“Don’t touch your face! The virus can enter through your eye.”
I grew up with the mantra of “don’t touch your face” and as a result, I have never been thrilled to see blindfolds in escape rooms. I never wrote about this, however, because I’m not a doctor.
One of my favorite escape room teammates, Dr. Chris White, is an optometrist with Flowood Family Vision in Flowood, Mississippi. I asked him if the uneasiness that I’ve felt about blindfolds and hoods is valid… or if I should let it go?
Let’s Start with Science
Eyes are an entry point for germs. This is why public health officials have been begging people to not touch their eyes for the past couple of months.
How Eyes Get Infected
Microorganisms (or germs) can enter the eyes through the conjunctiva and cornea. The conjunctiva is a clear layer of tissue lining the eyelids and covering the white of the eye. The cornea is the clear dome of tissue above the pupil.
Most corneal infections are not contagious. They are more commonly associated with contact lens wearers, physical trauma, or spread from other areas of the body. These are problems that escape room operators don’t really have to worry about.
On the other hand, conjunctivitis, better known as “pink eye,” can create issues when combined with certain escape rooms elements. One of the more serious types of pink eye is Epidemic Keratoconjunctivitis. It is a common and highly contagious virus. Any school teacher can tell you that it spreads aggressively.
So, we’re going to focus specifically on the risks of pink eye for the purposes of understanding why eye infections are relevant to escape room design. This same logic is applicable to other bacterial and viral infections.
How Eye Infections Spread
There are multiple forms of pink eye. The etiology of infectious forms is usually either bacterial or viral. Both can be found within the mucous and tears inside of the eye of someone with pink eye.
Spreading the infection from one individual to another typically involves direct transmission. This means the contaminated mucous/ tears from the infected person must come in direct contact with another person’s conjunctiva.
This may sound improbable, but these infections are incredibly common because it is so easy to spread them. More on that soon.
When we’re talking about blindfolds in escape rooms, we’re talking about 3 categories of items used to obscure the vision of players entering a game.
- Hoods – cloth bags that are placed over the players’ heads
- Sleep mask/ bandanas – cloth that is wrapped around the players’ heads to block their vision
- Blacked out goggles/ glasses – items that are placed around the players’ eyes to block their vision
If these items are not thoroughly washed after every single use, there are potential issues.
If you’ve played enough escape rooms, you’ve absolutely had moments where you could tell that a hood or mask hadn’t been washed from its odor. Whether it’s sweat or perfume… or that vaguely unfresh scent that isn’t totally perceptible, it’s there.
Dr. White explains, “In terms of conjunctivitis, I think there is probably less risk with the hood, but I would still have some concerns about other things, such as lice. The sleep mask is very problematic. Just by putting the sleep mask on someone with conjunctivitis, it is likely contaminated. Then putting the same mask on another individual will at a minimum put the germs on their eyelids. At that point, just a simple rub to the eyes could spread the germs.”
When it comes to blackout glasses/ goggles, Dr. White’s thoughts are, “Assuming they are getting disinfected after each use, blackout glasses might be the better way to go. They are much easier to clean. Just take an alcohol swab and wipe them down ($1 for a box of 100, at least before the outbreak) or put some 70% isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle and wipe them down. I’m assuming this is pretty much what they do with 3D glasses at the movie theater. Otherwise, not cleaning the glasses carries the same potential risks in that there could be risk of transmission if they are reworn.”
Blindfolds Aren’t the Only Vector
As so many of us have learned in recent months, infection spreads in more ways than just direct contact.
If the person with the infection touches or rubs their eye with their hand, then the germs are now on their hand. At that point anything that they touch could potentially become contaminated (props, locks, flashlights, etc.)
If someone else then touches the same surface, then their hands become contaminated. If they touch or rub their eyes, then there is always potential for the germs to enter the conjunctiva and spread the infection.
Keep in mind that there are many variables to this, such as the amount of exposure and how contagious the microorganism is. You are not guaranteed to get an infection even with direct exposure.
Blindfolds Moving Forward
Clean blindfolds are not bad.
Unclean blindfolds are a threat to your players’ health.
If you’re willing to machine wash your hoods and blindfolds after every single use, then that’s fine. (Although I will be the first to tell you that it’s a little funny to smell a freshly cleaned hood over my head while I’m getting dragged into a dank murder basement. It makes me laugh every time. I appreciate it, but I still snicker.)
If you’re willing to replace your sleep masks with each use, then that’s fine.
If you’re using blackout goggles or glasses, you just need to clean them thoroughly each time. Also, make sure that they don’t have any tight areas that you’ll struggle to reach with the disinfectant.
Don’t Forget Psychology
I don’t know how the events of 2020 will impact the various cultures around the world.
It’s my suspicion that some will return to life as normal, while others will forever change their relationship with the world.
I would urge you to think about the people who will be less inclined to put anything on or near their eyes moving forward.
If you have a game with blindfolds, but they aren’t necessary, just eliminate them.
More often than not, I’m baffled by the presence of blindfolds. I understand their place in abduction stories, but blindfolds aren’t usually doing any favors for spaceship, submarine, or wizarding-school games.
Think Broader About Health & Cleanliness
If 2020 has reinforced anything, it’s that one person’s infection can become many people’s infection. This means rethinking your approach to game resetting and cancellation policies.
Resetting = Sterilizing Eye Interactions
It’s incredibly common for escape rooms to contain items that you press your eye against.
If you have any items in your rooms that players are expected to hold up to their face… or that players typically hold up to their faces (even if they aren’t supposed to), then these should be sterilized after each playthrough.
You don’t want sick players in your games.
Whether their eyes are pink and oozing or they are coughing up a lung, you don’t want sick people in your games. They are a hazard to you, your employees, their teammates, and subsequent teams in your facility.
Having a cancellation policy that allows sick people a reasonable means of rescheduling can go a long way towards keeping their germs out of your games.
I’m going to give Dr. White the final words:
“I also just want to point out that if someone goes into an escape room while they are sick, whether it’s conjunctivitis or the flu, they are going to spread germs everywhere. If someone goes in with the flu and coughs, then everything in a 6-foot radius is contaminated. This isn’t just in escape rooms. It’s the same for any public space, grocery store, sporting event, subways, restaurants, etc. And it’s always been like that.
“Aside from not reusing blindfolds, I think a big takeaway from this is that people need to take more personal responsibility. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face/ rub your eyes (this is difficult).
“If you are sick or have an eye infection, don’t go to an escape room.
“As an owner (or gamemaster), observe your group. If someone clearly appears sick, or if they have a red eye dripping with mucous, do your due diligence. Ask questions to determine if it’s safe for that person to be in your game. Reschedule if necessary, or at a minimum, do a very deep clean after the group is done.
“In our office we have always followed our standard cleaning procedures. Anytime someone comes in with a nasty conjunctivitis, I give the staff the signal and everything gets heavily cleaned. Anything they touched or were near gets wiped down with disinfectant, including the door handles to the office.”