Little did Carlette Smith know that her cleaning service employees would end up looking like astronauts. But COVID truly did change everything.
When the pandemic hit Leon County last March, Smith saw a way her business could help eliminate the virus and thrive during the pandemic. Like so many other businesses, Brian D. Smith Cleaning Service had to restructure to meet the challenges that COVID-19 posed as the outbreak spread.
Smith said they had to find the right equipment, cleaning supplies and personal protection gear to kill the virus in commercial and residential buildings. She and her husband started their minority-owned cleaning company in 2003 after she came back from a tour as a military police officer in Iraq.
During the eight months Carlette was deployed overseas guarding prisoners, Brian was working for the Florida Department of Financial Services and cleaning commercial buildings on the side. When she returned, they opened a cleaning business.
Smith said she remembers first hearing about COVID-19 last March. “We started getting nervous because we knew,” she said. “We knew that this was going to affect the cleaning world in a positive way or a negative way.”
Smith said they realized that they had to turn their company from focusing more on cleaning into one that focused more on disinfecting. While there was an initial drop off of client calls, just as quickly requests for cleaning and disinfecting commercial buildings started to pour in.
The problem was Carlette and Brian Smith didn’t know how to kill the COVID-19 virus.
“We knew nothing about the new technology out there to disinfect,” Smith said. “Usually when we disinfected an office building, we would use our hands, but now due to coronavirus, they had actually had tools and technology to fight the coronavirus.”
So they watched cable news and researched online. The couple saw Victory Innovations electrostatic sprayers being used to disinfect areas. “And Brian and I were like ‘You know, we’re going to have to get these machines,’ ” she said. “We had a feeling that people were going to start calling us more and we couldn’t just go and wipe.”
Smith took pictures of sprayers on the news so she could find them online. They managed to buy two of the sprayers in March on backorder, arriving in May. She said after that, the equipment was sold out for months.
“So thank God we were able to get the machines,” she said. “And we were actually the first company in Tallahassee to have (them).”
An entirely new business model
The cleaning company also was vying for PPE, such as gloves, masks, goggles and hazmat suits, with other organizations like hospitals, nursing homes and prisons. Smith said they contacted large medical equipment supply companies and ordered supplies in bulk.
Smith said the cost of the sprayers, the chemicals and the PPE was very expensive. The company had the capital because it had been in business for several years. But she said help from local resources such as the Office of Economic Vitality, the Capital City Chamber of Commerce and others was also essential in helping them get by.
Katrina Tuggerson, president of the Capitol Chamber of Commerce, said they started a program called Solidarity Of United Leadership, or SOUL, which helped area small businesses apply for grant funding. The chamber also advocated for additional funding for minority-and-women-owned businesses.
One key customer segment emerged: Churches. Smith said Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church was the first to call them about getting their church disinfected, but soon other churches started calling too.
Pastor Stanley L. Walker said the church services went virtual in February 2020 after the outbreak of COVID-19 showed up in Tallahassee last year. He said the company was already cleaning the church, but he wanted them to start disinfecting everything to prevent any contamination or spread of the virus.
“On Sundays, Mondays or whenever they come in,” he said. “They clean the church after the services on Sunday when we do livestream at the church.”
There have been outbreaks of positive COVID-19 cases stemming from churches in Florida and across the country, including this past August from a church in the Jacksonville area where six unvaccinated members died and 35 more members became ill.
Carlette and Brian came up with an idea to help. They would do presentations and show how their company would go in and disinfect the building or campus, eliminating the coronavirus with the equipment and chemicals they had purchased. Smith said they currently service about 45 churches and many are just reopening their physical locations this year.
Spraying schools and always hiring
Leon County schools also sought their services after last year’s coronavirus outbreak.
Adrian Brunson, a company manager who inspects the buildings after they’re cleaned to make sure everything has been done, said he had never cleaned a school before the pandemic hit. “We looked like astronauts going in with these backpacks on and these foggers on our backs,” he said.
He has also been part of a strike team so when a child or adult tests positive or there’s a lot of activity in a space, the school district can call the team out so the room or rooms at the schools can be disinfected.
He said during the past 17 months, they were spraying schools or being called to disinfect a certain room or rooms at times on a daily or weekly basis. But he said that things slowed down a lot this year and that it also depended on whether school was in session or not.
The Delta variant hit school districts across the state hard in the lead up to the fall school year. The Florida Department of Health reported in mid-September that about 167,000 children under 16 had been infected with COVID since Aug. 1, while 196,450 students and staff were forced to quarantine in the same period. As media outlets reported, between July 1 and mid-Stemper, thirteen children and 71 school staff in Florida died of the pandemic.
The Leon County School District saw more than 300 self-reported cases and 1,000 students in quarantine in the first month of school.
Smith said they rarely disinfected homes before COVID-19, but they’ve picked up some more of those jobs since. She says that’s because more people are working from home and people who have had the virus want their homes disinfected after they’ve recovered.
She says she currently has around 20 employees and is always hiring.
The pandemic has forever changed her industry, she said, because it’s now about the health and safety of the people who enter and work in the buildings as well as her own employees.
Her company must make sure her employees have all the PPE they need and is responsible for training them how to put it on and wear it correctly. She said she also has to train them on what chemicals to use and where in the building they’re applied.
“You have to go into the building and you really have to focus on cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces,” Smith said. “You have to be more detailed in your cleaning because you can infect a lot of people. You can get a lot of people sick.”
About this project
This project is funded by the Knight Foundation as a part of its community grant program, which supports projects which promote economic opportunity through the arts, journalism and entrepreneurship. The project, which is being published in online and print editions of the Democrat over a series of days, is a partnership of Knight, The Village Square, the Community Foundation of North Florida and Skip Foster Consulting. See more stories from the project at www.tallahassee.com/pandemic-economy. This series is available to all online readers, but we hope you’ll subscribe to support local journalism like this at offers.tallahassee.com.
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