Workers from Greenlion Cleaning disinfect an office for COVID-19.

Workers from Greenlion Cleaning disinfect an office for COVID-19. Credit: Greenlion Cleaning & Maintenance Inc.

Cleaning companies around Long Island are emerging as safety specialists on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, tasked to carry a heavier workload, deal with increased demand, and head out into potentially contaminated spaces.

With offices, schools and gyms closed, but possibly exposed to the virus, local companies are working long hours to deal with a unique demand that also requires exceptionally stringent cleaning practices, in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Department of Environmental Conservation. At the same time, they still scramble for the proper disinfectants and solvents, needing to secure all proper materials before handling a job.

Andre Hamilton, owner of Freeport-based Greenlion Cleaning & Maintenance, said interest in the firm's cleaning services has skyrocketed in recent weeks — his 10 employees have been working overtime, time and time again — and they’ve been able to keep cleaning products in supply thanks to the relationships they’ve formed in nine years of business.

“We’re just doing what we need to, to handle the influx,” he said. “The funny thing is, my background is in finance, and when I worked in the city in finance, you get a certain level of respect, and then you transition to running a cleaning business and you’re invisible. Now it’s like we’re the most important people…We’re not so invisible anymore.”

Hamilton’s company cleans offices and shared spaces in apartment buildings, but also specializes in post-construction cleaning. These days, though, property managers and contractors aren’t waiting until the project is over for a cleaning job. They want maintenance now, even before structures are finished, in an effort to deter the spread of the virus.

Workers typically wear nitrile (synthetic rubber) gloves, N95 masks, goggles and protective overalls with hoods, he said, adding that the gear is standard in the industry.

Then there are larger companies tackling larger projects, including Copiague’s Renu Contracting and Restoration, which handled the cleaning of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools, a representative from the district said. The district had a staffer test positive for COVID-19, and every school was subsequently scrubbed.

“It’s been stressful and taxing at times,” said Michael VanDenburg, owner of Renu. The company has cleaned around 30-35 school buildings in the metropolitan area. “In a high school — and let’s say it’s big, 200,000 square feet -- there could be 60 people in there for three days doing 12-hour shifts. It’s a massive undertaking.”

The firm charges 35 to 55 cents per square foot, he said.

For large projects, that adds up. The Plainview-Old Bethpage cleaning was estimated to cost more than $300,000, district officials said in early March.

At Renu, since one side of the company is construction, VanDenburg has been able to take his skilled tradesmen — carpenters and the like — and train them to sanitize under the supervision of one of approximately 80 experienced cleaners. Renu has been watching the virus since China, he said, and preparing for the eventual spread.

“Right now, we’re getting in and getting the job done, and that’s extremely important to us,” VanDenburg said. “Our people are suiting up and wearing what they’re supposed to wear. They’re nervous and scared, but they’re working seven days a week and getting it done.”

Despite the fact that COVID-19 is not believed to live on surfaces for extended periods of time, there is still a benefit to these services, said Dr. K.C. Rondello, a clinical associate professor of public health and emergency management at Adelphi, who focuses on disaster epidemiology.

For one, shared spaces that are still being used — like the lobby of an apartment complex — can transmit the virus, and disinfecting them is a good, necessary practice, especially since there could be “millions” of people globally exposed to the virus who haven’t been tested or don’t show particularly strong symptoms, Rondello said.

“Anything that’s a common touch surface, that’s where we need to pay attention,” he said. “That includes things like common-use keyboards, that includes common-use doorknobs, that includes elevator buttons. Those are the real hot spots where indirect transmission between individuals can occur.”

But there’s also a purpose  to clean spaces that may not be occupied for weeks at a time and have no reasonable risk of transmitting the virus when the immediate threat subsides, he said.

“There are millions and millions of people who are experiencing the same struggles and challenges so [there’s] this sense of collective psychological trauma,” he said, adding that many of his colleagues in the mental health sphere understand there will be significant fallout from this event.

“If you’re talking about a business that’s shuttered for several weeks, from a biological perspective, there’s really minimal benefit” to disinfecting the space, Rondello said, because the virus would have died on its own by then.

But eventually, people will have to return to office buildings and schools, and some of those people may even know of someone who was infected there.

“There’s going to be a tremendous amount of anxiety about returning into the public arena and into workplaces where there have been known COVID cases," he said. "So, the idea of a cleaning company, having them come in and decontaminate that space, I think it provides an enormous comfort, and that might be the biggest benefit.”

The primary challenges for cleaning companies are threefold, said Brendan Broderick, owner of JC Broderick and Associates, an environmental and construction consulting and testing firm that is helping firms comply with best practices.

First, it’s cleaning in accordance with the most current guidelines available. Then, it’s finding appropriate products in a time when some are trying to hoard those materials. Finally, it’s applying those materials properly while also taking personal safety measures to protect employees.

Broderick has been in business for 25 years, and said he's never seen anything quite like this. The Hauppaugue-based company also works with schools.  

“The staff you have [from these companies] in the schools…along with the custodial staff, they’re working above and beyond,” he said. “You never know when you’ll be called to action.”

Nick Mauriello and his business partner, Angelo Lombardo, have seen a major uptick in work — around a 50% increase, he said — and much like Greenlion, a lot of their customers are trying to be proactive.

Mauriello and Lombardo’s N & A Green Solutions, a Commack cleaning and disinfecting business, has cleaned dance studios, school locker rooms, hotels and cheerleading institutes. Mauriello said he has had to enlist the help of his four sons to keep up with demand.

N & A uses electrostatic sprayers — a method that involves applying a disinfectant with an electric charge to fully cover a surface area — to keep spaces clean.

“It was getting crazy” even as far back as three weeks ago, Mauriello said. “It was like every few seconds, the phone would be ringing…You love the business, but it was almost getting to be too much. But now we’re scheduling everybody, and everybody has a perfect sense [of what to do] and it’s been working well.”

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