A young woman named Keylan Brown suits up in the parking lot of a Chick-fil-A as she prepares to enter a COVID-19 hot zone. She puts on a blue plastic gown that flaps in the cool Texas breeze, then a hospital-style cap, white booties that go over her shoes, teal gloves and an N-95 mask beneath her eyeglasses and plastic goggles.
As Brown holds her arms out, her boss Fred Gamble, a 50-year-old man wearing all black and a gold Jesus chain, duct tapes the gloves to the gown, sealing the gaps. Gamble, a former Army lieutenant colonel, is co-owner for the Austin-area franchise of Enviro-Master, a commercial disinfecting company that operates in about 80 US and Canadian cities. Enviro-Master Austin employs nine technicians including Brown. She picks up a green plastic gun that looks like it could have come from Nerf’s Super Soaker line; it’s branded the Virus Vaporizer, an electrostatic chemical sprayer that creates a positive charge then puts out a foggy mist that envelops surfaces in all directions. It’s meant to kill, within a few minutes, viruses such as the one causing COVID-19.
Keylan Brown approaches the Temple, Texas, restaurant, which has been silent and dark since it shut the day before; an employee was being tested for a suspected case of COVID-19.
Gamble often jokes that his employees are Ghostbusters -- he personally owns the beige jumpsuit outfit -- and it’s not a bad comparison. Holding the green spray gun and walking toward the virus that has terrified the entire world, Brown looks completely calm. “No pressure!” she says through the muffling of the N-95; it’s impossible to tell if she’s smiling.
She sprays the outside metal door handle, the Vaporizer leaving a moist residue. Then she steps inside and begins blasting the ceilings, the floor, front to back, dining area to kitchen to office, at a range of about 10 feet.
This is happening in late March, still uncertain days in the coronavirus crisis. People still aren’t completely sure how long the coronavirus lasts on certain surfaces, whether you’re supposed to scrub your groceries with Lysol and whether you’re supposed to wear masks in public (turns out, yes).
Inside, Keylan Brown sprays and sprays, covering tabletops and fryers and drink dispensers and every other surface with a chlorine dioxide mixture that is EPA-approved to kill 47 kinds of bacteria and germs. Her Vaporizer makes a faint buzzing sound. A bright LED shines from the front.
As with everything coronavirus, it’s difficult to tell what’s working and what isn’t against the microscopic threat, but we wait. By April, this will start to feel familiar, this unsettled waiting for someone, anyone, to do something and to give us the all-clear. On March 27, everything is still uncertain, scary and wild.
But not to Gamble, who remains good-humored as if this is another day at the office and the Chick-fil-A curbside is the watercooler. When we talk about his business partner, Larry Barde, Gamble recounts that when Enviro-Master founder Pat Swisher put the two of them together, he wanted to create a dynamic duo. “I told him, ‘Does he know he’s Robin?’” Gamble giggles at his joke.
Nationwide norms have suddenly changed for what’s required to make a workplace virus-free. Airlines, restaurants and essential offices are struggling over how to remain open while keeping employees and customers safe, and cleaning companies, such as ABM Industries and Jan-Pro, have been promoting their COVID-19 disinfecting services.
Enviro-Masters Austin is part of this new reality, disinfecting hundreds of locations including 27 area Chick-fil-A restaurants, car dealerships, office buildings and 550 convenience store and gas-station locations affiliated with GAMA, the Greater Austin Cooperative Merchants Association, one of its newest accounts.
Still, Barde, a charismatic 67-year-old who looks and talks like a character actor playing the President of the United States in a 1980’s action movie, laid off an employee and then brought them back the same day when the business took a sharp, but very brief, downturn.
“When this coronavirus hit and businesses started closing all over the place, the great majority of our customers were restaurants, so our business dropped 75, 80 percent overnight,” he says. Barde handles the sales side of business out of a small, nondescript Central Austin office with his wife Robin, who handles logistics, and Gamble, who’s in charge of operations.
The work Enviro-Master in Austin has been doing since 2014 has largely been stuck in the bathroom. While janitorial services may wipe down an entire office or retail location, Barde and Gamble’s technicians mostly focus on where the worst germs typically reside, in the restrooms shared by employees and customers. Now, it’s having a coming-out party of sorts, as disinfecting goes beyond urinals and washroom sinks. As coronavirus fears spread, Barde started getting calls asking if the company’s spray methods, using hospital-grade products such as Unelko Corp.’s Sani-Shield, could be used in other places.
