The COVID-19 pandemic has had a number of indirect impacts on commercial real estate, from shuttering businesses to capital market hesitancy. But it’s also had a very real impact on many physical places, as any location that has endured an infection requires extreme cleaning before anyone can re-enter the space.
When an individual has a confirmed case of COVID-19, everywhere they have been is a possible vector for the disease. According to the CDC, current evidence suggests that COVID-19 may remain viable on doorknobs, countertops and other potential fomites for hours or even days, depending on the type of material.
“We’ve had to pivot entirely to dealing with these COVID-19 calls, which are everything right now,” said Sam Simon, managing director of ServiceMaster Restoration by Simons. “We’re fielding anywhere from 20 to 30 calls a day and serving anywhere from one to three clients per day.”
This time of year, the company is usually busy performing deep spring cleanings or restoring commercial and residential spaces following water or fire damage. During this crisis, however, the Evanston, Illinois-based firm has had to focus most of its efforts on decontaminating properties where an infection has occurred.
ServiceMaster Restoration has experience with all sizes of jobs, in every asset type, from small office spaces to 750,000-square-foot warehouses. The cleaning and sanitization process is different each time, depending on the particular property and what the client’s needs are.
In all cases, the cleaning crews—garbed in gloves, boots and full-face respirators—will target high-touch surfaces such as phones, keyboards, doorknobs, light switches and faucet handles. Any common area, such as break room and bathrooms, have a high potential to spread the disease to numerous people.
In an industrial facility, they would also look at control panel buttons, operating switches for heavy machinery and, in some cases, their fleet vehicles. Some properties are not as clean as others. A plating manufacturer, for instance, might bring with it the additional challenge of needing a thorough cleaning, even before the crew can think about disinfecting.
“Those places traditionally are grimy and nasty with inches of dirt and dust everywhere,” said Simon. “They are particularly difficult to clean and disinfect.”
After conducting a walkthrough and interview with the property owner to figure out the scope of the project, the ServiceMaster Restoration team will then fog the space with an EPA-approved disinfecting solution. After the disinfectant has had time to ventilate, they will then go in and hand wipe surfaces and then, sometimes, fog the space again. But the process really depends on the property itself.
“Some areas can be fogged, and we will decide how aggressive to spray the solution,” said Nasutsa Mabwa, president of ServiceMaster Restoration by Simons. “But then some areas just have to be wiped down because you can’t really fog a space if there are computers, papers or boxes that cannot get wet.”
The company does a lot of work in residential spaces too. These situations can be disquieting, as there may be a grieving family who can’t get into the space to organize their loved one’s affairs after a COVID-19 death.
“There is an emotional aspect to deal with,” Simon said. “We might get there, and the family members are standing outside crying and hugging each other, and we have to put our game faces on and get in there and do the cleaning.”
Before starting this ServiceMaster franchise, Simon and Mabwa both worked in child welfare. In the past few weeks, they’ve had to call on some of those experiences to help console clients during this pandemic.
“Some phone calls are taking up to 30 minutes because it’s basically like a therapy session,” said Mabwa. “They talk about what’s happened to their family or themselves and it’s very emotional. It takes a lot of courage and empathy to support them.”
Residential spaces pose a different set of challenges, as they are filled with soft surfaces not found in most commercial spaces such as bedsheets, pillows, drapery and clothing. They can also take longer to air out after a fogging as they don’t have the industrial-grade ventilation systems of some commercial properties.
In the coming weeks, the company will, hopefully, pivot again slightly. Instead of cleaning spaces where there has been a COVID-19 infection, they will be proactively disinfecting commercial spaces in preparation of employees returning to work.
ServiceMaster Restore provides a certificate of disinfection, which offers reassurance to anyone who spends time in that space. The property manager receives several copies of the certificate and is encouraged to make more, if needed, to display throughout the property as a way to exhibit to all employees that their workspace is safe.
In these unprecedented times, it takes extra steps to make a property safe to be in. Hopefully soon, these cleaning crews can return to their “normal” work of rectifying flood and fire damage.