Communicating with my beloved wife when she is away from the house has become a bit trickier because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but I can’t blame her.

COVID-19 has made navigating the outside world stickier and ickier because of the worry about touching potentially contaminated surfaces and a resulting desire to disinfect continually as protection from the coronavirus.

Keeping your hands clean is chore enough, but you also need to worry about your iPhone. “If a mobile phone isn’t exactly an extension of the human hand, it should be treated like one during COVID-19,” Hartford HealthCare recently said, in advice I’ve seen echoed repeatedly online. “Your phone, like your hand, is a bacteria and virus magnet.”

To be fair, the US Centers for Disease Control no longer considers surface transmission to be a primary vector of infection, saying:

It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about how this virus spreads.

WebMD also has an article from 3 September 2020 discussing the low likelihood of surface transmission. Nevertheless, the CDC still recommends daily disinfection of frequently touched surfaces, including phones, and for electronics refers users to the manufacturer’s instructions. With regard to the iPhone, Apple says:

Using a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, you may gently wipe the exterior surfaces of your iPhone. Don’t use bleach. Avoid getting moisture in any openings, and don’t submerge your iPhone in any cleaning agents.

Unsurprisingly, when she’s doing errands, my wife has become reluctant to dig her iPhone out of her handbag to check text messages or answer a call. This makes her irritatingly but understandably difficult to reach.

It recently dawned on me that the Apple Watch may be the solution. My wife has never used or expressed any interest in using one. But if I persuaded her to do so, I reasoned, I would have a better shot at getting in touch with her while she was out and about. All she’d have to do is tap the watch screen with her pinkie when I texted, called, or started a Walkie-Talkie conversation with her.

Hardware hygiene would be easier, too. A quick swipe with a disinfectant wipe would do it. Apple’s advice for disinfecting an Apple Watch is similar to that for the iPhone:

Using a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, you may gently wipe the exterior surfaces of your Apple Watch, Sport Band, or metal band. Don’t use on fabric or leather bands. Don’t use bleach. Avoid getting moisture in any openings, and don’t submerge your Apple Watch in any cleaning agents.

Coronavirus-Fighting Features

This got me thinking about how the Apple Watch can be a helpful—even essential—piece of personal technology during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In some ways, this is obvious. For instance, the Apple Watch now nags you about washing your hands, a highly recommended way to protect yourself from viruses (see “watchOS 7 Introduces Sleep Tracking, Handwashing Detection, and More,” 22 June 2020). The Handwashing Timer feature prompts you to scrub for the recommended 20 seconds. A companion capability called Handwashing Reminders nudges you to wash your hands after you get home. Enable them in the Watch app, in My Watch > Handwashing.

Handwashing reminders

I really need the Handwashing Timer since I am otherwise prone to wash for only five seconds or so, as my stopwatch-wielding wife has informed me. The feature needs work, though. As my household’s designated dishwasher (a duty I adore since it’s my tech-podcast listening time), I’m irritated at how the timer keeps kicking in as I wash up from dinner.

Handwashing Reminders also is helpful. More than six months into the pandemic, I still forget to wash my hands upon getting home some of the time, so I definitely appreciate the nudge. But it too isn’t perfect—if I’ve merely been out for a walk around the neighborhood, there’s no real need to wash, not that a few extra washes are a problem.

Apple Watch O2 readingBlood oxygen tracking in the Apple Watch Series 6 could be another boon for pandemic-perturbed users (see “Apple Unveils Apple Watch Series 6 and Apple Watch SE,” 15 September 2020). I’ve been told repeatedly to invest in a basic fingertip pulse oximeter since blood-oxygen monitoring is a way to monitor for the possible onset of COVID-19, but procrastination is one of my superpowers. How awesome is it that I now have that capability on my wrist?

But we should reserve judgment on this capability for the moment. Apple doesn’t market the Apple Watch as a medical device, and rigorous studies of how its blood-oxygen monitoring compares to medical-grade gadgetry are scarce. A Washington Post reviewer recently said he is not impressed by the feature, and the IEEE Spectrum site urges caution for now.

