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The Cleaning Industry Ramps Up To Fight COVID-19 At Commercial Properties, But It Might Fail

As business and property owners take precautions against the spread of the novel coronavirus, many say they are "deep cleaning" their spaces while keeping them open to customers and tenants alike.

Yet what precisely a deep cleaning means — and how effective it might be, considering lingering questions about how long the virus lasts on surfaces — isn't exactly clear. Moreover, the commercial cleaning industry is fragmented, unregulated and perhaps unprepared to deal with the current surge in demand.

An Aftermath technician preparing to clean a building.

Demand for cleaning is certainly surging, especially since the scope of the pandemic became clearer into March.

"Just today, we fielded over 350 requests about cleaning buildings, and within those, some confirmed coronavirus cases at buildings," Aftermath Chief Revenue Officer Tina Bao told Bisnow on Thursday. Aurora, Illinois-based Aftermath is a national crime scene cleanup and biohazard remediation company.

In the days before the novel coronavirus, few commercial property managers concerned themselves with whether an infectious pathogen was lurking on frequently touched surfaces or anywhere else at their offices. Cleaning commercial or even multifamily common areas used to be routine, and mostly for appearance. 

The outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States is now forcing fundamental changes in the way people interact with public and private spaces where strangers interact. Schools are closing nationwide, with more than a dozen states shutting them down by Sunday. All bars and restaurants have been closed in some states, the NBA, MLB and NHL all suspended their seasons and many retail operations are going dark temporarily.

With the number of confirmed U.S. cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, increasing exponentially, and cases among people at U.S. commercial properties rising apace, the question of how to clean office space is front and center.

"Our customers are concerned, but we aren't getting panic calls," said Lyle Gilbertson, the owner of Phoenix-based commercial cleaning service provider SolSource Janitorial.

Gilbertson said he is sure that demand for cleaning is going to rise as more cases of office workers testing positive for the coronavirus come to light. Help-wanted ads for cleaners are on track to spike 75% in March, according to online jobs marketplace ZipRecruiter.

"We didn’t see much of a change in February, but the first few weeks of March we are seeing a big shift,” ZipRecruiter's Julia Pollack told MarketWatch.

Single-tenant commercial buildings have the option of shutting down, and some have. In early March in Seattle, for example, the 516K SF F5 Tower closed after an employee of F5 Networks, its sole tenant, came into contact with another person diagnosed with COVID-19. 

After an Amazon employee tested positive for the virus early in the month, the tech giant ordered its workers to go home, emptying its many buildings in its South Lake Union headquarters. Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook soon followed suit.

Companies are eager to clean their workplaces and, perhaps as importantly, reassure workers that they are doing their part to combat the coronavirus. But closing a major multi-tenant space is trickier, with some properties opting for cleaning instead of closure — which, as the virus reached pandemic status, health officials have recommended.

In Chicago, Sterling Bay told tenants March 11 that a worker at One Two Pru, a major office tower it owns in the Loop, had contracted COVID-19. Later the same day, a worker at 555 West Monroe St., which is fully occupied by PepsiCo, was confirmed to have the virus

"We take this situation extremely seriously," Sterling Bay said in a statement. "In addition to aggressive nightly cleaning and disinfection measures taken throughout the building in accordance with CDC and WHO protocol — which began long before this incident occurred — last night’s cleaning also included the additional measure of an electrostatic sprayer application of a virus-killing cleaning product on common area touch points."

An electrostatic sprayer adds a charge to a chemical as it is sprayed, making it more likely to adhere to a surface for the amount of time necessary to neutralize pathogens there.

A PepsiCo spokeswoman said in an email to Bisnow Friday that a combination of the building's regular janitorial team and a specialized team cleaned 555 West Monroe overnight. She didn't offer further details about the process.

The interest in cleaning isn't confined to commercial properties, with residential property managers reporting that they are increasing their efforts to clean common spaces.

"This week, our staff has been wiping down doorknobs, handrails, elevator buttons, mailboxes and other surfaces every day with disinfectant," Sunrise Management & Consulting President Jesse Holland said. Albany, New York-based Sunrise manages about 1,500 apartment units in the region.

For now, those steps are the best precautions, he said, but he added he is ready to close common areas, such as pools and fitness rooms. If necessary, he said he is prepared to bring in specialists his company has previously hired, in case a resident comes in contact with the coronavirus.

Jeff and Lori Jones, who own BioSheen Services, a forensic cleaning company in Oklahoma City.

Cleaning buildings to reduce the presence of airborne pathogens isn't new. It has been around in one form or another since the early 20th century, and has evolved as new threats have come to light and new technologies have been developed.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued interim recommendations for "community facilities with suspected or confirmed coronavirus presence." That is, non-healthcare facilities, including office buildings, shops and other commercial properties, but not hotels.

