Scribner’s Catskill Lodge in Hunter, N.Y., was one in a nationwide sea of hotel establishments to temporarily close last year when the pandemic wiped out tourism and travel.
Between mid-March and June, the hotel’s managers did what many other closed hospitality establishments did — focused on a reopening strategy involving deep cleanings, temperature checks and other coronavirus-related safety precautions. As shutdown restrictions eased, the hotel reopened in time for summer travelers, but rooms were held vacant for 48 hours between guests. Each room has built-in cooling systems, and staff would turn the fans on full blast, hoping to send stray respiratory droplets out the window before the next vacationer was set to arrive.
“Air quality was something we were really concerned about,” said Kate Lala, director of operations at the redesigned 1960s motor lodge.
Now the hotel thinks it has found a better way. While researching novel disinfecting methods, Lala stumbled across an air purifier brand that promised to do what most others couldn’t — suck the virus in and kill it, rather than collecting the germs and possibly recirculating them.
The hotel invested, buying one for each of its 38 rooms and additional units for its common areas. Guests and staff are still required to wear masks in public spaces, but Lala has confidence in the air purifiers. “This is probably going to be the way of the world for some time, and safe air is probably going to be a priority for travelers for some time to come, and we wanted to be able to provide that,” she said.
People have used portable air purifiers for decades to trap odors, allergens and viruses. But in the age of COVID-19, as governors across the country are lifting coronavirus restrictions (capacity restraints and other restrictions will lift for most venues in Washington D.C. by May 21), the makers of these machines are hoping to give people greater peace of mind amid a new normal.
It’s a situation that presents a prime opportunity for air-filtration companies seeking to take advantage of an onslaught of people spending more time indoors this summer. Data suggests that sales surged 57% across the air-treatment market last year when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that increased ventilation and HEPA air cleaners should be part of a layered approach to reduce coronavirus exposure.
In the hotel’s case, air filters sold by San Francisco-based Molekule were the key to operating at total capacity, Lala said. The portable devices also help housekeeping staff feel “somewhat comfortable entering a room” after guests check out, she added.
Still, not all air purifiers are created equal.
You can buy generic air filters on Amazon for relatively little money that claim to hold onto viruses. According to the market research firm Verify Markets, products sold under $150, covering up to 400 square feet, were among the most popular choices last year.
Those medically proven to be effective against the coronavirus cost more than twice that amount, however.
The Food and Drug Administration has cleared some air purifiers for medical use, which means they can be deployed in hospitals and home health-care settings to clear the air of infected droplets. The medical-grade devices had to demonstrate that they can capture 99.99% of claimed particulates under FDA standards.
Last year, the health agency temporarily bent its rules for manufacturers to market their filtration systems as combating SARS-CoV-2 if the products proved effective against pathogens of a similar size. Molekule sought and was granted further approval, which involved extensive safety and effectiveness testing, according to company chief executive Jaya Rao.
“It wasn’t just enough to tell the FDA that we filtered it out. It was important to go to the next level and show that there was no residual virus on the filter and that the virus is actually getting destroyed,” Rao said.
While standard purifiers use fan and filter systems to trap large particles circulating through the air, Molekule’s devices rely on a special UV-A light to break down the pollutants on a molecular level. A chemical reaction caused by the light destroys the particles once internal filters trap them, and what comes out is disinfected air, Rao said.
Destroying the virus means that people don’t have to come in contact with it when replacing or cleaning air filters.
Molekule’s testing was conducted in a room-size chamber, where its devices destroyed a proxy virus known as MS2 within two hours. According to the company, the brand’s technology reduced the virus’ concentration by more than 99.999%.
Molekule’s Air Mini and Air Mini Plus received FDA Class II medical device clearance in March. They’re now sold online for $399 and $499, covering rooms up to 250 square feet. If you want to cover more space, you need more than one air purifier or you could buy a larger, more powerful machine. But those cost up to $1,199 for spaces up to 1,000 square feet.
The company’s closest competitor, San Francisco-based Brondell, was cleared by the FDA two months earlier to capture and eliminate the airborne coronavirus through a similar UV-light process. Brondell’s $650 plug-in device with sanitizing technology from Hong Kong’s Aurabeat is sold at Best Buy, Home Depot and Target.
The device claims to clear airborne coronavirus particles from a room within 15 minutes. It has also been popular with dentist offices and schools, including Cornell University, according to Parker Benthin, vice president of sales at Brondell.
Not every company that has sought FDA clearance has received it.
It has been six months since Dallas-based ActivePure applied for permission to deploy its air purifiers against the virus. Testing showed that it could destroy RNA viruses that are more difficult to kill than the coronavirus. It has yet to be approved by the FDA.
Regardless, it’s important to remember that air filtration is far from a cure or a vaccine.
The Environmental Protection Agency warns that disinfecting the air alone is not enough to protect people from the coronavirus. “When used along with other best practices recommended by CDC and others, filtration can be part of a plan to protect people indoors,” the EPA says.
Still, a stamp of approval by the nation’s federal health agency helps companies stand out in a field riddled with new low-cost devices and congested with unproven marketing claims, firms say.
“It’s more than just saying, ‘Hey, we did a test in our garage,’ or ‘We just think our product should do something like this,’ ” Benthin said. “It’s actually saying that there is quality control, and we are third-party verified and scientifically substantiated” to work.