Hand-washing timer, Memoji face masks: How Apple is helping us cope with coronavirus

iOS 14 and WatchOS 7 are getting new tools in the age of COVID-19, but you won't see them until fall.

Sarah Mitroff Managing Editor
Sarah Mitroff is a Managing Editor for CNET, overseeing our health, fitness and wellness section. Throughout her career, she's written about mobile tech, consumer tech, business and startups for Wired, MacWorld, PCWorld, and VentureBeat.
Expertise Tech, Health, Lifestyle
Sarah Mitroff
3 min read

With Apple's forthcoming WatchOS 7, your watch will remind you to wash your hands for 20 seconds.

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are widespread. It's completely changed how we interact with strangers in the world, buy groceries, connect with friends and family, exercise and more. At Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, the tech giant revealed a few new features to help you cope with the new normal; automatic hand-washing detection and face masks for Memoji. The bad news? They likely won't be available before September.

This isn't the first time Apple's helped us deal with the coronavirus. Back in March 2020, the company launched an online and app-based tool to screen for the coronavirus. It also developed coronavirus contact tracing tools with Google, which allow health agencies across many US states to track all of the people that an infected person interacted with, to slow the spread of the virus.

Apple WWDC 2020 event

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Automatic hand-washing detection

Before you say "Who the heck needs a timer for washing their hands?" consider the flood of information during the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak telling us that we weren't cleaning our hands enough. With the launch of WatchOS 7, which is slated to arrive in the fall of 2020, the Apple Watch will make sure you do.

The Apple Watch's hand-washing timer.


Using the watch's built-in motion sensors and microphone, it will automatically detect when you're washing your hands and start a 20-second timer so that you know when you're done cleaning your hands thoroughly enough. 

If you try to stop early, the watch will nudge you to keep scrubbing. The Apple Watch will also remind you to wash your hands when you get home, so that you don't spread any nasty germs from the outside world around your house.

Yes, there are various tips and tricks to get you to wash your hands for 20 seconds without needing an expensive smartwatch. But if you already have an Apple Watch, it will take all of the guesswork out of the process.

It's a noble feature that I think Apple should release for all Apple Watches right now, especially as states are reopening and people are socializing in person for the first time in months.

By the way, Google beat Apple to the punch by introducing a hand-washing reminder and timer for smartwatches that run on Wear OS.

Memoji face masks and more

Apple Memoji face coverings
Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

Now that face masks are mandatory in many US states, and many of us will be wearing them for the foreseeable future, Apple's adding an option to give your personalized Memoji a face mask. I'm not going to pretend that a face mask for your Memoji will have any impact on your health; it appears to be a small way that Apple is helping people normalize how we are living now.

Apple mentioned one more update that gives a nod to the coronavirus, but doesn't specifically call it out. Apple Maps will get turn -by-turn directions for cyclists. With a boost in people using bikes to get around since the start of the pandemic, there's a greater demand for directions that address a bicyclist's needs. Cycling directions on Apple Maps will let you choose less crowded routes (to cut down on exposure from others' germs), as well as avoid routes that require you to use stairs.

Will these features make a difference?

The Apple Watch has become a robust health coach, offering daily reminders to move your body, stand up and take a few seconds to breathe, all in the name of a better you. Automatic hand washing detection feeds right into that intention, while also helping slow the spread of germs for everyone else.

It's hard to say how much of an impact these features will have on our health during the pandemic, but there is something to be said about the positive influences Apple Watches have had on people's lives. Because the Apple Watch has more niche health and fitness features than many other wearables, it's been able to detect problems no one knew was there -- like atrial fibrillation or hyperthyroidism. While washing your hands for 20 seconds might not immediately save your life, it's likely to create a new habit that sticks with you. And in the times of the coronavirus, that could keep you from getting sick.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.