Sarah Green Carmichael

Never Stop Cleaning Like It’s 2020

A pandemic may have no silver linings, but Covid-19 has brought one change I hope will last: obsessive cleaning.

Not that wiping down surfaces has done much to stop the virus. Coronavirus transmission from contaminated surfaces is “really minor,” Joseph Allen, a Harvard expert on health and safety in buildings, told me. Spraying places like airports and movie theaters with gallons of disinfectant might make people feel safer, but “at this point, it’s clear that we’re overcleaning,” said Allen.

However: Before the pandemic, we were undercleaning. Swabs taken in the New York City subway in 2015 turned up more than a hundred strains of bacteria, including some associated with meningitis and urinary tract infections. Standard MTA practice pre-pandemic was to lightly clean subway cars once a day, and deep-clean them every 72 days. For a system that carries more than 5 million riders every day, all I can say is: Ew.

Nor were our offices particularly sanitary. In May 2020, I spoke with Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, author of “Open Plan: A Design History of the American Office,” who told me offices were “kind of gross” precisely because they’re the kind of places that never seemed especially dirty — so most companies didn’t invest much in getting them clean. Full-time janitors long ago lost their jobs to overworked and underpaid contract cleaners.

Combine that with corporate pressure to demonstrate commitment by working while sick, and the result is an environment where illness can spread rapidly. One much-cited 2013 study showed simulated viruses spreading from a single employee’s hand to half of shared office surfaces in just four hours. Cleaning and hand-washing cut the transmission rate drastically.

Not every country lets its shared spaces get so dirty. In the Before Times, it wasn’t unusual to fly home from abroad and be startled by the filthiness of American airports. Before any Amtrak trip, the agonizing calculation was: Would the Penn Station ladies’ room be more or less disgusting than the toilet on the train?

There was no need to live that way. And there are real, non-Covid-related health benefits to cleanliness. It might even make us more productive. While Allen emphasizes that improved ventilation can do the most to keep people healthy, he has also written about evidence that workers get more headaches and type more slowly when they’re in a room with a contaminated carpet. Why not open a window and break out the vacuum?

Look, cleaning is nobody’s idea of a good time. It also costs companies and cities money, and means shutting down some facilities while cleaning crews are working.

But the pandemic has made clear that many of the shortcuts we take to avoid cleaning — from waving a firehose of sanitizer to using “antimicrobial” materials — don’t work that well. Such shortcuts are at best a form of theater. At worst, they can introduce harmful chemicals into our environment or create antibacterial-resistant superbugs.

After Covid-19 recedes, let’s keep using soap, water and elbow grease to keep every place clean.