Before the pandemic hit, Vikas Chopra specialized in facilitating grisly crime scene and trauma cleanups—the kinds where trained specialists are needed to scrub floors and remove blood and body parts after suicides, homicides, and accidents.
Lately, though, he’s fielding hundreds of calls a day from customers in dire need of disinfection after confirmed or suspected coronavirus cases. “We’ve worked on different outbreaks before, but this one is unprecedented just in terms of the volume of calls,” says Chopra, the marketing director for Aftermath, a company that specializes in crime scene cleanup and biohazard removal.
As California’s businesses, schools, and government agencies gradually reopen, they are relying on a slew of new “deep cleaning” services that claim to kill the coronavirus with greater efficacy than soap or Clorox wipes. One company says its disinfectant kills viruses “one million times faster” than ozone or bleach. Another claims it can “sanitize the air.” And a nationwide maid service says that its mist envelopes viruses, providing “360-degree disinfection” that last up to 90 days.
Experts are unconvinced by some of these claims. “When I hear about mists, my mind goes to Axe Body Spray,” says Dr. Saskia Popescu, a senior infection prevention specialist at George Mason University. “Sprays are likely helpful for porous materials like fabrics, curtains, or rugs, but the SARS COVID-2 doesn’t live on those surfaces very long anyway, and a spray wouldn’t kill it forever even if it did. These surfaces need to be continually cleaned and disinfected.”
Dr. Popescu also took issue with a claim on Aftermath’s website that the coronavirus can “survive on surfaces for up to 17 days.”
“These are not environmentally hardy organisms, so they’re quite easy to kill with disinfectants and they live a maximum of three days,” she says. Yes, coronavirus RNA was found on the Princess Cruise ship cabins 17 days after passengers had disembarked, she says, but adds that there’s a difference between viral fragments and viruses that can cause illness: “It’s like when you break a piñata—you can tell that it used to be a piñata but it’s not currently a piñata.”
Many companies are eager to disinfect their grounds in order to avoid employee lawsuits; OSHA mandates that employers protect employees from recognized hazards “likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” And while a handful of the cleaning companies businesses will contact have, like Aftermath, handled past pandemics, many are new to the task of microbe killing, having arrived from such disparate fields as asbestos removal and water-damage restoration.
“Some firms are definitely concerned about liability,” says Tim Bauer, senior vice president at Allied Restoration Services, which has historically specialized in water damage. Recently, a medical office contacted him for a quote, leading to a morally distressing conversation. “One of their nurses had a confirmed case and they weren’t sure if they legally had to clean the facility,” he says. “‘I was like, man, people are trusting you to be clean and you’re not even sure you’re going to do it?’ They never called us back.”
While clients can test surfaces to ensure the coronavirus is no longer present, Bauer says he’s yet to hear from a company interested in these services, which can be two to three times more expensive than the cleaning itself.
The Grove recently unveiled a 21-page booklet on its homepage detailing the mall’s own recently enhanced cleaning protocols, including new mandates requiring the disinfection of all public spaces on an hourly basis, bathroom stall cleanups after every use, and a new fleet of Physical Distancing Ambassadors that will roam the property and advise guests on how best to social distance.
Electrostatic sprayers will also be used “on all areas of the property including high-touchpoint areas at least twice daily,” according to the guidelines. These spraying contraptions, similar to the kind exterminators use, work by applying positive and negative charges to disinfecting liquids, allowing them to better seek out and stick to surfaces. Companies contacted by Los Angeles say they’re especially effective at sanitizing massive spaces like warehouses and shopping malls.
Zev Reichman, who works at Enviroscope, says his crews use electrostatic sprayers in order to “get in the nooks and crannies” of warehouses that stretch over one million square feet. “It’s not practical to sit there wiping down all the surfaces —you need those big machines that can get the mist out there,” he says.
But Dr. Popescu says that businesses shouldn’t feel that they need to have the latest “fancy tech” to protect employees and customers.
“The bottom line with all of these new cleaning methods is that you still need to be wiping down and disinfecting all touchpoints,” says Dr. Popescu. “To keep people safe, you just need to follow the CDC recommendations.”
And for customers, she recommends keeping a close eye. “I always tell people, if you’re concerned about going back to the gym or the mall, don’t just read about what they’re doing. When you get there, watch them and see if they’re following their own guidelines.”