But the costs of hygiene theater are greater than dry hands for paranoid people. First, it’s absorbing precious resources. Urban-transit authorities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars blasting their subways and buses with antimicrobial weaponry, even as they discuss the need to cut essential service. Money that should be spent on rides is being directed toward soap. Second, it builds a false sense of security: If you believe that the coronavirus is spread from surfaces rather than the air, you might be more likely to hang out in a restaurant that cleans its tables—increasing the odds that you get sick from an airborne disease floating your way from strangers seated nearby.
Disinfectant mania also poses a health risk. As hotels, gyms, and offices engage in an arms race for the most germ-smashing disinfectants, health experts are starting to warn that these measures might accidentally make patrons and employees sick. Poison Control calls in the U.S. spiked by nearly 40 percent in 2020, largely because of the increase in exposures to disinfectants and cleaning supplies. Former President Donald Trump may shoulder some blame here: Last year, he wondered aloud if injections of cleaning fluid might combat the coronavirus. But widespread dissemination of bad information is a likelier culprit. In one case, a woman who heard from news reports that vegetables could convey the virus “soaked her produce in bleach, vinegar, and hot water,” according to the CDC. After this toxic sous-vide experiment, she went to the hospital coughing and wheezing, where she required additional oxygen and bronchodilator medication.