For some travelers, there’s nothing more desirable than the hotel experience, awash in luxury and service. But with the country re-opening in phases even as the coronavirus pandemic wears on, many are wondering how much risk they’d face if they booked a stay. Many hotel selling points, such as round-the-clock staff, might now seem like potential liabilities.

By definition, hotels are gathering spaces, filled with both staff and other guests. They are places where many objects — from remote controls to furnishings — are shared and reused by visitor after visitor, sometimes with mere hours in between. If these facts never raised red flags for travelers in the past, they likely will now, at a time when social distancing and sanitizing are top of mind.

To help break down whether hotels are safe to stay in right now, or anytime during the pandemic, we reached out to several experts — including an infectious disease doctor, a cleaning company owner with a new coronavirus division, and representatives for the Four Seasons and Marriott Bonvoy hotel brands.

Here’s what they said about how to know whether the property’s common spaces and rooms are clean and safe, how to take extra precautions when you get there, under what conditions you could risk exposure if you do choose to book, and if they themselves would take on the risk. 

Finally, it’s important to remember that this is an evolving situation. It’s crucial to follow guidelines and advice set forth by organizations such as the CDC and WHO, and practice safety measures no matter where you go, including wearing a mask, washing your hands, and maintaining social distancing.

Is it safe to stay in a hotel right now? What are the risks?

The novel coronavirus is known to spread primarily from direct contact with people. That makes hotels potentially suspect by their nature as places where people gather. These people are typically unknown to each other and from unknown backgrounds.

“The first thing that potentially opens up risk is running into other people that you have no idea what their infectious status is. We know now that there’s a lot of people who get the coronavirus who have no symptoms at all, who could potentially transmit it,” explains Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, referring to the virus’ now well-known ability to spread among asymptomatic people.

He adds, “And we also know that people could potentially transmit the virus perhaps as many as six days prior to developing symptoms. So just because people are feeling well and circulating in society doesn’t mean that they couldn’t potentially be infectious. Therefore you have to assume that anyone you encounter that you don’t know could be potentially infectious.”

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He points to potential problem areas such as hotel check-in desks, where people might gather. “When you are waiting in a line to check-in, you might interact with people taking your bags. I would wear a mask because during the check-in process, going in the elevator up to your room, or even the stairwell, it’s possible that you might run into someone. The mask would afford a layer of protection.”

In general, Dr. Russo recommends masks in addition to social distancing in environments such as hotels. “I’m a big fan of mask use because this magical six-foot zone is based on probability. The closer you are to someone, and the longer you’re close to someone that’s infectious, the more likely you are to get infected. But just because you may be seven or eight feet away doesn’t mean you’re absolutely risk-free. It just means the risk decreases.”

And if you imagine that you are sparing yourself risk exposure by traveling to a remote or rural hotel rather than a big city one, make sure to do your homework to confirm your suspicion, which may, or may not, be accurate. What really matters is “what the prevalence of infection is at that venue at that time. If you’re in a small town with a bunch of meatpackers who are all infected — not so good.”

What precautions should I take in hotels?

Dr. Russo explains that the virus is known to settle out of the air quickly, about one to three hours under experimental conditions, and perhaps much less in real-world scenarios. That means air quality is not likely to be a concern in a hotel if no other people are present in an environment, such as your room upon check-in.

That said, take note of areas of potential concern and do a disinfecting pass. These high-touch areas might include phones, TV remotes, door handles, bathroom faucets, toilet handles, and flat surfaces. “The flat bedside tables,” Dr. Russo points out, “If someone was sick in the room and coughing, [those are among] flat surfaces it could settle onto.”

John Marroni, owner and president of National Restoration, a disaster recovery company with a new dedicated coronavirus arm suggests seeking signs that your hotel’s cleaning standards are up to par. “We work with a lot of hotels, and they should each have some kind of certificate that indicates the place has been disinfected, which is what we make sure to provide after we service them,” he says.

He adds, “You can always tell if a hotel has been properly cleaned and disinfected by checking the bathrooms and seeing if the room is free of dust. You can also check the heating vents to make sure they are clean and free of dust and dirt. Those are the key areas to check first, which will be a major indicator of whether the hotel is clean and safe.”

Marroni also suggests scanning for clues in the form of sanitizer dispensers. “Typically, with the modern cleaning policies now being put into place, the first thing you should see is a hand sanitizer dispenser right at the entrance to the building. That’s what the CDC is on the verge of mandating with all the reopening policies the states will be issuing.”

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As far as hotel common areas are concerned, Dr. Russo again underscores the highest risk is directly between people.

So in a hotel pool for instance, “other bodies is the main concern,” Dr. Russo says. “If there are other people around, that’s going to increase your risk. And when we swim, sometimes we aspirate a little water so we’re going to cough. [The bigger concern is] the people and proximity in that scenario than [being] worried about the water getting contaminated, because it is a respiratory virus more than a fecal-oral virus in terms of spread.”

