Andrea DeGaetano stops at Target every morning before she goes to work. She needs to stock up on paper towels, sanitizer and other supplies for her one-woman home-cleaning service.

“There was a solid two months where I couldn’t find what I needed or I was only allowed to buy one,” she lamented, like just about everyone else. “That’s extremely difficult when you’re running a business. I do order some hospital-grade cleaning products online. It’s a lot more expensive to use.”

Besides shopping more often for cleaning essentials, DeGaetano has a whole new COVID-era routine: Mask on at work; windows open while she cleans; higher-grade disinfectant instead of nontoxic green cleaning products; minimal schmoozing with clients and condo front-desk staff (traditionally her best source for referrals); change mop heads and disinfect her vacuum cleaner and footwear after every customer; and, of course, wash hands, apply lotion and repeat. And, as a lovely parting gift, she leaves a clean sponge, sprayed with disinfectant, under each client’s kitchen sink.

“I really have to take extra steps now to make sure they’re [customers] safe and I’m safe,” said DeGaetano, who has been in business for 18 years. “I take my temperature every day.”

She even had to take a few days off in October after one of her clients tested positive for COVID-19, and therefore she had to get her own test. (It came back negative.)

“There are no sick days,” she said. “If I don’t work, I don’t get paid.”

Not to mention that her St. Paul-based business was shut down for two months at the beginning of the lockdown. And that she lost 40% of her clients for one reason or another when she reopened.

Same thing happened with Merry Maids, the nation’s largest cleaning service.

“We lost probably about 45% of our customers,” said Laurel Lungstrom, owner of Merry Maids of Hopkins. “People are afraid to let strangers in. It’s just a real uneasy time.”

By fall, business had bounced back noticeably for Lungstrom and DeGaetano. Not wanting to work with strangers, DeGaetano seeks clients only via referrals.

For Lungstrom, the pandemic has been something of a blessing in disguise. “We’re finally staffed where we can handle the demand for cleaning,” she said. “Before the pandemic, we were constantly saying ‘We have a waiting list,’ ‘We’re three weeks out.’ We were having a terrible time getting help — and have been for probably the last year and a half to two years.”

Typically, one staffer in each two-person Merry Maids cleaning crew has been a regular visitor to the same client, Lungstrom said. She has maintained that approach during the more cautious coronavirus period.

Calling it one of the most stressful times in the 37 years she’s been in the business, Lungstrom, like DeGaetano, has increased overhead because of protective equipment and stronger cleaning products, but neither has raised her rates.

“I probably use at least one mega-roll of paper towels a day. I hate the fact that I’m going through so many,” DeGaetano said with a sense of guilt at the waste. “But I think my vegan diet balances it out.”

No socializing with clients

There are two particular challenges now for DeGaetano, who considers some of her clients like family: social distancing and socializing.

About 30% of her customers are working from home. When she’s there, the homeowners typically leave or go to another room, often the basement, where DeGaetano doesn’t clean. Of course, there’s juggling children schooling at home, including a preschool pod at one client’s home.

A bigger issue is connecting with her beloved customers, whether it’s toddlers who want to hug her or the lonely 85-year-old woman who wants to follow her around and yak about the news for three hours as she cleans.

“Interaction has been cut probably 75%,” DeGaetano said. “It feels so surreal to me. I’m so used to having conversations with them.

“For kids, it’s hard for their little brains to wrap their heads around social distancing. So I’ll do something to make them smile. I’ll set up a tea party on their bed with their stuffed animals. I surprise them with something off the wall. One of my clients has this six-foot [stuffed] giraffe, and I put it on the 5-year-old’s bed and she laughed so hard.”

As for the 85-year-old, “She’s my buddy. I just adore her. I call her ‘dude.’ She named her cat Dude. I’m always on her to wear a mask.”

Then there are customers who understand the safety precautions and protocols but don’t necessarily like them.

“There is zero interaction now,” said Bruce Erickson, of Minneapolis, a client of DeGaetano Household Cleaning Service for 15 years. “It’s frustrating. I’m a pretty social person, as is she. I miss that time. We probably socialize more via text and phone calls than we used to. Occasionally she’ll send us a picture of our dog while she’s cleaning.”

After DeGaetano finishes at the Erickson house and her other clients,’ she drives home, removes her socks at the door and heads directly to the washing machine for the antibacterial setting for her entire outfit.

“I am running about 30 to 45 minutes later by the end of the day,” she pointed out. “I’m busy sanitizing everything!”