As states cautiously ease stay-at-home restrictions, American workers are preparing to return to their offices. And an army of janitors and cleaning professionals are preparing those offices for their return.
But will those offices be safe?
Most businesses are promising a "deep cleaning" before reopening their offices and businesses. Ogbonnaya Omenka, a public health expert and assistant professor at Butler University, says that, ideally, "deep cleaning" involves cleaning and disinfecting. It means specialized teams equipped with appropriate gear, including masks, PPE and even hazmat suits. And it can require virucides – chemicals capable of killing a virus – and fogging equipment.
Deep cleaning should also involve protecting everyone – the business's workers and the cleaners themselves – from the virus, Omenka said.
"If proper measures are taken, the cleaners should be protected from the infection while preventing its spread," he said.
It's not just office spaces getting the deep-clean treatment. It happens after closing at many grocery stores. New York's subways are being disinfected overnight. Schools across the nation are planning deep cleans as students stagger schedules to return to instruction. Medical and dental offices are getting them done to protect their patients.
Federal health officials have prepared a battery of guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a list of best practices for preventing the spread of COVID-19. The EPA has listed over 300 cleaning products that are safe for humans but effective disinfectants against SARS-CoV-2 virus.
"It’s virgin territory for everyone," says Brad Rush, owner of Jan-Pro of Atlanta, whose employees clean a wide variety of buildings, from offices to fitness centers, schools and stores. "We apply our expertise but adhere to the federal guidelines. The CDC, the EPA, they bring immediate credibility. People are so fearful, part of our job is to make them feel safe."
The products that have been vetted have shown their effectiveness against viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 and other, harder-to-kill viruses, Omenka said. The products do not guarantee the disappearance of the coronavirus, he added, but they can "help to reduce the chances of its transmission, especially from surfaces that people frequently make contact with."
Melissa Nolan, an infectious disease expert and professor at the University of South Carolina, says cleaning and disinfecting, combined with masks and regular hand-washing, should make offices safe.
"Regular and frequent use of these disinfectants combined with other public health interventions can collectively reduce the risk of viral transmission," she told USA TODAY.
Commercial cleaning goes far beyond the Lysol wipes you use on your kitchen counter. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent says surfaces should first be cleaned with soap and water, then disinfected. Cleaning with soap and water reduces the number of germs, dirt and impurities on the surface. Disinfecting kills germs on surface.
The CDC also says special attention must be given to frequently touched objects such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets and sinks. The guidelines simply state that "more frequent cleaning and disinfection may be required based on level of use."
Surfaces and objects in public places, such as shopping carts and point-of-sale keypads, should be cleaned and disinfected before each use, the CDC says. Soft surfaces such as carpeted floor, rugs and drapes should be cleaned using soap and water or with "cleaners appropriate for use on these surfaces," the CDC says.
Cleaning services are pivoting to meet the demand for disinfecting. Rush says almost 500 customers suspended routine cleaning service when the stay-at-home orders rolled out in the spring. Demand for disinfecting is roaring.
"We've done probably 500 (disinfecting) jobs in the last eight weeks, exponentially more than usual," he said. "These are unprecedented times. Employers feel a responsibility to provide as safe and healthy environment as possible to their returning employees."
Rush said workers wear protective gloves and goggles during all cleaning procedures and wear full body suits when cleaning spaces where a COVID-19 case has been confirmed.
"They are doing yeoman's work and can hold their heads up high," Rush said.
Many of those who lost their jobs when office buildings across the nation went empty are anxious to get back to work despite the risks. In Framingham, Massachusetts, Zeneyda Hernandez lost her job April 5. She hopes to get called back, possibly as soon as next week. She says she needs the money – and she wants a role in the nation's economic comeback.
“I like going to work. I like to feel useful," Hernandez said. “I (also) want the company to give us the tools we need to work, to protect ourselves."
Contributing: Lorenzo Reyes
America's stores, malls reopen: Masks, curbside pickup and closed fitting rooms