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Amid a sick economy and coronavirus concerns, these Wine Country businesses are cleaning up

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With COVID-19 destroying lives and making a mess of the $20 trillion U.S. economy, there’s one industry being propelled to the forefront to help clean it up.

The phones are ringing off the hook at many janitorial services in the North Bay. Voicemail at Fishman Supply Co. declares the Petaluma cleaning product purveyor isn’t accepting any calls. It remains out of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes to the general public.

Voicemail boxes are also full at JGS Distributing in Napa and Rodriguez Commercial Cleaning in Santa Rosa.

“It’s been pretty crazy,” said Rita Hagel, who runs Hagel Supply Co., a San Rafael company her father Gunther Hagel started in 1953. Business is up 10 percent since the virus “became a pandemic.”

Classified during the “shelter in place” era as an essential business, the janitorial services and supply companies open for business are busy fielding numerous calls from offices and facilities. Some customers want to suspend services, others want more measures and visits to disinfect their buildings.

“Of the offices closed, it’s almost an equal number of businesses that want enhanced sanitation,” said John Newman, president of Vanguard Cleaning Systems of the North Bay. He said the Petaluma-based company cleans a wide array of businesses and agencies from medical facilities and schools to civic agencies and wineries in Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano counties.

Even if some companies are operating with a skeleton crew, every live body matters — with some buildings receiving extensive scrubbing on a variety of surfaces including elevator buttons, common countertops, desks, light switches, door handles, telephones, keyboards, desks, chairs and even microwaves in lunch rooms.

These building guardian angels of sorts have become unsung heroes of this global pandemic.

“When we do our job well, we’re saving lives now,” Environment Control of North Bay General Manager Frans Roosen said.

Roosen considers the bottom line of his Windsor-based commercial cleaning company with 150 employees as “fluid.” Despite seeing a reduction of visits per week, more calls may flood the phone lines once the state order has been lifted. For now, Roosen has noted calls for high “touch-point” cleaning.

His workers use green, medical-grade, ammonia-based cleaning materials approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as PPEs, personal protective equipment that’s become a part of humanity’s vernacular.

“We glove in and glove out,” he said.

Despite all of the measures, Roosen admits his staff is somewhat wary of the notion they’re amid a potential virus situation.

“I know they’re concerned because they’re human. We’re concerned,” he said.

“We can tell they’re nervous,” said Leesa Pavlos, business development manager of Optima Building Services in Santa Rosa.

Still, managers are called on to lift the workers’ spirits.

“We try to encourage our staff to realize their service does matter,” Pavlos said.

Kelly O’Brien, office manager for Williams Selyem’s Pebble Ridge Vineyards & Wine Estates, has continued service with Environment Control, despite the Healdsburg winery closing.

“We’re all being told to shelter in place, and I thought about the people not as lucky as me, who don’t have a paid vacation — those guys working behind the scenes,” O’Brien said, citing overnight working conditions that are considered “gross,” “hard” and “thankless.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest 2018 report, janitors and building cleaners make an average salary of $12.55 an hour, equating to $26,110 a year. The figures for 2019 will be out at the end of the month.

Not only does the job evoke nobility, it now requires a bit of chemistry and client industry knowledge.

It’s a delicate balance of physical labor and chemical knowledge that demands more than a rag and water.

No other industry realizes this more than those running health care facilities.

“If they’re cleaning a medical facility, we trust they’re doing it correctly,” said Ara Chakrabarti, chief executive officer for Redwood Coast Medical Services of Gualala.

The CEO punctuated the heightened level of awareness by admitting his staff cleans surfaces each time a patient comes and goes.

The awareness of the job’s importance has reached the halls of Congress.

While appearing on MSNBC Monday night, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., commended janitors, alongside grocery store clerks, as the workers on the front line of the crisis who deserve vast credit. Klobuchar’s husband was hospitalized with a coronavirus infection.

“We are on the front lines in preventing further spread, and this could change our mindset on how we view the industry and how we clean,” said John Nothdurft, spokesman for the International Sanitary Supply Association, said. “We used to clean for looks. We need to clean for health now.”

The association manages 9,300 members in the janitorial services business from all over the world. These members clean airlines, airports, hotels, schools and government buildings.

The 70-year-old advocacy group based in Chicago has fielded a flood of requests for how to combat COVID-19 — in its initial outbreak and possibly a second wave.

“The best way to combat this is through prevention. We could have another virus,” Nothdurft said. “We want to make sure we’re using best practices.”

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