Cleaning Up COVID-19
With COVID-19 still moving through the United States and other markets, U.S. consumer confidence dropped sharply in the month of March. Hotels across the United States were faced with the reality of choosing to stay open or close their doors until travel resumes. These decisions were made on a case by case basis and relied on market conditions. As of today, STR is reporting that 86% of all hotels rooms remain available in the U.S. market. Additionally, some hotels chose to convert, temporarily, to alternative care sites that care for quarantined patients or act as extra emergency rooms to relieve the pressure on already taxed hospital facilities. At the end of the pandemic, whether a hotel was transformed into a care facility or hospital or simply closed, the question becomes, how does a hotel assure the public that the hotel is clean after COVID – 19? Are there best practices that hotels should consider implementing now to prepare for re-opening. Today, we talk with Chuck Cummings, partner, and Ken Garza, vice president of GHP Environmental + Architecture to address this issue.
Established in 1977, GHP Environmental + Architecture (GHP), a woman-owned company, is a nationally recognized architectural, environmental and project management consulting firm that has successfully integrated the skills of architects, engineers, program managers, LEED facilitators, industrial hygienists and safety professionals. They have offices in Nashville, TN; Jupiter, FL; Denver, CO; San Antonio, TX; and San Francisco, CA. Recognized as national experts in Environmental, Health + Safety structure assessments and remediations, GHP’s co-founder developed much of the early science behind hazards related to asbestos, mold and lead-based paint in buildings. Today, GHP’s trained team of EHS experts is specialized in all aspects of environmental, health and safety management. Serving as a trusted advisor to clients across the U.S. and a growing international basis, GHP’s services include indoor air quality; asbestos, mold and lead-based paint; remediation design, noise assessments and project management.
GHP works with hotels all over the world, what is the biggest question you are hearing from your hotel clients right now?
CC: The biggest question I am hearing is “How should I maintain my building with low or no occupancy and a skeleton crew?” Many of our clients are wondering how often they should clean, what should they do if their water systems are not running regularly. AIHA has documentation on shutting down portions of buildings and bringing them back up. But we see the owners we work with working smarter and more efficiently. Of course a big part of our advice is that you never shut down a building completely. Reduce the use of the building but to completely shut down makes an owner liable for more environmental issues. Our advice to our clients is to utilize your staff to help with deferred maintenance work and get it done in a shorter amount of time. It can also be cheaper to do the work because the work time becomes shorter. Astute owners are taking advantage of this time to maintain the building.
KG: That’s right. We actually have a client right now that has asked us to come in to work on their spa because it is easier during this downtime. We don’t have to worry about working around guests and we are able to finish the work in less time which usually means a cost savings to the owner.
How does a hotel really do its due diligence in terms of ensuring their property is clean?
CC: This is going to be a challenge for all operators and owners, specifically in the hardest hit areas such as New York City. The best approach is probably a combination of cleaning the properties with their own internal housekeeping staffs and 3rd party professional cleaning companies. Having an independent 3rd party environmental professional involved will add to the due diligence component of substantiating that the work was performed via best practices. If a property was utilized for patient care, housed healthcare givers and/or confirmed that either sub-set group was exposed to COVID -19 during the pandemic, then those predetermined factors will certainly ramp up the need to have professional cleaning companies involved with bringing the property back online. For those properties that were simply closed down during the pandemic, the in-house housekeeping staff could be utilized to clean the facilities prior to reopening for business. The key with either approach is the ability to document it.
KG: This concept of a “clean” property really starts before you are at the point of trying to open up a facility for guest room service. Regarding this, keep in mind these general concepts.
1) Minimizing person to person/employee contact using basic principles of (6ft)
2) Reminder signage for both guests and employees at potential high interaction points (e.g., elevators, front desk, bar…)
3) Heightened employee hand hygiene, especially those that interact with guests more.
4) Heightened housekeeping awareness and training including surface cleaning with EPA/CDC approved disinfectants, especially when it comes to the reuse of cleaning equipment in various multiple areas. As an example, wiping down a remote control in one room, then wiping down a remote control with the same rag in a different room.
5) Heightened employee awareness for areas of commonly accessed areas (e.g., timecard punch in, break room, coffee pot and tables, employee restrooms, etc) More hand sanitizer units in public spaces and in locations of common employee touches surfaces.
6) Limiting foot traffic into hardly used or minimally/less used areas of the building if possible (e.g., gym, second half of hotel restaurant, etc). That means fewer areas to potentially clean later.
7) Promoting employee PPE such as face covers or gloves during work and training on how to use these items. Promoting employee honesty when flu-like symptoms may arise. Be aware that if you choose to have employees wear respirators, a respiratory protection plan, respirator use training, fit testing, and medical exams are required.
KG: If you are looking for a “clean” property before opening up again, there are some things to note:
1) Despite what some laboratories are touting, there really isn’t a reliable analytical “test” to show negative or positive results for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) on surfaces or in the air available to the public. You may have seen models/studies in the news showing detection in the air, but that is from a known source of dispersion, (ie, from a person with COVID-19).
2) Regarding “cleaning” spaces, typically in response to facility areas (not the entire facility) with active COVID-19 occupant residence or where COVID-19 occupants were, a hospital-grade terminal cleaning type activity is typical.
3) These cleaning activities should consider, 3rd party professional cleaning outfits that provide a work plan on what they propose to do, control and filtration of air movement during and after cleaning activities, delineation of affected areas where cleaning work is being conducted from areas where work is not conducted, appropriate worker PPE, using EPA/CDC approved cleaning products, cleaning activity oversight with 3rd party qualified environmental consultant.
Once you have done your due diligence, how do you convince the public you have done it?
KG: In general, I’ve always appreciated a short and concise signage that explains all the heightened awareness and activities that have occurred or are occurring (e.g., Southwest Airlines did an excellent job of not only increasing cleaning duration and frequency, they also communicated consistently to their guests). If you are opening up a property that had a high profile COVID-19 issue, and professional cleaning occurred or was required; again, brief signage that generally explains the measures taken to return the property back to occupancy. This verbiage can be prepared by a professional 3rd party consultant, if need be.
CC: Provide strict cleaning specifications that are adhered to by a certified professional cleaning company. All the work would be overseen by an independent 3rd party Certified Industrial Hygienist and their environmental consulting IH staff with sign-offs by all involved prior to re-occupancy. If I were a Hotel and/or REIT Owner, I would anticipate the State and Local Health Department entities across the country adopting and instituting some sort of “Best Practices” cleaning measures be taken prior to re-opening any hotel and/or hospitality dwelling. The key will be how and how often you are communicating that to your guests.
With changes to what our everyday normal looks like, changes to traveler perception and confidence will take time to win back. What hotels and restaurants do now can help assure the public of the property’s cleanliness. Training the team on the standards of cleanliness, clearly documenting the cleaning work that is done, and clear messaging and signage can all contribute to helping guests understand your cleaning procedures and bring confidence back to travelers.
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