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These Tampa Bay businesses are busier than ever during coronavirus

Crime scene cleanup, essential oils, travel insurance and others are seeing a surge.
Laura Spaulding, who founded Spaulding Decon in 2005. Typically her business specializes in cleaning up blood or hoarder homes. [Tampa Bay Times (2019)]

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The crews show up breathing through respirators, wearing hooded hazmat suits and two layers of rubber gloves.

In normal times, they’re the ones called upon to clean up the grisliest scenes — bloody homicides, suicides and lonely deaths that go undiscovered for months, hoarding situations where layers of food and trash have accumulated for years in poorly ventilated spaces.

Now, businesses like Tampa-based Spaulding Decon are being called in to clean up a pandemic.

“It’s been crazy. We’ve actually done over $30 million in estimates in two weeks,” said owner Laura Spaulding. “In that period normally? It might be a hundred thousand.”

Spaulding said “the phones are ringing off the hooks” at all 24 offices of Spaulding Decon across the United States due to the spreading coronavirus. Most offices are hiring extra help to fulfill demand from restaurants, banks, government buildings, gyms and day cares. Spaulding is even flying cleaning crews around the country to help out in the busiest places.

The majority of clients are just taking preventive measures, but some are anxious to have their facilities scrubbed down after someone who had been there tested positive for the coronavirus.

Laura Spaulding uses replicas of a home interior at the Spaulding Decon warehouse to help train new workers. She uses pig's blood for the training. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

“We just did a job in Kentucky this past weekend that they had an exposure,” she said. “And we did a courthouse in Philly.”

Often, the crews slip in and scrub the buildings overnight, “because a lot of them just don’t want that pretense of being associated with an exposure when they haven’t been.” Spaulding said they use a chemical that is “EPA registered” and kills the virus in 90 seconds.

At a time when many employers are laying workers off or cutting hours, she has hired six new cleaners in Tampa. She’s looking for 10 more.

Airlines, hotels and restaurants are losing millions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Supermarkets have seen a well-documented surge in business as people frantically buy supplies.

But a few local businesses that might not be top of mind are also busier than usual.

At Great American Natural Products in St. Petersburg, Amy Hamilton-Wray, who runs the store with family, came in Monday on her day off to help out because of all the customers. She said the store, which sells a range of vitamins, herbs, supplements and essential oils, was slammed all weekend and they’ve had to reorder many items from suppliers.

“I came back today, because I couldn’t even get in the door on Saturday,” said a customer who only wanted to identify herself as Barbara. She was buying four spray bottles of the store’s Immune Guard spray, a mixture of cloves, lemon, cinnamon bark, oregano and grain alcohol.

Others were buying roll-on applicators of lavender and chamomile oil blends to help soothe stress, or asking about iodine, vitamin C or zinc tablets.

Hamilton-Wray said she doesn’t make claims about the products’ health benefits, but that “customers can do their own research." That didn’t stop shoppers from discussing it among themselves. Those in line on Monday chatted about antiviral properties and boosting immune systems.

Squaremouth, a St. Petersburg-based travel insurance comparison software company, which also sells its own travel insurance policies, has been working steadily to keep up with a flood of phone calls and online messages from customers.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Squaremouth spokeswoman Kasara Barto said. “We’re even getting messages on Facebook.”

They’re coming from both new customers seeking to ensure they don’t lose what they spent on an already booked vacation, and old customers asking what’s covered in their current policy.

Since the outbreak began, inquiries have more than doubled, and purchases of their Cancel for Any Reason policies have more than tripled. Barto said the company rarely recommends such expensive coverage, but in the case of the coronavirus, a policy that covers absolutely everything may be some would-be travelers’ only good option.

“A lot of what we’re hearing is that they’re afraid to travel," Barto said, “but fear of travel isn’t something covered by a standard policy.”

Cleaning supply wholesalers such as Sani-Chem, which keeps a large stock of toilet tissue, paper products and disinfectants in its Clearwater warehouse, have been extremely busy. Owner Carol Barth said they usually supply office buildings and janitorial companies, but this week they’ve been discovered by the public.

“We’re about five times our normal business,” she said. “We sell in case sizes, 96 rolls of toilet tissue per case, and we had a line of people constantly buying those for their homes.”

Grocery delivery services have also seen an uptick in business. Mason Ness is a full-time student from Lakeland who typically works about 15 to 20 hours a week as a shopper for Instacart, a grocery delivery app and website. He said he usually averages around $15 an hour going into grocery stores, finding the items people have asked for and driving them to their homes.

“Over the last week, I worked in Coral Gables for 42 hours and made $1,250 in one week, averaging almost $30 per hour,” he said. One order was 250 items, and the total came out to $720. “I filled three carts completely full, stuffed the items into my car and delivered to the 22nd floor of the Ritz-Carlton residences in Coconut Grove and got a huge tip.”

Tampa’s Tommy Moody Jr. said he recently finished working a 70-hour week shopping for the service.

But many said that despite the extra hassle of long lines, crowds and many of the items customers ordered being out of stock — in which case they have to find substitutes or face hours-long waits on hold with Instacart themselves to cancel the orders — they haven’t seen their earnings or tips grow at all.

Missy Monroe, who shops in Jacksonville, said: “I’ve truly experienced the worst of humanity.”

Still, Instacart appears to have added many new users this week, the shoppers said, and the work has been steady if they want it.

One other business that’s been boosted: guns. The number of background checks for gun buyers in Florida has risen sharply in the past few days.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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