Hygiene theater won’t end the pandemic

Photo by Mélissa Jeanty on Unsplash

After 9/11, Americans learned to recognize “security theater:” Things done by the government or businesses to improve public safety that didn’t actually do much. It’s been 20 years and we still have to take our shoes off at the airport. 

The goal of security theater wasn’t necessarily to make us safer—it was to show that the people in charge were Doing Something. Sadly, doing something meant destroying Afghanistan for 20 years, invading Iraq, and spending trillions of dollars with nothing to show for it.

What haunts us now is hygiene theater. The pandemic has drawn out the hypochondriac hidden away in many of our fellow citizens and worsened anxiety. The scientific evidence of how COVID-19 spread didn’t drive local policy so much as the fear of Not Doing Enough. Thus, hand sanitizer was plentiful, outdoor masking was demanded, and schools were shuttered.

In the early months of the pandemic, that response was understandable. Many people even accepted a lockdown to slow the spread because they were worried about hospitals getting overwhelmed with COVID cases.

However. After 18 months of living in a plague era, it’s not acceptable for political leaders to cower in fear and assume the worst-case scenario. We know much more now. We have a highly effective vaccine. And the time is past when policy that restricts freedom is excusable in the name of public health.

Wisely, Gov. Wolf has already declined to issue a mask mandate for Pennsylvania. Instead, he has emphasized the importance of vaccines. Vaccines work better than any mask-wearing ever could. They save lives.

Unfortunately, city leaders in Philadelphia have decided to throw in their lots with hygiene theater and performative action. 

Even though 77 percent of adults in the city are at least partially vaccinated, new restrictions now demand all businesses need to enforce a mask mandate or proof of vaccination to enter, according to NBC10. Outdoor non-seated events with more than 1,000 people must also require masks, and city employees will need to be vaccinated or double-mask and get tested weekly.

A requirement for city workers to be vaccinated or get tested weekly is reasonable. It’s not a “mandate” as some have called it; a mandate would be “get the vaccine or you’re fired.” But in a city with a high vaccination rate, where the unvaccinated only have to ask to get the vaccine, it’s hard to justify punishing the vaccinated with public and private restrictions.

We can be adults about this. Let businesses decide their own restrictions. Creating more restrictions for the vaccinated only makes it harder to persuade the vaccine-hesitant to get the jab. By flocking back to mask mandates, city leaders push the notion that vaccination is not enough and masks do more. Masking was useful as a holdover until an effective vaccine could be developed. We have that vaccine now—the focus needs to be on getting as many people vaccinated as possible. Masking after vaccination undermines that focus.

Yes, COVID cases are rising in the city and statewide. But the overwhelming majority of cases are among the unvaccinated. Ensuring that the unvaccinated get the vaccine will protect them much more than requiring everyone already protected to also wear masks. COVID will not disappear. City restrictions cannot only focus on case counts. 

Persuading the remaining 23 percent of the city to get vaccinated—especially anyone over 50, who is most at-risk of COVID—should be the priority. Not mask mandates. Not reining in the vaccinated, who pose the smallest threat to public health. Politically symbolic gestures cannot be tolerated anymore, especially when they restrict basic freedoms and don’t actually improve public health.

Political pressure should not dictate the public health response, but that has been the way of the United States since March 2020. City leaders want to Do Something and look responsible. Instead of trying yet another round of mask mandates, they should point out how much more dangerous COVID is to the unvaccinated, and tell us what they’re doing to reach out to the vaccine-hesitant. Social responsibility is a two-lane street: If someone has done their part by getting vaccinated, they should not be beaten over the head with a mask mandate. They’re not a public health threat. 

More and more, that threat is coming from city leaders themselves, who love the power and control they’ve gained during the pandemic. Like security theater after 9/11, the actions they take don’t solve a lot of problems, but it helps remind the public who wears the boot.

  • Anthony Hennen

    Anthony Hennen is executive editor of Philadelphia Weekly. He is managing editor of expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region. Previously, he was managing editor at the James G. Martin Center, a higher ed think tank in Raleigh, North Carolina. Anthony grew up on the Ohio/West Virginia border. @anthonyhennen.

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