Channing Johnson is a prepper and a planner.
So when news started filtering in a month ago about a cruise ship quarantined at a Japanese port because of an emerging virus, the cleaning company president didn’t waste any time.
She hopped on the phone with her supplier in Des Moines to order more hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. She researched which chemicals and cleaning products had been vetted by the Environmental Protection Agency as effective in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
We might have four weeks of lead time until this virus shows up here, she thought: “I don’t like to be behind the eight ball.”
Weeks later, coronavirus has indeed emerged in Nebraska — and nearly every other state in America. KB Building Services, the Omaha-based company Johnson leads, starts getting calls at 5 a.m. every day from its clients in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri to deep-clean office buildings and medical clinics in an attempt to contain and prevent the spread of the virus.
The cleaners and chemicals that Johnson collected are now nearly impossible to procure. The company’s cleaners are fanning out across buildings in and around Omaha, Lincoln, Council Bluffs and St. Louis to wipe down desks, door handles, light switches and even the locks on bathroom doors.
Health experts think the coronavirus is fairly easy to kill, but it’s not known for certain how long it lasts on surfaces.
“It’s not a question of are people going to get it ... it’s how do we put necessary procedures in place to help control the spread of it,” she said. “A whole department taken out can really cripple a business.”
For some, the cleaning is preventive; for others, it’s imperative.
On Friday, the Mutual of Omaha headquarters at 33rd and Dodge Streets closed temporarily after a worker there tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. About 4,200 people work in the headquarters complex, which was being deep-cleaned over the weekend. On Sunday, officials there said employees would continue to work from home for the foreseeable future.
So while stock markets are plunging, offices are closing and businesses and their employees are on edge, Johnson and other cleaning contractors are in a strange and unsettling position: Their business is booming.
“It’s just a lot of business now,” said Anthony Sanchez, CEO and president of The Office Cleaners, which handles commercial buildings in Omaha, Lincoln and Council Bluffs. “I’m not going to take advantage of the situation. We have to keep the general public safe and we have to keep employees safe.”
Both Sanchez and Johnson have misting-type machines that spray disinfectants such as Vital Oxide and OXIVIR Tb. The fine mist can cling to desks, walls and other surfaces and can sanitize an office much quicker than cleaners who wipe down every phone and keyboard by hand.
Johnson said she’s guarding her electrostatic sprayer like it’s her newborn child, and she’s trying to get her hands on a second machine within the next week or so. She has heard that there are 2,000 back orders for the model her cleaners use, the Clorox Total 360.
Cleaning services are in such high demand that Johnson is in preliminary talks with other businesses affected by coronavirus closings and cancellations — such as the construction, service and hospitality industries — to see if any of their out-of-work employees want jobs.
“We could balance serving our customers by serving people who could help on a temporary basis to feed their families,” she said.
Precautions also are being taken to protect cleaning staff, Sanchez and Johnson said. KB Building Services typically uses more environmentally friendly, less-harsh chemicals, so cleaners usually just wear gloves.
Now, workers at both businesses are donning safety goggles, masks and gloves. Johnson ordered gowns if cleaners have to enter a building with a confirmed case of COVID-19.
“I’ve got to keep my employees safe as well,” Sanchez said.
Workers will be informed of any known coronavirus exposure, Johnson said, and can opt out of a cleaning job if they’re worried about their personal health and safety.
“Our employees are at the forefront of this, and they’re the ones we’re putting in situations that can potentially be exposed to this virus,” she said. “A lot of them appreciate the fact that we’re being flexible or have more hours available to work.”
Supply chains for cleaning supplies remain an issue.
“A lot of those products are made in China,” Johnson said. (China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, has reported more than 81,000 coronavirus cases and about 3,200 deaths.) “My supply partner updates me every single day on what’s coming and what’s going. Right now, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I don’t know what the next hour will bring at this point.”
World-Herald staff writer Julie Anderson contributed to this report.