Brian Resnick’s article on Vox summarizes some of the issues we are all facing in the back-to-school period. Coronavirus is in the air, and being indoors with an infected person for a prolonged time increases the viral load that one is exposed to. This is critical to understand.

As Derek Thompson observes in the Atlantic, a lot of places have put on a big show about cleaning surfaces — what he calls “hygiene theater” — though surface contamination is not thought to be a large source of Covid-19 transmission.

Making places safer, instead, should mean improving air quality. But “have you ever heard a restaurant reopening announce they’ve improved ventilation or increased ventilation?” Lidia Morawska, an engineer and the director of the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health at Queensland University of Technology, recently told me. “No.”

The “hygiene theater” of surface cleaning is already entrenched in mask wearing. Mask wearing is critical to reducing disease transmission from a public health perspective, but masks aren’t magical COVID-19 blockers, especially when people are wearing them around their chins or taking them off before they sneeze (seriously, I have seen this in the grocery store). I think that a lot of people believe lots of activities, like sitting in a classroom all day, are OK as long as everyone wears masks, at least most of the time. I don’t believe that—at least not at a time in which Covid cases are climbing, and outbreaks have been traced to gatherings of people indoors or families sharing a home.

I am concerned that in schools, restaurants, and other public places, “ventilation theater” will soon run rampant. We will be promised that “ventilation system improvements” will protect us, our children, and our grandparents, even when most buildings can’t be redesigned to circulate or scrub the air with any real effectiveness. The article points this out, too:

Remember: Hygiene theater is possible when it comes to air quality as well. If a school or any indoor space says it has improved ventilation, ask how. Marr suggests asking building operators what the air exchange rate is (if they don’t know it, maybe be wary about the space). Ask about what filters have been put in place. Ask if their HVAC systems have been routinely maintained.

I do wonder when things will go back to pre-Covid normal. I am advocating opening windows and using window fans to exchange inside- and outside air, to the extent that is possible, in public buildings. Most places I can think of aren’t really designed for that, unfortunately.