“In two weeks, we regained half our business. In another couple of weeks, we’ll be back even and growing.”
“They’re reaching out now for us to take care of their offices, their warehouses, their trucks with this program because it’s one of the only products on the market that’s not only food safe but also human safe. You can breathe it, ingest it, let it touch your skin. We don’t need any kind of respirator for this, but it’s deadly on germs, mold, mildew and viruses,” Barde says. “In two weeks, we regained half our business. In another couple of weeks, we’ll be back even and growing.”
The method that Enviro-Master uses to disinfect and clean for its clients includes providing everything from hand soaps to urinal screens to drain cleaners. But the company insists it’s not a cleaning or janitorial service; typically it works in addition to janitorial as an extra precaution for killing viruses. Barde thinks what he and his company have been doing for years is finally getting its due during the COVID-19 crisis. “What was a business turned into a calling,” Barde said, “because we really believe we’re saving lives out there.”
Dr. Charles Gerba thinks that finally, finally, things will change. Gerba, a University of Arizona professor of microbiology and environmental science, has performed research for Enviro-Master on the effectiveness of its products for about 15 years. His face adorns the Enviro-Master website prominently with a video testifying to the company’s work.
But Gerba is also well known and oft-quoted as “Dr. Germ” -- a name that has stuck for about 30 years. He gets a lot of press for his research on how dirty school desks are (“more fecal bacteria on a child’s desk than on a toilet seat”), how dirty phones are (“we’re all talking dirty, we just don’t know it”) and how dirty reusable grocery bags are (you don’t even want to know).
Gerba’s interviews are filled with these kinds of one-liners about our disgusting habits and inability to properly wash our hands. But as his team does intensive research on the coronavirus, he’s reflective about ways the crisis will impact our thinking about bacteria, viruses and hygiene. “I think certainly this will impact this generation. There’ll be more of a sense of cleanliness and opportunities to reduce diseases,” Gerba says.
He’s especially hopeful that shared spaces we don’t think of as havens for germs, such as work desktops, break-room countertops and touch screens at retail self-checkout kiosks, will get more attention as spots that need to be cleaned more often.
“I think certainly this will impact this generation. There’ll be more of a sense of cleanliness and opportunities to reduce diseases.”
Gerba and other experts say that in terms of how easy it is to kill, COVID-19 behaves similarly to SARS and other coronaviruses. Common disinfectants, such as Lysol, and dozens more listed on the EPA’s website can neutralize it. But there is still some gray area around the difference between eradicating it completely and eliminating enough that it can’t be contracted.
For weeks, there’s been conflicting information on the best ways to disinfect items such as groceries, countertops and incoming mail. Sprays that can saturate a surface long enough to kill the virus (anywhere from a minute to several minutes) without being wiped off appear to be most effective. Electrostatic sprayers like the ones Enviro-Master uses are not new, but they are gaining attention as word about them grows online.
“I think what they were doing is very forward-looking. Maybe they drank too much one Friday and decided to do this work, but anyway, their timing was perfect,” Gerba says. “There’s also some residual effect, which to me is the future. You can clean up, but then the next person comes in and contaminates the area that’s been treated. Enviro-Master’s product acts for a longer period of time, keeping bacteria down about 90 percent for over five days from what we’ve seen.”
In addition to targeted services, Gerba thinks products and materials that are continually resistant are another promising frontier for fighting disease; anti-microbial clothing and work surfaces are areas he’s eager to study.
The unanswered question is whether services such as the ones Enviro-Master provides will continue to boom or if these companies will eventually go back to business as usual.
According to the research firm IBISWorld, US janitorial services are a $61 billion industry with nearly 2 million employees. Their income is closely tied to the construction industry and both are anticipating a coronavirus-related decline; some large chains are already cutting back due to businesses they serve closing. “There are some special use cases where industry operators can offer new services related to COVID-19 cleaning,” said Griffin Holcomb, an IBISWorld industry analyst. “However, it is likely industry operators are not at full operating capacity, resulting in declines in revenues.” Not every commercial cleaner may last until the industry bounces back. Yet in the weeks, months and years ahead we may need virus killing services more than ever.
