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How to keep everyone safe when hiring a house cleaner

Like everyone else, Anthony Fauci has to balance coronavirus risks in his everyday life.

But while he may not be eating in restaurants, Fauci is having his house professionally cleaned, he told The Washington Post in July.

“The only person who comes into the house besides [my wife], Christine, and me is the woman who cleans the house once every two weeks,” said Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “She wears a mask and gloves at all times while in the house.”

Although maintaining a clean home is vital to preventing the spread of germs, including those that cause COVID-19, the decision to have a self-employed housekeeper or a professional cleaning service come in right now can be a difficult one. If you do decide you need help now that your dustballs are the size of baseballs, and you are fortunate enough to be able to afford to bring in outside help, how can you best keep yourself and your cleaning professional safe indoors in this new environment?

Like everything in this pandemic, it’s a matter of assessing and managing risks. “You can minimize the risk, but you can’t eliminate it,” says Dean Hart, a New York microbiologist and author on the transmission of viruses and diseases. Hart says it starts with both cleaners and residents wearing masks and with getting as much air circulation as possible in the space. Cleaning agencies could offer testing for their staff, especially as it becomes more widely available, plus temperature checks and pulse oximeters. “There are no definites in this business, but there are good ideas,” Hart says.

“It really comes down to your contact with people,” says Brian Labus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He says you should leave the house when people are cleaning, or at least stay in a separate part of it. “The main mode of transmission for this disease is when one person is coughing or talking out respiratory droplets and another person is breathing them in,” he says.

As for the danger of being infected from your cleaner touching the surfaces in your home? “There is always the possibility, but it’s a minor mode of transmission,” Labus says. “The cleaning person should be cleaning all that away.”

In the early days of the pandemic, most house cleaners lost clients. Some condos or co-ops did not allow cleaners or service people of any kind into their buildings, and some still don’t. The households that employed independent housekeepers had to decide whether they were comfortable having them back, if it was allowed. Some private employers continued to pay cleaners’ regular salaries, although the cleaners didn’t come for many weeks.

Professional cleaning companies had to shift gears in March and April as nationwide guidelines were interpreted differently in various states, some classifying house cleaning as an essential service and some not.

“We had a mix of customers who were very concerned and made decisions not to have anyone in the house,” says Melissa Homer, chief cleaning officer of MaidPro. “We had losses from there, but then there came a bunch of new consumers reaching out to us, knowing that disinfecting is a critical part of killing germs.”

Homer says “germ management” was already an essential part of MaidPro’s services, especially because employees clean for many elderly and immunocompromised clients. But MaidPro instituted more rigorous sanitizing procedures, which it laid out in online training sessions for almost 5,000 cleaners working for MaidPros across the country. The company obtained masks and gloves and instructed locations to do daily temperature checks.

At the Green Mop, a 13-year-old eco-friendly cleaning company based in Arlington, Virginia, business was down more than 85 percent in March and April, says Christian Dentas, a manager. “Now we’re back to about 50 to 60 percent of our normal volume.

“People understand a little more about how the virus works and how to protect themselves,” he says. Customers are asked to wear masks and social distance in a different room. Green Mop, whose employees have daily temperature checks and wear masks and gloves, has also added a medical-grade disinfectant and, if requested, bleach to its arsenal of green cleaning products.

Carolyn Forte, director of the cleaning lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute, says it’s important to monitor the spread of the coronavirus and the safety guidelines in your own area. “If you feel it’s safe and house cleaners are working and allowed in, I would feel comfortable with just one person coming to do my cleaning,” Forte says.

She suggests starting slow and only having a cleaner every few weeks or once a month. “Prioritize the tasks and ease into it. Focus on the areas most important, such as the kitchen and bathrooms. Maybe don’t have them do the guest bedroom right now,” she says. Forte advises opening windows and doors to allow air to circulate.

It’s more important than ever to communicate clearly with your cleaning professional, Forte adds. If you are hiring from a service, confirm what precautions it is taking and how it is screening workers. “Don’t make assumptions. Maybe you want them to go a bit beyond their normal routine in terms of cleaning, using more disinfectants,” she says. “Make sure they know how to use them and [tell them] that you want the product to sit on the surface for the length of time that is required for the sanitizing.”

Ask what products your cleaners are using, and consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s official guidance (cdc.gov) about cleaning during the pandemic and the Environmental Protection Agency’s list (epa.gov) of disinfectants effective against the coronavirus, called List N.

There are also ways to make the process easier and faster while keeping safety the top priority, such as not paying with cash. Dentas says that instead of cash or checks, Green Mop processes contactless online payments.

Forte suggests taking a spin around your house before cleaners arrive to get rid of clutter. “Keep the bathroom vanity tops clear and put your toothbrush and cosmetics away when they are coming in,” she says. “Take out the products from the shower and tub if you have tons of bottles in there. Don’t make them have to touch more than they have to.” Clear kitchen counters, so surfaces can be thoroughly cleaned.

If you employ a professional cleaning company, ask if it is using fresh sets of cleaning cloths for every job and if it is cleaning bottles and tools between stops. Forte suggests you ask cleaners to use equipment you provide to help prevent any germ spread.

“Make sure your tools are in good shape,” she says. “Don’t give them an old, dirty sponge to use.” Also have extra masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and paper towels around.

Because “the key of transfer of COVID is about shared airspace,” Homer says, your particular job requests should be submitted before cleaners arrive. “The chitchat and dialogue that are part of the culture and part of being pampered are not good in this time frame.”

Caryn Gordon, a retired registered nurse from Marlborough, Massachusetts, who has diabetes, says infection control has always been a priority in her world. She was a longtime MaidPro customer, but when the coronavirus hit, she was hesitant to have anyone inside her apartment. “I was very careful making the decision to have the cleaners back,” says Gordon, who has difficulty getting around and vacuuming. After studying the new procedures listed on MaidPro’s website, she had her first cleaning about a month ago.

She waited in the library of her building. As she headed back, she saw the cleaner leaving. “She wiped down my outside doorknob just before she left,” Gordon says. “It made me feel good.”

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