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.