Less than a week after the Temple Chick-fil-A visit, two Enviro-Master technicians, Hernan Hernandez and Enoch Lindsey, are electrostatic-spraying the GAMA warehouse and retail space in North Austin. It’s 67,000 feet of cash registers, gigantic boxes containing stacks of energy bars, a huge caged space that’s just cigarette cartons and offices for some of the organization’s 115 employees.
The week before, Shane Walker, GAMA’s chief operating officer, was glancing through his emails and found one from Barde about Enviro-Master’s services. He’d considered the service before, but as Walker had been following news about the coronavirus and tracking what other retailers such as H-E-B and Wal-Mart were doing, he made a call and consulted his board of directors. By the end of the week, he and Barde had a deal; Enviro-Master would be cleaning GAMA’s headquarters and 550 partner stores.
Walker has lots of good reasons to be scared about the spread of COVID-19.
His wife, a school administrator, has diabetes, putting her at high risk for COVID-19. “When I go home, I don’t give my wife a kiss and a hug today,” he says, “I have a spot in my closet where my clothes go in the wash. I jump in the shower before I touch anything in the house.”
His parents, Winter Texans originally from Illinois, also have immunity issues. “I’m like, we have to change what we do. But for how long? Who knows? Who knows?”
“I have a spot in my closet where my clothes go in the wash. I jump in the shower before I touch anything in the house.”
Walker describes watching a press conference in which the mayor of Austin said making decisions amid the coronavirus crisis was a process of doing things that won’t screw us up the most. “As soon as I heard, that I turned to my wife and said that’s my frustration. I hate operating that way. Everything is so reactive.”
By bringing in the spray team, Walker says he’s able to feel more comfortable moving around the warehouse, leaning on boxes, touching things, even accepting a gift (that he planned to pay for) from his workers: a shopping cart full of toilet paper.
“When employees see that you’re taking steps to keep them safe, it’s making them think twice about wanting to just bail on their job,” Walker said.
Hernandez and Lindsey, who are both in their mid-20s, have adjusted their schedules to the flood of new business. Their early-morning-to-afternoon shifts now sometimes include weekend appointments and middle-of-the-night work. As they work, they say, they’re running through a mental checklist and determining what touch points need the most attention. Doorknobs, light switches, ice machine covers, vending machine buttons, ladders, lottery-ticket stations, vehicle dashboards; these are all high-touch areas that get a good spraying.
The hourly rate they make is $12.60, but it’s not unusual to make more than $1,000 per paycheck every two weeks working for the company with commissions, they said. By comparison, the average industry wage in the commercial janitorial industry last year was just over $16,000.
Both say they’ve been fielding questions from family and friends about the work they do. “My older sister, my mother and wife, they all have been kind of worried about me,” Lindsey said. “But I’m pretty committed. I’ve been building my immune system and following the safety protocol. There’s no pressure for me to quit, they just want me to be safe.”
Hernandez has a fiancée who is a nurse at a community medical center. They are both trying to stay healthy and frequently compare notes on what’s happening with COVID-19. “If we get sick, who’s going to go out there and provide the service for all these places?”
One of the perks of working for the company is that employees can use the sprayers at home and in their vehicles and can use the company’s chemicals to wash their clothes. “We spray everything, the bathrooms, the closets,” Hernandez said. “It’s always better to be safe than sorry.”
It only takes about 25 minutes for Keylan Brown to emerge from the Temple Chick-fil-A. She wasn’t able to do the playground area because of a locked door, but she’s completed a full sweep of the rest of the restaurant.
She stands just outside the door as Fred Gamble sprays her head-to-toe with the Virus Vaporizer, then helps take her gear. He holds open a large plastic trash bag as she dumps her goggles, mask, gloves, gown, booties and cap into it. She closes her eyes as Gamble sprays her again.
The biggest difference on this job, she says, was that she’s not used to wearing the kind of gloves she had today.
“I feel pretty safe. I feel good about it. It was larger than any Chick-fil-A kitchen I’ve ever seen and very well organized, I’ll give them that,” she says. “Nothing a little sanitation can’t fix.”
Before she began working for Enviro-Master, about a year and a half ago, Brown worked in housekeeping. Before that, she was a manager at a Taco Bell in Waco. The common thread, she says, is that she’s always been obsessed with hygiene. And now the rest of the world is catching up to what she and her coworkers already knew.