Ruby Aitken

These are busy times for decontamination. “The phone’s blowing off the hook,” says Thomas Licker, the division manager of Infection Control Technologies in New Jersey. The company, which helped manage Ebola-related cases in 2014, is stocked with disinfectants like quaternary ammonium, ionized hydrogen peroxide, and swabs that detect the presence of living organisms. Licker says the company has fielded more than 1,000 calls from people wondering what to do about the new coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

Until very recently—just two weeks ago, really—deep cleaning to most people meant scrubbing the fridge and dispelling dust bunnies under the bed. Then came the threat of the coronavirus, and deep cleaning suddenly took on a new public-health urgency. Schools started to close for deep cleanings. So did restaurants, a casino in Oregon, a San Antonio mall, the capitol building in Connecticut, and untold offices around the country—maybe even your office. In this time of pandemic, we’re not just cleaning but deep cleaning—a phrase blandly reassuring and suddenly ubiquitous.

What exactly it means seems to depend on who is doing it. In some cases, schools or businesses have gotten existing custodial staff to wipe down frequently touched surfaces—doorknobs, keyboards, counters, handrails—with disinfectant. In others, they have brought in professionals, protected under Tyvek suits and respirators, to wield electrostatic sprayers that blanket the room in a mist of disinfectant.

A cleaning crew disinfects a bank in New Rochelle, NY, which has seen a cluster of coronavirus cases. (Seth Wenig / AP Photo)

To be clear, expensive, full-on disinfection isn’t strictly necessary for businesses without a known or even suspected case of the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that businesses do routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces but not additional disinfection. (Cleaning physically removes germs, disinfecting kills them, and sanitizing reduces the number of germs through either cleaning or disinfection.) But this hasn’t stopped some businesses from asking for a more thorough—and more reassuring—service.

“A lot of calls they’re getting are fear-driven,” says Norris Gearhart, a consultant for the industry. He adds that uncertainty about the virus is a big part of it. We don’t know exactly how many people are infected, because of the lack of testing in the U.S. We don’t know exactly how long the virus survives on surfaces, because this particular coronavirus is so new to science. (Just on Tuesday, scientists posted a preprint, which has not been peer-reviewed, suggesting that the coronavirus is viable for two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.) In this time of uncertainty, of course people are looking to the most expensive, high-tech, and thorough option—even if it’s probably overkill.

“It’s very good for internal relations, so your staff know you’re going above and beyond,” Licker says. With the onslaught of cases, though, he’s been prioritizing jobs for hospitals and assisted-living facilities, where people are most likely to be vulnerable to the coronavirus, as well as jobs for existing clients.

Ernie Storrer is president of Bales Restoration in Lynnwood, Washington—“eight miles from the epicenter,” he notes, referring to the Seattle-area nursing home that has accounted for 22 of the state’s coronavirus deaths. At this point, the virus is clearly spreading through the community around Seattle. So although Storrer’s company largely works with health-care facilities, his staff has been to retail businesses, such as beauty salons and electronics store where customers are constantly coming in to touch phones. “It’s just a very stressful time,” he says.

John Stavros, owner of Bio Management Northwest, also in Washington State, says he’s tripled his staff in the past week and a half. With the ripple effects of COVID-19 already causing layoffs, it hasn’t been hard to hire through word of mouth. “Right now there are businesses shutting down, and people are looking to keep food on the table,” he says. He’s sending out crews of 15 to 20, with new hires tasked with high-touch surfaces and seasoned staff using the specialized foggers. Other companies have also prepared for a rush of business. Scott Vogel, CEO of Emergi-Clean in New Jersey, says he and his family canceled their upcoming vacations when the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the U.S.

Many in the industry say they are worried that those without adequate training might try to fill the sudden demand for these services. “The fringe companies are just seeing the dollars and rushing after them, and I’m really concerned,” Gearhart, the industry consultant, says. Cleaning is one thing, and it certainly helps against the coronavirus. But complete disinfection is a whole lot trickier. It requires knowing how to use disinfectants: Many of them—including bleach and Lysol—actually need to stay wet on a surface for several minutes, even though no ordinary person uses them that way. Some disinfectants can be used with electrostatic sprayers; others cannot. And in scenarios where risk of exposure to the virus is high, putting on and taking off your respirator and Tyvek suit without accidentally contaminating yourself is hard.

A school or an office is ultimately only as germ-free as the people in it. A complete disinfection can buy temporary peace of mind, but it’s no substitute for routine, ongoing cleaning. “As soon as we get done with our work, you open the door and somebody walks in,” Storrer says, “and boom, it might be all over.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.