Other Useful Features During a Pandemic

Time-tested Apple Watch features have potential utility in these confusing times as well. If your goal is to reduce the need to touch surfaces in public—notably credit card payment terminals, along with your iPhone—the Apple Watch has much to offer. Casual users are often unaware of these features, as I’ve come to learn after numerous conversations with such people.

Tap-to-pay with Apple Pay is an important one. It involves using your iPhone or your Apple Watch to make purchases at brick-and-mortar establishments simply by bringing the device into close proximity with an NFC-enabled payment terminal. The payment tech has particular resonance during a pandemic since you typically touch nothing (including your iPhone if you have set up your watch for Apple Pay) during such a transaction.

Apple has done a good job of popularizing Apple Pay, but barriers to greater adoption remain. Some people worry that it is less secure than paying with a card, which is entirely incorrect—Apple Pay is far more secure. To this day, I cannot get my wife to consider it. Apple might want to promote the security and zero-touch nature of Apple Pay in a pandemic context.

Also, Apple Pay can be a pain to set up, and Apple doesn’t score any points by having iPadOS nag you to set it up even on an iPad you’ll never take out of the house. (You can use it for some in-app and online payments, which is why Apple does this.) Setting up Apple Pay with my credit union was a nightmare, but I’ve heard that the process is getting easier. Your experience will likely vary depending on which financial institution you use—the larger the bank, the more likely they’ve eliminated unnecessary signup hurdles.

Because of the pandemic, I have taken a closer look at other Apple Watch features lately. Although I’m far more iPhone-focused than my wife, I’ve found numerous ways where I’ve migrated my on-the-go usage patterns over to the watch, including:

  • Responding to texts and other messages: Before the pandemic, I rarely replied to incoming messages on my watch using an emoji or a quick text reply via voice dictation, and now I’m amazed I neglected these features.
  • Answering voice calls: There’s a cool Dick Tracy vibe to this capability, but I have worried about seeming rude to those around me, so I’ve generally abstained. I still worry about that, but the pandemic is prompting me to use the feature in brief spurts.
  • Managing tasks: I’m a recent convert to the Reminders app. I invariably interact with it through Siri on my Apple Watch.Google Keep on the Apple Watch
  • Managing notes: I noted a while back how my preferred notes app Google Keep had gained Apple Watch support (see “Google Keep Now Supports the Apple Watch, Apple’s Notes Still AWOL,” 18 April 2019), and I’m using this feature a lot more because of the pandemic.
  • Queuing up podcasts: Podcast management on the Apple Watch is another feature I’ve written about (see “Overcast and Apple’s Podcasts Make the Apple Watch a Decent Podcast Player,” 15 October 2018). I haven’t used it as much as I’d like because Overcast, my preferred podcatcher, hasn’t quite nailed its Apple Watch support. But, because of the pandemic, I’m making more of an effort.Overcast on the Apple Watch
  • Ordering pizza for curbside pickup: My family tends to order the exact same Domino’s pie every time, so the pizza chain’s Apple Watch app comes in handy. It’s basically just a button that triggers my standard pickup order. Nice!

Speaking of My Wife

My theory that my wife would be more available when away from the house if she wore an Apple Watch is just that, a theory. To test it, I’ve taken delivery of a 40mm Apple Watch SE for her.

I honestly have no idea how this will go. My wife is far from a tech power user, tending more towards the Luddite end of the spectrum. While she’s fond of her iPhone, she takes advantage of only a tiny fraction of its capabilities, and she likes it that way. She has only one third-party app on it, Google Photos, which I installed so it would automatically upload her photos for safekeeping.

She does seem abstractly interested in the Apple Watch’s communication capabilities, but she also seems averse to having something other than a loose bracelet on her wrist, and she has not used a traditional watch in a decade. Still, she is being a good sport about participating in my little experiment. We all need amusements during these dark and confusing days, and this is apparently one of them for her.