it’s hard to keep up. The general public may not be aware of the changes, too, as the battle against the virus has become highly politicized and drowned in misinformation.

Nevertheless, building owners’ best bet is to base their cleaning practices on the latest information from CDC and other reputable sources, such as cleaning trade organizations like the International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA). Yes, the guidance has changed and evolved, but that’s because our understanding of COVID-19 continues to change as more research is done that determines the best ways to combat the virus.

Given the heightened awareness of the virus, it should be expected cleaning costs will be a bit higher. Ashkin said that, in general, building owners should be paying more for cleaning, and they should avoid the ‘race-to-the-bottom’ mentality when hiring janitorial contractors. “Typically, the reason buildings become unhealthy is [janitors] aren’t being given the time to clean buildings thoroughly,” Ashkin said. “In our industry, an average janitor cleans 25,000 to 50,000-square feet in a day. Could you imagine if you had to clean the equivalent of one house every single hour? And building owners will still have contractors coming in saying, ‘I’ll do it for even less money.’”

Healthy cleaning

At the height of the pandemic, ‘hygiene theater’ in commercial buildings and elsewhere went to some absurd levels. Quartz reported that Walmart had spent roughly $3.3 million per day on cleaning and sanitation between March and August 2020 at its more than 5,000 stores nationwide. Retail businesses jumped big on the over-cleaning frenzy, but commercial buildings participated, too. For the buildings that remained open, floor-to-ceiling cleanings weren’t unheard of.

Ashkin agrees hygiene theater doesn’t work, but he said the pandemic may have spurred building owners to think a bit more about their buildings’ overall health and wellness. “We don’t want to waste valuable resources only for appearances,” he said. “For example, we don’t want to sanitize sidewalks outside the building with janitors wearing spacesuits. We have limited resources, so let’s focus on the things that matter.”

As the pandemic drags on, many employees may still have heightened concerns about hygiene and cleanliness when returning to the office. Ashkin recommends that building owners communicate to occupants what they’re doing to keep the building clean, including sharing the evidence-based practices and updates to CDC guidance about disinfecting and sanitizing. Ashkin mentioned some companies use ‘health porters’ who are visible during the workdays and walk around the building cleaning high-traffic areas and high-touch surfaces.

“From a mental health perspective, we need employees to see the janitors working during the day,” Ashkin said. “Put a sticky note on the desk to let people know the janitor was there. Put a sign in the breakroom that says the room was disinfected to protect your health.”

While hygiene theater isn’t the answer, effective cleaning practices are. Improved ventilation is still the best way to fight COVID-19 transmission in buildings because, after all, the virus spreads via respiratory droplets. But all the heightened awareness of building cleaning isn’t such a bad thing. As Ashkin and other cleaning experts have acknowledged, our brush with the virus may prompt us to invest more in cleaner and healthier buildings.

Staff Writer
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