Does the thought of Stage 3 awaken your inner germophobe? This guy says beware of popcorn and cellphones

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Does the thought of Stage 3 awaken your inner germophobe? This guy says beware of popcorn and cellphones

The city enters Stage Three of reopening today. That means Torontonians will finally be able to dine at a restaurant, get ripped at the gym, catch a flick at the theatre (remember that?) and allow their kids to monkey around at the playground. But the thought of exiting lockdown and exposing themselves to filthy surfaces might have some germaphobes reaching for an industrial-sized tub of hand-sanitizer. Well, we’ve got some good news for the bacteria-averse. Mark Ambler, the founder of Germ Aware, a Toronto-based cleaning consultancy, has more than 10 years experience in the germ-fighting industry. And he’s got some tips for how to expertly navigate reopening.


For starters, what does Germ Aware do?
I founded Germ Aware in January 2020, because I didn’t see a lot of high-quality, unbiased information in the cleaning industry. In the past, it has always fallen to salespeople to teach custodians how to use the products they’re selling, even if those aren’t the right products. Despite what people might think, cleaning is actually a very technical job. You need to be choosing the right products and using them in the right ways. For example, a lot of the disinfectants in use are what’s called quaternary ammonium compounds, which are inexpensive and mix well with other chemicals. They have decent efficacy against most bacteria and viruses, but they have long dwell times, meaning they have to stay on surfaces for up to 10 minutes to kill bacteria. A well-trained professional can choose a more effective chemical that works faster.

I’m guessing it’s been a busy six months…
Business really picked up in March. I did a presentation about infection prevention and control for the Ontario Recreational Facilities Association, and I’ve been getting calls from people in that sector ever since. A lot of the clients we’ve worked with have been recreational facilities—big, public institutions and community hubs that have been grappling with how they’re going to reopen.

Speaking of reopening, Toronto is heading into Stage Three. Given that bars and restaurants will be able to serve indoors, will you be going out for a couple of pints? 
Personally, I won’t be going out to indoor establishments, like bars or restaurants. My expertise is in surface cleaning. Although you can spray down surfaces, the virus is airborne. If there isn’t enough airflow in the room or the HVAC system hasn’t been updated, that creates a risk of getting the virus. I think we should keep doing things outdoors, where the risk of transmission is much lower, as much as possible.

Would anything make you feel safer?
Restaurant and bar owners should still be creating better, more frequent cleaning protocols, focusing on key touch points like doorknobs and bathroom faucets. I would say at a minimum on an hourly basis, using a sanitizer rather than a disinfectant, because a lot of the surfaces in a restaurant are close to food. Sanitizers are much more diluted chemicals, which are safer for humans than disinfectants. I’d also be sanitizing menus and tables between customers. Hopefully they were doing that anyway. But at the end of the day, if you’re going to be seated at a table and the next party is six feet away, I think there’s still a high chance that you could come into contact with virus particles.

I guess that’s a thumbs down on dining indoors. How do you feel about going to a movie theatre?
I’d feel more comfortable at the movies than I would at a restaurant or a bar, assuming there’s physical distancing and mask wearing. There’s a lot of space, high ceilings and airflow. I’d probably opt for a chocolate bar rather than popcorn at the concession stand, though, because after touching a bunch of surfaces before the movie, I wouldn’t want to eat popcorn and put my fingers near my mouth.

What do you think about taking the kids to the playground?
There’s a lot of new information out there right now about how Covid-19 affects children, but in the absence of definitive knowledge, I think we should be proceeding with caution. That said, the thing I like about outdoor settings is they’re exposed to constant airflow and lots of UV light, which is an enemy of viruses like Covid-19. The chance that the virus can live in those conditions is quite low. As for indoor equipment, as a parent I’d be looking at the airflow and the layout of the facility, and I’d want to speak to the owners about the cleaning protocols. Are they using chemicals in the way advised by the manufacturer? And are the chemicals being removed properly from areas that children are touching and putting their mouths on? We don’t want kids exposed to chemicals that are essentially high-level pesticides.

What if you want to get a workout in?
Like movie theatres, gyms are typically open spaces with better airflow and more space to spread out. But if I were at the gym, I would be hellbent on keeping track of what my hands are touching. I’d be very conscious of wearing a mask and not touching my eyes, my nose and my mouth. I’d be going to the sanitizer station to wash my hands often. And I wouldn’t have my phone with me.

Wait, why no phone?
I always emphasize hand hygiene, but you’ve got to be aware of your phone. If you’re out walking through downtown Toronto, jumping on and off the subway, grabbing handrails and then pulling out your phone to surf the internet, everything you’ve touched all day is now on your phone. I see it time and time again. I go to a friend’s house and they wash hands before cooking dinner, then they scroll through the recipe on their phone and they’re back to square one. You should have a process for your phone when you get home, whether it’s wiping it down, putting it away or being very conscious of washing your hands after you use it.

Yeesh, you must be a fun guy to have at a dinner party…
Let’s just say people see the world a different way after they’ve eaten next to me.

There’s been a lot of talk over the last few days about hygiene theatre—the idea that if Covid-19 is mostly spread by airborne particles, focusing on cleaning surfaces is mostly for show. As a cleaning pro, what’s your take on that?
I look at it like this: surface transmission might not be as big of a worry as we first thought, but until we know more information about what dosage of the virus is required to make people sick, and until we know its survival times on different surfaces and different materials, we’d be wise to remain prudent.

Are there any other misconceptions about the effectiveness of cleaning?
If you think you can blast a washroom with disinfectant or clean a trolley handle with a Lysol wipe and everything will magically be germ-free in 30 seconds, you’re dreaming. If you read the label of that Lysol wipe, you’ll see that it needs to stay wet on the surface for four minutes to kill all the pathogens it claims to. In the sanitation industry, we have many different chemicals in our cleaning arsenal, like sodium hypochlorite and enhanced hydrogen peroxide, which are available online. Hopefully this crisis encourages people to learn to use them as effectively as possible, with proper cleaning schedules, techniques and modern equipment.

So in a weird way, Covid might lead to a cleaner world?
It could. I hope one of the legacies of this crisis is breaking the chain of transmission for other diseases through good hand hygiene and enhanced cleaning. There would be a lot of benefits to that. The ISSA, the international cleaning industry association, estimated that more effective cleaning could reduce sick leave by 46 per cent. But beyond the economy, it’s about saving lives. We can protect most vulnerable members of our society: elderly and immunocompromised people. Every year hundreds of people die in Canada from the flu. It doesn’t need to be that way.

Any other hopeful thoughts to end on?
Custodial work has been misunderstood and under-appreciated for a long time. Often the person who does the cleaning is the lowest paid employee in the building. But they’re the person who breaks the chain of transmission, the person standing between an outbreak and no outbreak. In my opinion, the people who do it were heroes before Covid, but Covid has finally brought that to the forefront.