11 May COVID-19: Future Advice: Return from COVID-19 Lockdown
By Dennis Kaiser
This is the third installment in a three-part series by Metro Services Group’s facility experts who explain how they help deliver cleaner work environments in the coronavirus era. Today, Metro’s team will offer advice for when buildings welcome tenants back from their COVID-19 lockdowns. Last week, the professionals broke down how to prepare a building for re-entry, and janitors and engineers on the front-lines at properties also shared how their building safety and training measures help fight COVID-19.
Landlords of commercial real estate properties were thrust into an awkward and unenviable position once the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States. First, they needed to learn how to manage and mitigate the virus at properties they owned or managed to protect tenants and employees, and secondly, they needed to figure out how best to protect the value of their asset. Clearly, the first took precedence, and they didn’t need to look far to discover resources ready to help them.
At the beginning of the health pandemic, not much was known or understood about the virus. Fortunately, the stay-at-home orders issued by Governors reduced the number of people in a building. That allowed landlords time to better learn about the proper safety practices. In many cases, owners and managers turned to facility professionals like Metro Services Group, which had a team of experts who were prepared to step in and provide experience, knowledge and services that were desperately needed at the time.
Metro’s Martin Larios, a veteran facility operations professional, said, “One of the first things we were called to do was provide information to customers. We got them up to speed with the new CDC guidelines and shared how we were adopting those required steps already. Managers learned from that information we provided, and they soon were educated, too. The next step is to also educate the tenants once they come back, and we are ready to help teach them as well.”
That early information and assistance from Metro went a long way with landlords, who tapped that expertise to help test, too. They recognized that Metro already had a process in place, which built off a previous package of health recommendations that were used during the last pandemic, the H1N1.
Larios said, “we knew how to deal with cleanups from blood-borne pathogens, and it was the same procedures for COVID-19.” Metro made sure to educate its facility crews and made a strong commitment to continue educating landlords as new information and guidelines came out. “What was different from the earlier virus was this one people could have it and didn’t know they had it and could infect others,” Larios said. “That was the main challenge. We shared that guidance and knowledge with customers as part of the first phase in educating them and getting them up to speed which really helped to calm tenants down.”
“Our professionals on the safety team, from the very beginning, knew the CDC and BOMA recommendations because we paid attention to them,” Larios added, noting they explained to building managers and owners what Metro’s facility teams were doing, as well as the practices that needed to be done by a partner who understood what to do. “That calmed them down because we were well-informed and stayed on top of the changes, such as the use of properly registered disinfectants,” said Larios. As the weeks have rolled along, the process has gotten smoother as managers understand more as they exit this transition period into a new era.
Proper Training & Re-Training
It also helped that Metro’s crews were trained and underwent re-training on cleaning procedures. Knowing the different levels of cleaning as well as where to clean are foundations of the approach Metro applies. That may mean knowing that preventing the spread requires taking precautions such as cleaning high touch areas with the proper disinfectant or electrostatic equipment.
“We learned what was the best disinfectant and shared that with customers,” said Larios, who notes the recommended disinfectant happened to be a product he’d been using already for 17 years. He also says, the HEPA filters that remove 99.9% of the harmful particles from the air have been a mainstay of Metro’s green cleaning policy for more than 15 years already.
Savvy landlords are completing deep cleaning at their buildings to be ready for when tenants return. Many are favoring those more robust cleaning routines, rather than general cleaning that entails wiping down surfaces. Now, that process is being replaced with one that uses disinfectant and is conducted two to three times per day, under CDC guidance. Larios recommends that process should continue when buildings reopen. Landlords will also need to teach tenants the new cleaning procedures for their spaces.
Additionally, it is important to keep in mind the CDC guidelines regarding spaces where infections were known to have occurred or where someone who contracted the virus had been. The CDC now says if someone who has COVID-19 was in the workspace, facility crews should wait a minimum of 24 hours before entering the space to clean and disinfect the area. It is also recommended by the CDC, that once the area has been appropriately disinfected, it can be opened for use.
Key Learnings, So Far
In order for tenants to return, Larios believes density control will need to be addressed for areas such as cafeterias and collaborative spaces. Landlords are working with building and facility teams to figure out ways to monitor gathering in areas that were designed to fit more people, but now must be reconfigured to reduce the number of people. This will present challenges for retail spaces or on the ground floors of buildings since there are no physical restraints to maintain social distancing guidelines, compared to an office suite.
Among the lessons Metro’s team learned as it managed this process for owners and managers included the following key takeaways that could be helpful as properties prepare to reopen.
• In the planning stage, Larios notes a checklist is needed that details the required procedures for cleaning.
• The enforcement element must also be factored in, so a property remains in compliance and avoids issues such as allowing a visitor to enter a property who is infected but doesn’t know.
• Access to properties may require people to wear a face mask because there is less chance of spreading the virus with one, and a higher risk of spreading without a mask.
• Social distances six feet apart should be marked on the floor when employees check in.
• People can’t take breaks together
• Identify areas in buildings where people can take breaks, with one person per table, which will require more space to accommodate more people. Otherwise, it could create liability if a building does not enforce policies in place today.
• A list of visitors recorded throughout the day.
• Landlords must be involved and provide feedback on things they see and offer ideas to improve processes.
Both facility teams and property management leaders must continue to work together to ensure the safest and healthiest work environments as we emerge on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, notes Larios.
Weighing Cost of Capex Improvements
Office environments in the future may include a few new additions, which will require landlord and owners to consider safety improvements to protect tenants and visitors at properties as part of a capital expense budget. That could encompass new equipment, technologies, or resources.
Among the options available to properties are such tools as UVC light, which comes in different forms, from hand-held devices that may be shined onto high-touched surfaces to, at a higher cost, lights that can be installed in buildings’ HVAC systems. UVC light has been shown to inactivate other types of coronaviruses, though Metro’s Marlene Machemy notes, there is not sufficient information yet to know for certain if it would kill the new coronavirus, and if it does, what would be the controlled conditions and the exposure time necessary.
Other options Machemy says owners should consider are increasing touchless technologies throughout the building, such as in restrooms and for trash receptables, door pulls and elevators.
Machemy points out that many costly technologies have flooded the market. Bu, because it is too early for scientific evidence to determine that these technologies are effective at inactivating the new coronavirus, and because of the budget considerations today, it is unlikely that many of these more expensive options will show up in a building.
Regardless of the new enhancements owners may elect to include, smart owners and managers are remaining focused on preparing buildings for reopening. As they continue to learn how to best manage and mitigate the virus at their properties, they know facility teams armed with the best cleaning practices and protocols will be vital to the reopening process.