I was invited to several retail locations in New Hampshire and Southern Maine to advise on their COVID-19 practices recently, and the amount of wasted efforts and misappropriated time informed the writing of this article.
From stores that had banned reusable bags – which was a misinformed decision by not only the stores but by government officials – to cleaning conveyor belts and plexiglass at checkout locations, there’s a lot to unpack here.
Here’s a set of real-world case examples: In a few of these retail locations, I observed the management policies in action, which included wiping down the checkout countertop and PIN pads between each customer being serviced in some cases. Let me say again – the cleaning of most surfaces amounts only to symbolic theater, and isn’t appreciably reducing cases of COVID-19 transmission.
The checkout counter is often a wide flat surface where retail workers can sort through and scan merchandise for purchase. In the cases I observed, apparel (textiles) and shoes were purchased, which have an incredibly low probability of being an infectious fomite (vector of transmission). So, in essence, wiping down the countertop wastes cleaning solution and employees’ time, both of which are in shorter supply than ever given the current economic volatility. The inhalation of sprayed cleaning chemicals by employees and customers poses much more of a health risk than what’s transiently occurring on the checkout countertop.
Clothing and shoes are not only unlikely to transfer any viable coronaviruses, they also won’t transfer to the countertop and then be transferable from there. This introduces the theater aspect of the situation. If we follow the chain of logic (reductio ad absurdum): What about all of the hangers that the clothing is displayed upon? Customers sort through clothing racks by often sliding the hangers, so the situation should then include those high(er) touch surfaces. But it doesn’t. And it shouldn’t. The hangers aren’t a risk, and neither is the checkout countertop.
If we spent time and effort on preventive methods that are effective, we could further reduce the already-low transmission rates in New Hampshire and Maine – not to mention rates in general across the country. Spraying down the checkout (beyond what used to be typical cleaning protocol) isn’t one of them. Smart cleaning* is what matters, and what often is occurring is the opposite of that.
*‘Smart cleaning’ means only cleaning frequent high-touch surfaces if needed; For example, only shopping cart handles and/or PIN pad buttons may qualify out of the hundreds of surfaces exposed to unnecessary disinfection as currently occurs. And even then, the risk is incredibly low.
After several visits to area restaurants to help evaluate their policies and protocols for in-person dining and re-opening, I similarly found many things ripe for improvement. Among them, the nearly fetishistic approach to disposable utensils and cups as a means to reduce transmission of COVID-19. As discussed at-length above, and in other articles I’ve written, surface transmission hasn’t been a “thing,” and incorporating more of this symbolic theater just for customer “optics” is only continuously eroding the value of, and reliance on, science to appropriately prevent further cases of illness.
The methods by which we prevent infection should include (ordinally): Distancing, ventilation, mask use, testing-tracing-isolation, and cleaning. The empirical evidence we have of the efficacy of these methods is extraordinarily high, and viral transmission in general isn’t a mystery.
We don’t need to add to public panic by falsely introducing a feeling of uncertainty where one doesn’t exist, nor to create an expectation of a disposable culture. There are whole sub-branches within the field of Behavioral Economics which deal with how people become calibrated to expect certain things, and that is all we’re doing by offering a fully disposable lifestyle – creating a wasteful cycle which isn’t helping anything. Restaurants which use, for example, ServSafe (a certified cleaning and food handling paradigm through the U.S. National Restaurant Association, which is programmatically accredited by ANSI and the Conference for Food Protection), have been serving literally billions of meals safe from pathogen transmission for decades. To think that they aren’t similarly effective for SARS-CoV-2 is scientific nonsense.
Restaurants should be using their industrial-grade dishwashers to service their utensils, glasses, mugs, etc., which provide more than enough cleaning for inactivation and removal of SARS-CoV-2 (and frankly, many more pernicious, dangerous, and worrisome viruses, bacteria, and fungi than SARS-CoV-2).
Disposable utensils and cups are NOT any safer than reusables. And by the way, the disposables need to get to the table somehow as well, which means they are handled as any dishware would be. And with disposables, you also don’t have any insight into their supply chain and distribution – which aren’t always clean. Calibrating the general public to expect “throwaway everything” is a terrible course of action and mortgages our collective future for what amounts to no more than “customer optics.”
Between misplaced perceptions of cleaning, to unnecessary use of disposable utensils and dining-ware, it’s clear that there is still a lot to do, locally and nationwide, to improve the effectiveness of our response to COVID-19.
A version of this article was originally published in SeacoastOnline.com.
For more information on how to stay safe,healthy, and sustainable during COVID-19, visit our Reuse Resources page: https://www.upstreamsolutions.org/stay-informed
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