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Schools And Businesses Grapple With How To Cope With Coronavirus

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases grows, schools and businesses are trying to cope. And many are resorting to deep cleaning, some going as far as hiring industrial crews to sanitize their facilities. As NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, there are limits to that approach.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: The last few days have not been the smoothest for Sean Degnan.

SEAN DEGNAN: Certainly not our normal week.

MCCAMMON: Degnan is 45 and the owner of So-Ca, a restaurant in Raleigh, N.C. His week took a turn when county officials told him the one person in the state with a confirmed coronavirus case at that time had recently dined in his restaurant.

DEGNAN: It's not the lottery that I wanted to win.

MCCAMMON: So Degnan and his staff sprang into action, spending hours cleaning every surface, every plate, every last knife and fork. He wanted to reassure his customers and employees that the restaurant was safe.

DEGNAN: Some of it's for peace of mind for our staff. And some of it was, what else are you going to do all day while you're waiting to see what's going to happen? You might as well sit there and clean and make yourself feel better about the situation.

MCCAMMON: The next day, Degnan brought in a commercial company at a cost of a few hundred dollars to do another round of cleaning and disinfecting in the restaurant.

Many schools with confirmed or suspected cases of coronavirus in their communities are taking a similar approach. After a student at Everett Public Schools outside Seattle tested positive more than a week ago, a large crew of custodial and maintenance workers spent a long weekend deep cleaning, says spokeswoman Kathy Reeves.

KATHY REEVES: They spent three days disinfecting all touchable surfaces.

MCCAMMON: Reeves said it's tough to estimate the price tag for the district, both in supplies and staff time. And the figure may keep going up.

That's a concern for schools around the country, says Francisco Negron, chief legal officer at the National School Boards Association. His group is getting lots of questions about how to deal with coronavirus. And Negron says there are many factors for administrators to consider.

FRANCISCO NEGRON: I don't think schools are going to be concerned with overspending. I think the primary concern of schools is making sure that their students and their school communities are safe.

MCCAMMON: Negron is urging school districts to ask their insurance companies for help with the costs.

PATTY OLINGER: It could be thousands of dollars, depending on the situation that you're looking at.

MCCAMMON: Patty Olinger is with the cleaning industry association ISSA. She says the costs can vary depending on the size and scope of what's required.

OLINGER: Is it a warehouse, or is it an office building? Is it a school system, or is it a day care? Is it a hotel where you also have to deal with the bedding, potentially? And so that deep clean can mean different things.

MCCAMMON: Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, says deep cleaning can't hurt, but it can only help so much.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: Because we haven't been able to test as widely as a number of other countries, we don't really have a good understanding of what the prevalence is right now in the population. So deep cleaning once if you know that you had a confirmed case come in is great. But there's still a risk that another infected person could come in. And then I don't know what you do.

MCCAMMON: For Sean Degnan, the restaurant owner in Raleigh, his business is slowly coming back after the coronavirus scare. And he says there's at least one benefit to all this cleanliness.

DEGNAN: I mean, we're also due for a health inspection, so it's kind of (laughter) good timing for that.

MCCAMMON: Because even if it can't stop the coronavirus, a good cleaning never hurt anyone.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.