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Hygiene Theater?

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there was a great deal of confusion regarding the spread of the virus. It was originally thought that fomite (or surface) transmission was a significant factor in the growing number of cases.

Dire warnings from well-respected public health agencies like the CDC and WHO about surface transmission led to panic buying of items like Clorox Wipes and Lysol. Beyond emptying shelves, newly adopted disinfection rituals were being carried out by people after grocery shopping or during the unboxing of parcels.

Due in large part to the continued study of modes of disease transmission, new reports provided evidence that the risk is now considered to be exceedingly low for people to be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.

Unfortunately, retractions and amendments of statements and studies often go unnoticed. The lack of attention paid to this updated guidance is the chief reason why the deep cleaning of venues continues to be marketed to consumers.

Unsurprisingly, this marketing approach, often referred to as hygiene theater, has been met with criticism. This “practice of taking hygiene measures that are intended to give the illusion of improved safety while doing little to actually reduce any risk” has been adopted by many businesses, including live events organizations.

The concept of marketing the health-worthiness of your events is not unprecedented. In fact, a theater boasted about their ventilation rates in a newspaper ad in the Chicago Tribune following the 1918 flu pandemic.

Despite the criticism, should your organization publish their cleaning procedures and risk participating in “hygiene theater”?

In the latest COVID-19 impact survey, we asked 3,400+ members of the TheaterMania community how important it is to them that the theater they are attending publishes their cleaning procedures in advance. An overwhelming 89.8% of the respondents ranked publishing cleaning procedures in advance as slightly important, important, fairly important or very important (with the remaining 10.2% selecting not at all important).

The opinions about this topic spilled into the comment box at the end of the survey, which validates its cultural divide.

Avid theatergoer and survey taker Steve M. of Schaumburg, IL was very much in favor of being informed and commented that he wants theaters to “share cleaning and enhanced procedures for safety ahead of time so we can be informed and choose safely.”

While other arts patrons like Emily D. of Astoria, NY took a more no-nonsense approach in her survey response: “Please don’t waste time and money on hygiene theatre. If your patrons want hygiene theatre, please use the money you could have spent on pointless extra cleaning to help educate them. Or make a play about hygiene theatre! I’d go see it!”

All live events organizations – from small theaters to 100,000 seat stadiums – must decide on how to approach the topic of publishing cleaning procedures as they reopen.

Our friends at TCU Place in Saskatchewan, Canada, an AudienceView client since 2010, made the decision to publish their procedures related to coronavirus prevention on their website and via their Theatre Safety Guide. This comprehensive document includes all their safety protocols, including sections specifically addressing Pre/Post-Event Sanitization and Facility Cleanliness & Hand Sanitizer Stations.

In addition to describing their cleaning procedures, TCU Place also addressed their new protocols related to reducing surface and person to person exposure through contact-free ticket scanning, restrooms with touchless fixtures, contactless payments and strongly encouraging the use of digital tickets.

While survey respondents were interested in understanding the cleaning procedures of theaters, they were not in support of some of the other safety protocols like temperature checks and additional testing that are often also considered part of hygiene theatre.

Although hygiene theatre has its critics, live events organizations should highly consider finding cost effective ways to share the safety protocols that are most important to their patrons, like cleaning procedures, to reduce fears and increase buyer confidence.

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