In March, as the numbers of coronavirus cases were soaring across New York City, Drew Posner, senior vice president at the property management company Maxwell-Kates, began receiving frantic phone calls from co-op and condo buildings he services. “People were freaking out, especially at the beginning,” Posner says, either because a resident or staff member had tested positive for COVID-19 or they simply wanted to erect a buffer against the possibility that someone infected with the coronavirus would enter the building.
Posner enlisted the BCNY Building Maintenance Company, an affiliate of Maxwell-Kates, to provide a special sanitizing service that would go deeper than a manual wipe-down of high-touch surfaces. Using an electrostatic sprayer, the company applied an antimicrobial product proven effective against COVID-19. In compliance with city and state regulations, workers suited up in biohazard gear to coat the most vulnerable areas of the buildings. The cost was $3,400.
“It seemed to be effective,” says Posner, who was told the treatment would remain effective for 30 days. “I didn’t have to do it more than once in any of my buildings.”
With experts such as the World Health Organization (WHO) struggling to understand how COVID-19 is transmitted, and with no precise mandate for how best to combat the virus, it has been left to individual co-op and condo boards to decide how far to take safety measures. Guidance on cleaning and sanitizing practices has come from the State Health Department and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). All New York City residential buildings, for example, are expected to routinely clean and disinfect high-touch areas as laid out in the state’s Forward Safety Plan. But many have opted for electrostatic disinfectant applications as additional insurance against the invisible germs.
“It calmed a lot of people down,” Posner says. “Especially in the beginning, people didn’t know what to expect, and there was a lot of panic going on in the buildings. It really quelled that quite a bit, too.”
Scientists initially thought that COVID-19 primarily spreads through touch: people touch a contaminated surface and then touch their mouths, eyes or noses, acquiring the coronavirus that way. Further research suggested that transmission occurs more readily through respiratory droplets – as when an infected person talks, breathes, coughs or sneezes, and someone else inhales the expelled droplets.
More recently, the WHO updated its advice to include the risk of transmission via tiny droplets known as aerosols, which are expelled by an infected person while talking or breathing and can remain aloft in stagnant air for hours, infecting others. In any case, the larger coronavirus droplets do eventually settle on surfaces, where they might survive for hours or several days. Which is why regular cleaning and disinfecting continue to be recommended, along with social distancing, hand washing, mask wearing and good ventilation.
Time to Go Deep
The CDC has issued a recommendation for sanitizing that strongly suggests starting with a manual cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces, since dirt can shield pathogens underneath. While some buildings have opted for having their own staff conduct rigorous, repeated cleanings, others have turned to businesses that specialize in deep cleanings.
“We pivoted early,” says Julie Arora, the founder of Sparkle NYC, a high-end cleaning service that quickly adapted to the coronavirus challenge. Arora estimates she has fielded more than 1,000 calls about the company’s services since the pandemic began, and in response the company began offering COVID-19 cleaning packages that Arora formulated according to the evolving science. “We’ve had folks call after a family member died of COVID-19,” she says. “One called and said: ‘Mom died. We’re afraid to go in. We have to sell it. What do we do?’”
Just as it did pre-pandemic, Sparkle NYC provides thorough, detailed and labor-intensive cleanings similar to “a proper deep spring cleaning,” Arora says. The company charges 40 to 55 cents per square foot for the service, the same as before the pandemic. Its workers remove dirt and dust from every nook, cranny and hard-to-reach spot. In addition, they manually disinfect surfaces, especially those that are routinely touched, including doorknobs and light switches. For an additional charge per square foot, depending on size, they further sanitize using an electrostatic sprayer and a disinfectant (such as Fiberlock ShockWave, Mediclean or Bad Axe) that meets the Environmental Protection Agency’s criteria for use against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (It should be noted that not all EPA disinfectants have been tested directly on coronavirus, but they are proven effective against harder-to-kill viruses.)
Electrostatic sprayers come in a range of devices. Some resemble vacuum canisters. Others are worn like hard backpacks filled with a disinfecting solution. The devices do not remove physical soil. The applicator gives a negative charge to the disinfecting solution creating an electromagnetic mist that is attracted to surfaces. A spray nozzle discharges the mist, which evenly coats and clings to surfaces, killing bacteria and viruses within minutes. The operator of the sprayer must suit up in personal protective equipment. Everybody else must leave the area until the solution has thoroughly adhered, usually about 20 minutes.
Not everyone is embracing electrostatic treatments. Daniel Wollman, the chief executive of the management company Gumley Haft, says he is more sold on the idea of continuous manual cleaning by building staff. “The minute you deep clean,” he says, “how do you know that someone might not come in five minutes later and make it dirty again?”
He instructs staff to conduct repeated sanitizing wipe-downs, especially in high-touch areas. “We’re walking around all day long cleaning,” he says. If essential workers are allowed to enter the building, the staff trails them, cleaning whatever they touch. “We drop the workers off, and we clean the elevator,” he says. “They can’t leave (their workplace) until they leave for the day.”
Limiting Legal Liability
As for any legal ramifications surrounding the cleaning and sanitizing of co-op and condo buildings, Leni Morrison Cummins, a partner at the law firm Cozen O’Connor, says every residential building must file a Forward Safety Plan with the state, which requires adherence to basic hygienic practices set forth within it by the CDC and the state Health Department. The efficacy of electrostatic spraying isn’t mentioned in the document.
To ensure against any potential lawsuit charging negligence, Cummins recommends that every building maintain a log of what they’ve cleaned and how often. While the state government has made it clear that infected individuals must self-quarantine, she says, “there are no teeth on it anywhere.” And when people do become infected, they have a legal right to privacy, which creates a bit of a conundrum in terms of ensuring the health and safety of their neighbors. The board or management company can alert residents whenever there is a report of an occupant who is ill with COVID-19, and many are doing that. But, Cummins says, “It can’t be done with any particularity that divulges the person’s identity without their approval.”
In March, Stuart Orenstein, a senior account executive at Maxwell-Kates, received a call regarding one of the luxury condo buildings he manages in Chelsea. A resident had been exposed to COVID-19 and was going to self-quarantine. Cooperating with management, the resident advised that he’d recently been to the building’s gym and rooftop, in addition to riding the elevator and passing through the lobby and hallways. Orenstein arranged for an electrostatic spraying of all common areas of the 12-story building that very day. It cost the building a stiff $15,000 – but it appears to have worked. “We did not have any other cases in that building that we know of to this day,” Orenstein says.
With other vendors – exterminators, compactor cleaning companies and contractors – also jumping on the electrostatic bandwagon, Orenstein has since found ways to lower the cost of treatments by tailoring them to specific tasks. A move-in or move-out, for instance, might require treating only the areas that the movers pass through. “I’ve gotten it down to anywhere from $650 to $1,500,” Orenstein says, a cost that he proposes passing on to the shareholder or unit-owner who hired the movers.
With no end in sight to the pandemic, some boards are contracting with vendors for weekly or bimonthly electrostatic treatments. The only ticklish issue that Orenstein has noted is that some residents get nervous seeing someone wearing what looks like a spaceman’s suit dousing their building. “But our community recognized we got this done in hours on the same day,” Orenstein says. “They were very thankful for it.”