Beyond that, he says, “Remember pools, theoretically, are chlorinated, and this is a wimpy virus. So that should be able to deactivate the virus.”

When it comes to dining in a hotel, your best bet at this time is going to be room service, or ordering some kind of delivery from an outside establishment. “Once you get into the restaurant situation, then your risk is going to increase,” Dr. Russo says. “I’m not really worried about menus or tablecloths. Those can be laundered and disinfected. But when the food shows up, you’re going to have to take your mask off.”

What are hotels doing to mitigate risk?

As you would expect, most major hotel chains have announced wide-reaching new cleaning policies made in combination with health experts. In addition to cleanliness, these policies focus on social-distancing opportunities and contact-free transactions.

For instance, Marriott Bonvoy hotels rolled out the Marriott Global Cleanliness Council in April. Among its areas of focus are those high-touch surface areas, which now must be treated with hospital-grade disinfectants with greater frequency. Marriott will also offer disinfecting wipes in each room for guests’ use. 

Marriott aims to reduce person-to-person contact in various ways such as using signage in lobbies to remind guests of social distancing protocols, and removing or re-arranging furniture to allow more space to do so. The company is installing hand-sanitizing stations throughout properties, and now, in more than 3,200 of Marriott’s hotels, guests can opt to use their phones to check-in, access their rooms, make requests, and order room service to be delivered without contact.

“We want our guests to understand what we are doing today and planning for in the near future in the areas of cleanliness, hygiene, and social distancing so that when they walk through the doors of one of our hotels, they know our commitment to their health and safety is our priority,” Marriott International president and CEO Arne Sorenson said in a statement.

For its part, Four Seasons has worked with experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine International on its new Lead With Care program for cleanliness and safety. Included in the program is the promise that restaurants and bars may operate with reduced capacity to allow for social distancing.

“In this new environment, the notion of care will have a whole new dimension, and travel must be grounded in trust. This enhanced health and safety program builds upon our already stringent procedures, equipping hotel teams with access to leading international specialists and real-time COVID-19 information,” explained Christian Clerc, president of global operations. “By collaborating with Johns Hopkins, our employees and guests can trust that we are going above and beyond, making informed, expert-guided decisions when it comes to the implementation of health and safety measures at our properties around the world.”

Like Marriott, Four Seasons also plans to leverage technology for safety, by way of its Four Seasons app and chat, platforms, “a powerful, intuitive platform that helps limit face-to-face interaction, but that does not lose Four Seasons signature service experience,” says Clerc.

What should I ask the hotel about the cleaning history of my room?

While gloves are the subject of much discussion, Dr. Russo says that he would not necessarily need to know that the housekeeping team wore them to clean the room, only that they’d disinfected their hands.

“I think a better question might be, ‘Does housekeeping routinely disinfect hands before they make the beds?’ Hand disinfection is probably better than gloves because once the gloves become contaminated, it’s hard to clean them until you get rid of them, unless you keep using glove after glove. Hands are disinfected more readily. I prefer the concept of doing more hand disinfection, but [asking your hotel] some kind of question along those lines would be a good one.”

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Marroni also suggests asking your hotel what cleaning products they are using. They should be using an approved EPA-registered disinfectant in their rooms and should be able to tell you that,” he says. “Ask the front desk for their cleaning protocol. Otherwise, you are putting yourself at risk by staying there.”

Let’s consider the worst-case scenario, in which an infected person stayed in your room before you arrive, but the housekeeping crew did indeed clean and sanitize everything according to guidelines. If you enter the room within three hours of that guest’s departure, would you escape risk?

“The answer is probably yes,” Dr. Russo says. But, “that’s not an ideal scenario.” You’d be better off specifically requesting a room no one has stayed in for a day or two.

Would an infectious disease doctor stay in a hotel?

Dr. Russo estimates that staying in a private Airbnb could be a safer option than booking a hotel room, given the likelihood of less direct person-to-person contact. And he weighed in on the risks of staying in them too, here.

Russo doesn’t visualize that scenario changing until there is a vaccine given the probability of a greater number of interactions with people in the course of a hotel stay.

But asked whether or not he’d be willing to stay in a hotel himself during the pandemic, he opened up a broader question of risk tolerance and its potential for reward.

“The answer is, I think so,” he said, answering the question as to whether or not he’d stay in a hotel. “And I think that my equalizer is a mask.” 

But the conditions would have to reasonably merit a decision associated with accepting some risk. 

“If you don’t interact with anyone, you’re not going to get infected. But we can’t carry on with life [in quarantine] forever, right?” he says. “If you’re going to put yourself in situations where you’re going to increase your risk, you should choose wisely. What are those activities that are most necessary and most important to you?”

When it comes to travel and hotel stays, these decisions will be highly individual, he says. “If it’s a trip that is important and necessary, I feel relatively safe using the proper protective measures like wearing a mask, distancing, disinfecting, and hand hygiene.”

Source: Business Insider

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