The Pandemic’s ‘Ghost Architecture’ Is Still Haunting Us

Last Friday, in a bathroom at the Newark airport, I encountered a phrase I hadn’t seen in a long time: Stop the spread. It accompanied an automatic hand-sanitizing station, which groaned weakly when I passed my hand beneath it, dispensing nothing. Presumably set up in the early pandemic, the sign and dispenser had long ago become relics. Basically everyone seemed to ignore them. Elsewhere in the terminal, I spotted prompts to maintain a safe distance and reduce overcrowding, while maskless passengers sat elbow-to-elbow in waiting areas and mobbed the gates.

Beginning in 2020, COVID signage and equipment were everywhere. Stickers indicated how to stand six feet apart. Arrows on the grocery-store floor directed shopping-cart traffic. Plastic barriers enforced distancing. Masks required signs dotted store windows, before they were eventually replaced by softer pronouncements such as masks recommended and masks welcome. Such messages—some more helpful than others—became an unavoidable part of navigating pandemic life.

Four years later, the coronavirus has not disappeared—but the health measures are gone, and so is most daily concern about the pandemic. Yet much of this COVID signage remains, impossible to miss even if the messages are ignored or outdated. In New York, where I live, notices linger in the doorways of apartment buildings and stores. A colleague in Woburn, Massachusetts, sent me a photo of a sign reminding park-goers to gather in groups of 10 or less; another, in Washington, D.C., showed me stickers on the floors of a bookstore and pier bearing faded reminders to stay six feet apart. “These are artifacts from another moment that none of us want to return to,” Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at NYU and the author of 2020: One City, Seven People, and the Year Everything Changed, told me. All these fliers, signs, and stickers make up the “ghost architecture” of the pandemic, and they are still haunting America today.

That some COVID signage persists makes sense, considering how much of it once existed. According to the COVID-19 Signage Archive, one store in Key West had a reminder to mask up during the initial Omicron wave: Do not wear it above chin or below nose. In the summer of 2021, a placard at a Houston grocery store indicated that the shopping carts had been “sanitizd.” And in November 2020, you could have stepped on a customized welcome mat in Washington, D.C., that read Thank you for practicing 6 ft social distancing. Eli Fessler, a software engineer who launched the crowdsourced archive in December 2020, wanted “to preserve some aspect of [COVID signage] because it felt so ephemeral,” he told me. The gallery now comprises nearly 4,000 photos of signs around the world, including submissions he received as recently as this past October: a keep safe distance sign in Incheon, South Korea.

No doubt certain instances of ghost architecture can be attributed to forgetfulness, laziness, or apathy. Remnants of social-distancing stickers on some New York City sidewalks appear too tattered to bother scraping away; outdoor-dining sheds, elaborately constructed but now barely used, are a hassle to dismantle. A faded decal posted at a restaurant near my home in Manhattan depicts social-distancing guidelines for ordering takeout alcohol that haven’t been relevant since 2020. “There’s a very human side to this,” Fessler said. “We forget to take things down. We forget to update signs.”

But not all of it can be chalked up to negligence. Signs taped to a door can be removed as easily as they are posted; plastic barriers can be taken down. Apart from the ease, ghost architecture should have disappeared by now because spotting it is never pleasant. Even in passing, the signs can awaken uncomfortable memories of the early pandemic. The country’s overarching response to the pandemic is what Klinenberg calls the “will not to know”—a conscious denial that COVID changed life in any meaningful way. Surely, then, some examples are left there on purpose, even if they evoke bad memories.

When I recently encountered the masks required sign that’s still in the doorway of my local pizza shop, my mind flashed back to more distressing times: Remember when that was a thing? The sign awakened a nagging voice in my brain reminding me that I used to mask up and encourage others to do the same, filling me with guilt that I no longer do so. Perhaps the shop owner has felt something similar. Though uncomfortable, the signs may persist because taking them down requires engaging with their messages head-on, prompting a round of fraught self-examination: Do I no longer believe in masking? Why not? “We have to consciously and purposely say we no longer need this,” Klinenberg told me.

Outdated signs are likely more prevalent in places that embraced public-health measures to begin with, namely bluer areas. “I would be surprised to see the same level of ghost architecture in Florida, Texas, or Alabama,” Klinenberg said. But ghost architecture seems to persist everywhere. A colleague sent a photo of a floor sticker in a Boise, Idaho, restaurant that continues to thank diners for practicing social distancing. These COVID callbacks are sometimes even virtual: An outdated website for a Miami Beach spa still encourages guests to physically distance and to “swipe your own credit card.”

Most of all, the persistence of ghost architecture directly reflects the failure of public-health messaging to clearly state what measures were needed, and when. Much of the signage grew out of garbled communication in the first place: “Six feet” directives, for example, far outlasted the point when public-health experts knew it was a faulty benchmark for stopping transmission.

The rollback of public-health precautions has been just as chaotic. Masking policy has vacillated wildly since the arrival of vaccines; although the federal COVID emergency declaration officially ended last May, there was no corresponding call to end public-health measures across the country. Instead, individual policies lapsed at different times in different states, and in some cases were setting-specific: California didn’t end its mask requirement for high-risk environments such as nursing homes until last April. Most people still don’t know how to think about COVID, Klinenberg said, and it’s easier to just leave things as they are.

If these signs are the result of confusing COVID messaging, they are also adding to the problem. Prompts to wash or sanitize your hands are generally harmless. In other situations, however, ghost architecture can perpetuate misguided beliefs, such as thinking that keeping six feet apart is protective in a room full of unmasked people, or that masks alone are foolproof against COVID. To people who must still take precautions for health reasons, the fact that signs are still up, only to be ignored, can feel like a slap in the face. The downside to letting ghost architecture persist is that it sustains uncertainty about how to behave, during a pandemic or otherwise.

The contradiction inherent in ghost architecture is that it both calls to mind the pandemic and reflects a widespread indifference to it. Maybe people don’t bother to take the signs down because they assume that nobody will follow them anyway, Fessler said. Avoidance and apathy are keeping them in place, and there’s not much reason to think that will change. At this rate, COVID’s ghost signage may follow the same trajectory as the defunct Cold War–era nuclear-fallout-shelter signs that lingered on New York City buildings for more than half a century, at once misleading observers and reminding them that the nuclear threat, though diminished, is still present.

The signs I saw at the Newark airport seemed to me hopelessly obsolete, yet they still stoked unease about how little I think about COVID now, even though the virus is still far deadlier than the flu and other common respiratory illnesses. Passing another stop the spread hand-sanitizing station, I put my palm under the dispenser, expecting nothing. But this time, a dollop of gel squirted into my hand.