In the past year, many businesses have faced the dual challenges of operating during a pandemic and learning basic epidemiology to reopen responsibly, with safety measures in place to comfort and protect both employees and consumers.
Consumers’ comfort and safety amid the pandemic are not mutually exclusive, but a new Morning Consult analysis shows that some policies health care professionals name as most effective are also the policies that will make consumers feel the safest, a positive sign for consumer-facing companies.
A March 24-28 Morning Consult survey of 2,200 U.S. adults and a March 24-29 survey of 1,000 health care professionals found the groups were in agreement as to which safety measures were effective and comforting: Regular surface sanitation and improved air filtration received some of the highest marks from both groups for both metrics -- an indicator that efforts to educate consumers on what they need to stay safe are going well.
And while businesses are still dedicated to sanitation and encouraging mask-wearing and social distancing, other precautions are stepping into the spotlight as companies learn more about how to keep patrons safe.
Tista Ghosh, senior medical director and epidemiologist for California-based health care company Grand Rounds Health, who also serves as a virtual chief medical officer for several Fortune 500 companies, said an increased understanding of how the virus spreads focuses on ventilation, rather than clean surfaces.
“While there is some droplet transmission, that’s not really a major way that coronavirus transmission occurs, and there's a lot more evidence that aerosols that form when you’re talking or breathing hard can spread far distances, especially if there’s poor ventilation,” Ghosh said. “Surfaces, of course we should try to keep them clean, but really what’s more important with coronavirus transmission is ventilation.”
Ninety percent of health care professionals said in the survey that regularly sanitizing high-touch surfaces would help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, while 74 percent of consumers said the tactic would make them feel safer. The poll found similar responses for increased air filtration (84 percent of those in the health care space said it would effectively prevent the virus’ spread, and 70 percent of overall respondents said it would make them more comfortable).
While some spaces have had to increase filtration, some businesses in the sports, entertainment and travel spaces are already fairly well-equipped to handle ventilation concerns.
Ed Bosco, a New York-based managing principal at ME Engineers working with arena operator Oak View Group on the opening of UBS Arena on Long Island this fall, said that, unlike public spaces such as grocery stores and libraries, arenas – particularly those that house ice rinks -- are generally equipped with systems that allow operators to monitor and manipulate ventilation levels.
“You're making sure your dampers work, that your outdoor air is correct, that the air is getting where it needs to be, that the control devices in the ceiling are working,” Bosco said. “You're more actively managing that, you're continuously on top of it, and the net result is you get a much safer environment, because you're getting the ventilation rates that we expect to see.”
Air filtration is just one part of CinemaSafe, a set of standardized guidelines to help movie theaters reopen safely.
Most modern movie theaters have separate HVAC systems for each auditorium, with two additional systems for the common areas, said Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer for the National Association of Theatre Owners. His organization is urging theater owners “to upgrade their filtration to get out virus sized particles,” adding that there have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus traced to movie theaters.
In the travel space, Southwest Airlines Co. is combining enhanced cleaning measures and careful air filtration to make flying as safe as possible, a spokesperson said in an email to Morning Consult, with employees spending six to seven hours a night cleaning its aircrafts, focusing on disinfecting high-touch areas. Additionally, the airline equipped all of its aircrafts with air recirculation systems that allow fresh air in every two to three minutes.
Airlines utilized ventilation systems before the pandemic, a fact that many in the travel and health care industries have emphasized in order to help consumers feel more comfortable flying.
“The fresh air exchange on an airplane is actually fantastic,” Ghosh said. “They completely change the amount of air flowing through indoors to outdoors every few minutes. That said, the airplane ventilation system is not on when you’re boarding and deplaning, so those are the times that are the highest risk.”
As more Americans plan to vacation this summer, most buses, too, use HEPA filters to keep the air inside clean, and open their doors frequently with stops, said Peter Pantuso, president and chief executive of the American Bus Association, which represents about 3,000 bus companies, most small and family-run, across the country.
Despite reports that the risk of airborne transmission of the virus is higher than surface transmission, the regular sanitization of high-touch surfaces was the measure most likely to bring comfort to the U.S. adults polled by Morning Consult, while improving ventilation was the second-most comforting measure of the 21 measures included in the survey.
Roughly two-thirds of respondents also said installing more hand sanitizers, requiring all customers or attendees to wear masks and spacing seating or standing arrangements 6 feet apart to ensure social distancing would also make them feel safe.
However, the level of comfort consumers have with most of these policies has fallen in the past year.
In a May 2020 survey, 77 percent of adults said installing more hand sanitizers would make them feel more comfortable, 11 percentage points higher than the share that said the same in the March 2021 poll.
Pandemic fatigue “plays a major role in compliance,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, noting that policies that provide consumers with alternatives such as doing activities outdoors or with windows open, “would minimize the pandemic fatigue that we've seen.”
While increasing cleaning and providing supplies adds cost, the losses accrued from social distancing restrictions and reduced capacities pack a much greater punch. Travel, sporting venues and movie theaters have all been hit hard by these policies, which are still in place in many states.
“You need a certain number of seats available in order to make a profit. You need a certain number of theaters open to make a profit for the studios to make a profit and release their major titles,” Corcoran said. “The biggest issue we face right now is that there aren't enough theaters open and enough capacity for the really big titles to open.”
Scheduled bus services such as Greyhound Lines Inc. and Megabus are also facing the crunch, operating at about 25 percent of the capacity of what they would have been in 2019, Pantuso said. Plus, many of the safety measures being taken by bus companies are costly, such as reducing capacity by 25 or 50 percent, and increasing investments in cleaning materials.
Even with fewer fans and travelers in seats, the ramp-up of vaccinations across the country has leaders across industries optimistic about the future.
Bosco, the ME Engineers principal, believes outdoor events over the summer, such as baseball games and concerts, will be an important step in easing people back into public gatherings. By the fall, when UBS Arena is scheduled to open for its inaugural NHL season – and the time by which the NHL and NBA hope all of their facilities will be back to near full capacity – people will be less resistant to getting together and more ready to return to indoor events.
“We've locked ourselves down for so long, we have to get ourselves back to a level where we're comfortable being out in public together,” he said. “It took us a year to get here and it will take us maybe just as long to get back.”
But a return to normal doesn’t necessarily mean saying goodbye to safety policies.
“We don't want to be the first ones to relax safety considerations,” Corcoran said. “We're going to follow the science, we're going to follow declining virus numbers, increasing vaccination numbers. Obviously, as these things change, you'll see us adapt as we get the scientific guidance.”
Travel industry experts also agreed that consumers have come to expect a higher level of cleanliness in public spaces, so many COVID-related safety measures will stay prominent even as the country works toward -- and eventually achieves -- herd immunity.
“I think a lot of these protocols are going to stay around for the long run,” said Ryan Waguespack, senior vice president of the National Air Transportation Association. “If it’s not COVID-19 we’re worried about, it’s going to be something else. We are now hyper-aware of germs.”