SOUTH PORTLAND — Having finished his warranty work on a refrigerator, Craig Maloney returned to his Metropolitan Services appliance repair car parked on the street. He set down an orange backpack containing tools he hadn’t used, and a red safety bag containing those he had.

Craig Maloney puts on a fresh pair of latex gloves at a job site last week. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

One by one, he sprayed those tools with Lysol disinfectant. He did likewise to his navy blue jumpsuit and the black rubber booties he wore over his shoes. He removed a mask that covered his nose and mouth and peeled off a pair of black protective gloves.

“It might be overkill,” Maloney said. “We don’t really know. But you can’t be too careful.”

Indeed, for companies whose business relies on in-home service, the coronavirus pandemic has changed normal operating procedures. Some companies, including Willard Square Home Repair of South Portland, suspended residential service in March and have yet to resume.

Those that are making house calls once again are doing so with an abundance of caution. Masks are standard attire, even if a customer claims no virus is inside the house. Maloney said he has encountered only one customer who objected to the mask.

“I said it’s not just for my safety or your safety, it’s for the next person’s safety as well,” he said. “I try to explain to people that I go to seven people’s houses a day, and everybody’s going to claim that they don’t have (COVID-19).”

Metropolitan Services, based in West Baldwin, temporarily raised rates by 30 percent to cover the additional time and cost of materials required to follow guidelines set by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Owner Daniel Jones said he closed the business to all non-emergency service calls for 14 days and invested in protective equipment and supplies, including the full lightweight coveralls.

“There are a lot of customers that don’t require or ask us to take additional precautions, but we do anyway,” Jones said. “We’re very transparent when it comes to our practices for this.”

Jones said business was slow for the first two weeks after reopening, but now Metropolitan is back to the level it was a year ago, even with the rate increase. In fact, Jones is hiring another field technician and another office worker.

Craig Maloney puts on a protective mask as he gets ready for a job in South Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“It’s because of the amount of work we have,” he said. “I was not expecting it. I was expecting a lot worse.”

Maine has experienced lower infection rates than most states, and while some states are experiencing a surge in cases and hospitalizations, Maine’s virus cases are on a downward trajectory as testing continues to ramp up. But that doesn’t mean the virus is gone in Maine or is no longer a threat.

Scientists are learning more about how the virus spreads. For example, wearing a mask around others outdoors appears to be an effective means of protection, but lingering in a crowded space indoors without wearing a mask is almost a surefire way to pass on the coronavirus.

Sally Libby has owned and operated The Maids cleaning franchise out of Portland for 25 years. She shut down from mid-March through the end of May, both to protect her employees and her customers, most of whom are elderly.

Craig Maloney carries a bag full of cleaning supplies to disinfect the areas he works in, and his own supplies after the job is done. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

New protocol includes daily temperature checks for employees with a touchless thermometer. Masks are mandatory. All equipment is disinfected between each home, instead of at the end of the day, as had been the case previously.

“We’ve always cleaned for health,” said Libby, pointing to a 22-touch process developed by The Maids, which has franchises in three Canadian provinces and more than 40 states, “but now we’re just taking extra precautions.”

In March, Libby had 16 staff members. That number has dwindled to 10. So instead of three to four teams, she is operating with two.

“It’s a strain on us, actually,” she said. “We’re beefing up their days, so their hours are longer. It still is not as profitable as it would be with three to four teams.”

As for her customer base, that also has dwindled.

“I would say about 40 to 50 percent of our customers chose not to have us come in until they felt comfortable,” Libby said. “They’re starting to feel more comfortable. We have gained quite a few of them back.”

Evergreen Home Performance, with offices in Rockland and Portland, is into its third week of full deployment after testing the waters again in early June with a few pilot projects.

Elise Brown, executive vice president and one of three co-owners, said every aspect of the operation was scrutinized, not just in homes but back in the shop. Evergreen’s relationship with Portland-based workers’ compensation insurance provider MEMIC proved especially valuable, Brown said.

Craig Maloney wears rubber boots over his shoes as he arrives at a job site in South Portland. The boots are disinfected after each job. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“They are really robust safety-resource people,” she said. “Anytime I had a question, they would vet it. That was tremendously helpful.”

Among the changes at Evergreen are self-assessments of employee and family health, assessments of customer health, and new cleaning and protective equipment, including wash stations and pop-up awning tents that can be set up outside a home.

“We fill up water dispensers to have flowing water for hand-washing so we’re not just relying on sanitizers,” Brown said.

Another tweak is the use of temporary plastic sheeting to create what Brown called “zip walls.” Before the pandemic, they had been used to contain dust and debris. Now, they’re also used as corridors to minimize disturbance. The nature of weatherizing a home means much of an Evergreen crew’s work is done in attics and basements, which also keeps workers away from living spaces.

Each crew includes a designated safety supervisor with a long checklist of items.

“It does take longer, but it’s worth it,” Brown said. “We want to make sure customers have peace of mind. Equally important is the health and well-being of our staff. We want to make sure they feel well protected and that we’re really thinking through any possible exposures.”

With more people working from home instead of commuting to an office, the physical structure itself is getting greater scrutiny. Conditions that seemed tolerable when people were rushing out the door each morning and returning each evening seem less so on a 24/7 basis.

“We’ve been really pleased that so many people want to invest in their homes,” Brown said. “I think a lot of Mainers realize that home investment and how your house performs really matters in the enjoyment of the home, not just in its operation.”

During the shutdown, Evergreen’s owners tried to figure out ways to keep the company afloat. Their landlord in Rockland offered to waive two months of rent before they even asked for assistance. Their landlord in Portland helped them install touch-free plumbing fixtures.

“That meant so much to a small business,” Brown said. “Every single creditor and lender was interested in helping us. That was really impressive.”

So far, all the dire scenarios and salvage-the-business calculations Brown and her colleagues drew up while in shutdown mode have not come to pass.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised,” she said. “We’re excited. We’re having really good month.”

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