“That’s so smart! You are totally protected!”
So said someone walking past the three clear plastic geodesic domes in Mint Plaza, imagining what it would be like to sit inside. These domes were perched out front of Hashiri, a fine dining restaurant that for about 10 days in August 2020 ensconced their outdoor dining tables in plastic bubbles. San Francisco restaurants must serve seated diners outdoors at this point in the pandemic, and Hashiri had purchased the domes exclusively for this COVID-era outdoor dining (usually, customers are seated only inside at Hashiri). The restaurant’s manager Kenichiro Matsuura described the domes as protective: within the bubbles, diners were sheltered from the weather, from “disturbances” in the public plaza, and from COVID-19 exposure, he said.
I won’t wade into the issue of whether or not the domes actually mitigate virus spread, because when it comes to safety precautions in pandemic PR, appearances trump reality. By placing these domes on public display, Hashiri presented an image of a restaurant that puts tremendous effort into protecting its diners; indeed, many photos of the domes that appear in media coverage depict Hashiri staff members cleaning the walls of the domes.
The clear plastic and oft-sanitized surfaces within the dome are an example of Hygiene Theater as described by Derek Thompson, when businesses “obsess over risk-reduction rituals that make us feel safer but don’t actually do much to reduce risk.” By directing attention to their extremely diligent and loudly-promoted hygiene practices (by, say, purchasing large bubbles to isolate each table), companies hope to set consumers’ minds at ease so they feel comfortable and spend, spend, spend – without having to calculate risk.
More important than the legitimate hygienic functions of the domes is that they do the work of performing the restaurant’s commitment to safety and hygiene in incredibly public ways. Matsuura even said of the domes, “They give our customers peace of mind. They’re in their own cozy atmosphere and they feel safe. They were having a blast! That’s what’s important to me,” (emphasis mine). Whether such elaborate precautions exist to protect or put at ease restaurant staff is presumably of less importance – but when customers feel safe, they will spend money.
Ultimately, the Department of Public Health found the domes to be in violation of COVID-19 outdoor dining policies because of restricted airflow, and ordered the plastic removed. Having calculated the risk for diners and for waitstaff, DPH decided that though these plastic bubbles might look safe, no, you aren’t totally protected.