Donning a white hazmat coverall with a face shield over a medical-grade dust mask and blue gloves, Sheldon Fontaine emerges from a pickup truck.
It’s a brisk Friday morning about a hundred kilometres north of Winnipeg in Sagkeeng First Nation. And carrying a large fogging machine belted around his waist, Fontaine is outside a house in the locked-down Anishinaabe community, ready to convert disinfectant fluids into aerosols.
He’s already put virucidal liquids into the handheld apparatus, but now he’s making sure the hose-like wiring around it is intact before he gets started. It’s all part of a process that’s been nailed down to a tee in the last couple months. "Definitely not my first rodeo," he says.
Fontaine knows he’s not a ghost-catching parapsychologist out of an ’80s supernatural comedy film, but fogging homes and commercial properties for his new business certainly makes him feel like one.
That’s precisely why he named it COVID Busters — a company dedicated to provide decontamination services around the province, and especially in his community, at affordable rates. It’s also a business that’s been dubbed an essential service under new provincial restrictions issued this week.
"When the pandemic first happened," Fontaine told the Free Press, "I knew I had to do something."
It was well before a case of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the First Nation on Sept. 15 when Fontaine hatched the idea.
"Cases weren’t here yet, but it was almost like it was bound to happen," he said. "So I called my friend in Winnipeg, and saw what I could do about it."
A car-ride later, Fontaine met up with the friend who sold disinfecting liquids and had only just begun purchasing high-frequency cleaning gear for commercial usage. "I wanted to buy one of those to use in our community, but I didn’t have much money to afford it," he said.
Fogging machines, such as the one Fontaine now uses, can range from around $2,000 to $20,000 a pop.
"I’d just gotten out of owning a restaurant that didn’t work out because of everything shutting down," he said. "And it was just too much money for me to pay, but luckily my friend saw the value in my idea."
Fontaine’s friend let him take the machine for free and said he could pay it off after his first few customers. "And that’s where it all started," he said.
Since then, Fontaine’s business has become a one-man-show that’s charging around $75 to $100 per house, depending on the size. For commercial properties, it’s about $700 to $1,500 (prorated at 8 cents per square foot).
Within an hour or so after the services, customers can return inside. The chemicals used aren’t toxic.
"It’s extra precautions," said Mare McAuley, one of Fontaine’s customers who lives in the First Nation. "I’ve gone through two COVID tests — one in March and another just a couple weeks ago, so it’s sort of a regime thing now, along with smudging."
McAuley’s daughter works at a school in the area, and so she fears there’s a higher likelihood of bringing the virus home. That’s why, she said, "it’s imperative to keep everything sanitized and I’m very glad we have Sheldon’s business around now."
The theory behind the cleaning process, Fontaine explains, is intended to add to conventional cleaning but not entirely replace it. Charged disinfectant droplets, he said, are more attracted to surfaces through electrostatic forces than they would be just by gravity alone.
While COVID-19 is mainly spread through prolonged close contact with a symptomatic patient, there remains a small but quantifiable chance of contracting the disease by touching surfaces contaminated with the virus.
According to Manitoba Public Health, fogging services such as Fontaine’s are "a good additional benefit to fighting COVID-19." In a statement to the Free Press, the province said they should only be used after "adhering to normal protocols already being advised and currently being enforced."
But as COVID-19 case counts continue to climb daily by the hundreds, high-frequency cleaning has already become a standard practice in several workplaces, businesses and public amenities. And it’s why companies like COVID Busters have found a profitable sweet spot during the pandemic.
"At the end of the day, what I mainly want to do is make sure everything is safe and sanitized when people can’t thoroughly do it themselves," said Fontaine. "And for a lot of people, it’s that kind of reassurance that they need right now — that someone can do it for them and they can feel safe.
"It’s like I’m catching virus-shaped ghosts."
Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for this Free Press reporting position comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.