The caveat is that there is still a lot unknown about the virus and especially its transmission. For instance, transmission to persons from surfaces contaminated with the virus hasn't been documented yet, according to the CDC, though the latest evidence suggests the virus can remain viable on various surfaces, perhaps for a few days.

Some definitions from the agency: Cleaning refers to the removal of dirt and germs from surfaces, not killing or otherwise neutralizing them, while disinfecting a surface means applying chemicals to kill viruses or organisms on surface. It isn't absolute, but it further reduces the chance of infection. 

The CDC recommends closing off areas used by the infected persons, then waiting before beginning cleaning and disinfection to minimize possible exposure. Then, staff should clean and disinfect all areas used by the infected persons, especially frequently touched surfaces, while wearing protective gear to prevent themselves from getting infected.

The agency stresses the importance of using chemicals that are known to be effective against harder-to-kill viruses, especially against other coronaviruses. As yet, none of them have been tested against the novel coronavirus because it is too new. 

"When cleaning for health, you're removing bio-contaminants to prepare surfaces, horizontal and vertical, for disinfecting," Global Biorisk Advisory Council Director of Forensic Operations Jeff Jones, who is also a founding member of BioSheen Services, based in Oklahoma City. 

Every cleaning is different in its details, Jones said, but the essential process depends on three factors: the chemicals applied to the surfaces, the equipment used to apply them and whether personnel are properly trained to follow CDC guidelines.

Professional disinfecting involves the application of an Environmental Protection Agency-registered, hospital-grade disinfectant that kills bacteria and inactivates viruses, Jones said ("inactivate" is the term he prefers, since viruses aren't believed to be alive in the sense that other organisms are).

The strongest disinfecting chemicals inactivate 99.9999% of viruses, as opposed to a promised 99.9% that household cleaner might. The difference might not sound like much, but considering the virulence of some viruses, it is vast, Jones said. 

EPA guidelines on disinfection say that, to claim disinfection, there needs to be 99.9999% reduction (sixfold logarithmic, in technical terms) or more of the infecting agent in less than 10 minutes. 

Sterling Bay's Prudential Plaza in Chicago, where a tenant's employee recently tested positive for COVID-19

With surging demand, not everyone thinks the cleaning industry is up to the task of minimizing the danger of the coronavirus in commercial properties, in part because there is no regulation or licensing for the industry.

"In Oklahoma and Texas, after a hailstorm, there are suddenly a lot of so-called roofing contractors," Jones said.

"You are going to see people with pump-up sprayers and respirators they obtained at a hardware store going into the business. Anyone can say they are a professional," Jones said, and many of them might be without the requisite skills to neutralize the virus. "There's a lack of knowledge and a lack of training."

"If you're going to hire cleaners, ask questions," Jones said. "Are you certified to do this work? What disinfectant will you use, is it rated for enveloped and non-enveloped viruses [the two major classes of virus; the coronavirus is the former], and what's your application method?"

Moreover, because the cleaning industry is unregulated, even established cleaning services don't always use the best chemicals available, or proven techniques for cleaning and disinfecting, or have trained people on staff, Gilbertson said.

"If at all possible, property managers need to have an established relationship with a cleaning contractor, one they trust," said Gilbertson, whose company cleans commercial buildings throughout the Phoenix area.

The disinfection process is expensive, Bao said, but businesses with coronavirus exposure need to think of more than themselves.

"There is a class of people in the community who are the most susceptible to the disease," Bao said. "Keep those folks in mind. Now is not the time to cheap out."

Another problem is a fog of vague, or at least misunderstood, terms when it comes to cleaning properties, Jones said.

"There is no such thing as 'deep cleaning,'" he said. "Someone made that up. You can't give me a definition of that, because there isn't one."

Even reputable cleaning services with experience in biohazard-oriented cleaning are going to face challenges in the weeks and months ahead, cleaning experts say. Educating their own clients might be the biggest one.

Everyone must follow CDC guidelines, Bao, and as of Sunday night, that would mean no gatherings of more than 50 people.

"We need full cooperation from our clients," said Bao, whose company, Aftermath, is cleaning buildings across the country. "We're actively educating our partners on what to do, so that they don't accidentally undo the process."

For example, if a business has an individual with a confirmed case, that person needs to be quarantined, along with everyone else who has had contact with that person, Bao said. They can't be allowed to return to the newly cleaned space until the spread of the pandemic has been contained.

"Businesses need to let us know who is infected, and who they've been in contact with — without exception," Bao said. "They can't hide that from us. Otherwise the containment will not work."