August 4, 2020

This CEO has flown 33 times and spent 160 nights away this year. Here’s his safety routine

[CNBC, iStock/Getty Images]

Mika Manninen has been on the road for approximately 75% of 2020.

As the CEO and co-founder of dairy-free yogurt brand Hälsa Foods, the Finnish native who now resides in Palm Beach, Florida, has taken 33 flights (including four abroad) and spent 160 nights in hotels in cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Seattle, London and Helsinki. Since the beginning of March — while much of the rest of the world has been sheltering at home — Manninen has spent nine days in his own house.

Manninen is an essential worker — one of 11.3 million people who are employed in the U.S. food and agriculture industry. As the only person in his company who travels (so that other employees don’t have to), he maintains he has followed quarantine rules “to the hilt” and has quarantined in hotel rooms for 14 days when required. 

“There are several trips I did not do, some I deemed too risky, and with others, we could not figure out the rules,” he said.

For the business trips he did take, Manninen relies on a strict safety routine when on the road.  

At the hotel

   ·  “When I check into my room, I clean every surface with wipes — all door handles, light switches, the remote control and the phone. In the bathroom, I also wipe down the showerhead. I’m 6 feet 2 inches, and I always end up adjusting it.”

   ·  “If I stay for multiple nights, I only let the cleaning service into the room every fourth day. Once I have cleaned the room for myself, letting someone else come in only forces me to clean the whole place again. I leave trash and dirty towels outside the door and get fresh towels in return.”HO: Mika in field and factory 200803Manninen travels to Halsa’s organic oat farm in upstate New York (left) and a company plant (right) to keep his business going in a climate he called “really challenging for young companies.”Courtesy of Mika Manninen

   ·  “Now that various states have gone back into lockdown mode, some hotels may require a letter stating that you’re an essential worker before they allow you to check-in, so keep one ready.”

At the airport

Manninen says he worries less about being infected on airplanes but that the airport “is a different story.”

   ·  “When I enter the airport, I wear multiple layers of disposable gloves, and I peel them off as I go through it. Trams, escalators — peel a layer, check-in, use a kiosk with a touch screen — peel a layer, TSA security check — peel a layer. I did not realize how many surfaces I actually touch until I started paying attention to it.”HO: JFK terminal 200803A near empty American Airlines terminal inside John F. Kennedy International Airport.Courtesy of Mika Manninen

   ·  “Keep the distance. Sit in the corner alone. Do not buy anything: no food and no drinks. If you buy water, wipe the bottle with antiseptic wipes.”

   ·  “Don’t use your phone app as a ticket; use a paper ticket instead. Hundreds of passengers scan their phones, and many lay them flat on the glass.”

   ·  “Find a non-crowded bathroom in the airport (avoid the bathroom in the plane). I swap my mask every time I use a bathroom.”

On the plane

Aircraft cabins undergo a “total change” of air between 20 to 30 times per hour and modern aircraft recycle up to 50% of cabin air through high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters which trap bacteria, fungi and viruses, according to the World Health Organization’s website.

For this reason, Manninen is more concerned about surface contact in airplanes.

   ·  “Wipe all surfaces at your seat, including the seat belt, belt buckle, headrest, window shades and the air and light adjusters above your head.”HO: Food on flight 200803On Manninen’s last international flight from JFK Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport, British Airways served a meal in an enclosed box.Courtesy of Mika Manninen

   ·  “I expose the least amount of skin as possible. Funny, the only time I wear collared shirts is on the airplane, just to cover my neck. I don’t let my skin touch any surfaces.”HO: British Airways food 200803The contents of the box — which were unknown even to the flight crew — were wrapped and separately sealed.Courtesy of Mika Manninen

   ·  “Change your mask every four hours; it’s safer and oddly gives you a feeling of freshening up.”

   ·  “Bring extra masks; last week I tried to drink water with my mask on. Needless to say, I had to change it.”

In a rental car

Manninen has rented a car 22 times this year.

   ·  “Spend 10 minutes cleaning it up before driving off. I use sanitizing wipes to clean every surface I might touch, including the steering wheel, seat belt, key fob, seat adjusters, rearview mirror and steering column adjuster. I assume the rental car is my own little domain after that.”

   ·  “When I exit the car, I put gloves on and when I come back, I dispose of them. I try to keep all germs outside.”

The kicker: This routine isn’t new

Manninen said he developed this routine over a decade ago to avoid the common flu, which sickened him around five times a year due to his travel schedule.

Wearing a mask and gloves is new though, as is others’ reactions to his cleaning routine.

“The only difference now is that I don’t get ‘the dude is paranoid’ dirty looks nearly as much,” he said. “But I figured that if by following this regime I can keep myself healthy, I will help keep us all healthy, so it’s worth the extra effort.”

Is a strict cleaning routine a cure-all?

To date, Manninen has been tested twice and remains virus-free. Still, he has encountered ridicule and fear from others. 

“When flying to Europe in late February… I was going through my routine cleaning of my seat and two guys across the aisle were staring at me,” he said. “One said ‘We should probably do the same. Might be smart right now.’ The other one looked at me and said “Dumhuvud” which is Swedish for dumbass.”

His father in Scandinavia, who Manninen described as a “super smart healthy guy,” refused to meet with him, even through a glass window, because “I was coming from the U.S. where the virus is not taken seriously.” As a dual citizen of Finland and the U.S., Manninen is not subject to the EU’s current travel ban on American travelers.HO: Helsinki Airport 200803A deserted immigration area of Helsinki Airport in Finland.Courtesy of Mika Manninen

Manninen has been nicknamed “El Diablo Covid” by several coworkers. He has been repeatedly told to stand outside or back away from others and feels “poisonous” at times.

“When I come home, I can’t hug my wife, and I have to stay on the other side of the house,” he said.

A low point came in New York while he was driving late at night in the rain beside a long line of ambulances with sirens blaring and lights flashing “like a scene from an end-of-the-world movie.”

While his travel rituals have protected him to date, Manninen admits he too is scared at times. 

“It would be insane not to be afraid,” he said. 

Note: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions against travel in the U.S, advising “Because travel increases your chances of getting infected and spreading Covid-19, staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick.”

By Monica Buchanan Pitrelli

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