WASHINGTON — Salivating at the buffet table, eagerly awaiting your sizzling omelette to be done. Cramming into a crowded elevator with a long weekend’s worth of luggage in tow. Debating if you should go for the Peanut M&M’s or Twix minibar purchase.
None of these quintessential hotel moments happened during my three nights staying at hotels in Washington, D.C., this month, and it doesn’t take a public health degree to know why: the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic has slaughtered the travel industry, as I’ve written for months now, leaving four out of 10 hotel workers unemployed, more than a thousand hotels still closed as of July and occupancy rates decimated.
We’ll get to this: Is it safe to stay in a hotel amid the coronavirus pandemic?
I wasn’t comfortable staying in a hotel in mid-March, and felt the same through July, despite assurances from the hospitality industry about its cleanliness measures and guests. By August, Washington’s low positivity rate and my burgeoning curiosity inspired me to mask up and see for myself.
The city’s hotel occupancy rate has been below the national average and hasn’t gone past 40% the last four weeks according to STR data, suggesting social distancing wouldn’t be difficult.
Many hand sanitizing wipes, meals and mirror selfies later, I’m here to tell you that staying in a hotel during the coronavirus pandemic felt generally safe, with the caveat that these three hotels don’t wholly represent their respective brands nor the industry at large.
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Hilton ‘CleanStay’ labels in place, but so-so on masks
I called ahead to see if I could get an early check-in at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Washington, and arrived just after noon. What stuck out to me most during my stay was the lack of diligent mask wearing from both staff and guests.
Hilton’s CleanStay label made me trust my room was, indeed, clean.
Were people wearing masks? Yes and no. Not a great sign to walk in and have the front desk manager not wearing his mask, even behind the plexiglass barrier. I saw a mask on the desk once I approached the station. The screen seemed a safe enough risk mitigation effort for me, though it is Hilton’s policy that all guests and employees wear face coverings in indoor public areas of the hotel.
“We take the safety of everyone entering our hotel very seriously and, consistent with District of Columbia requirements, have signage throughout the property stating that employees and guests should wear masks in public areas,” Lee Seiler, the hotel’s general manager, told USA TODAY in a statement on behalf of the franchisee. “We will act on your feedback and ensure our employees understand the importance of this policy.” This Hilton Garden Inn is independently owned and managed.
“We expect this policy to be implemented, like all things we do, by leading with hospitality,” Hilton corporate spokesperson Nigel Glennie told USA TODAY. This includes telling guests about the face covering policy before they arrive; reminding guests and visitors of the policy if they don’t have face coverings; and offering them a face covering for free if they don’t have one.
“That said, we also understand how challenging enforcing these rules can be for our team members, so have provided de-escalation training to help them diffuse challenging interactions and reach a great outcome for our guests,” Glennie added.
Weaving through floors, I noticed a mix of personnel and guests with and without masks.
Tiara Poole, 23, of Severn, Maryland, and Sunny Gordass, 24, of Capitol Heights, Maryland, were some of the only people I saw in the restaurant and bar area that doubles as extended lobby seating. Neither was wearing a mask as they had removed them to take pictures but quickly put them on when I approached.
The couple took a local vacation in celebration of Poole’s birthday and ventured throughout town during their stay. “We walked around, went to (restaurant) Founding Farmers then we saw (the Black Lives Matter plaza),” Gordass said. “It’s pretty cool seeing that in person.”
Was there social distancing? I felt comfortable given how few people were around. Signs encouraged guests to social distance in the lobby and the (empty) gym; you could buy grab-and-go food options to the left of the main entrance. Some of these options included full-blown meals in the form of breakfast bags or frozen dinners, but you could also purchase beverages like wine and coffee. It beat the minibar in terms of offerings, but there’s something special about having a snack already in your room that I missed.
This remote was clean, according to Hilton’s CleanStay label.
How clean was everything? The “CleanStay” label attached to the door inspired confidence. Guests know their room has been cleaned if this seal is not broken.
Hilton’s cleanliness measures include placing the sticker in between the door and wall of rooms. Its protocol also calls for disinfecting many surfaces in the room like light switches, handles and knobs, major bathroom surfaces and the remote control. The remote control in my room also included a “CleanStay” label.
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Marriott: Not ‘too many inconveniences because of COVID’
I immediately felt safer in this Courtyard by Marriott seeing the front desk person with a mask on. First impressions don’t necessarily hold that much weight all the time – but during a pandemic, I wanted to feel taken care of more than usual. I signed a form promising I wouldn’t host any parties and showed my ID through the plexiglass barrier instead of handing it to the staffer, reducing another potential point of contact.
Loved this personal greeting from this Marriott hotel in Washington. The Hyatt I stayed at offered a similar one.
Were people wearing masks? Hit or miss, again, for both guests and employees, despite its policy for guests and employees to wear them at all times. Those with masks lifted them up upon seeing another person. I spotted a pair of gentlemen with no masks in sight sitting in two lobby armchairs, and no one on staff seemed to notice or care. Was I glaring through my mask? Who can say.
“Our hotel requires everyone to wear masks in all indoor public areas and select outdoor spaces,” complex assistant general manager Togi Mahdere told USA TODAY. “We appreciate you alerting us to your concerns as feedback provides us with the opportunity to continue to enhance our services.”
Rasheem Rooke, 46, of Washington, D.C., also was taking a staycation to get away from “all the excitement and energy at home,” he told USA TODAY.
He said that people had been wearing masks. “There have not been any issues with that. Coming and going, even getting in and out of the elevator or walking down the hallway,” he said.
And overall, how has he liked his hotel stay? “There haven’t been too many inconveniences because of COVID,” he said.
Get used to using your phone to check out menus the next time you stay at a hotel.
Was there social distancing? Again, given low occupancy rates and a lack of business travel, it was fairly easy to maintain distance. I rarely had to worry about sharing an elevator with someone, and when I did, the person was masked.
How clean was everything? The remote control covered in plastic in my room was encouraging. Its policy said there would be disinfecting wipes in my room, and I found two small ones by my soap and shampoo. Hand sanitizing stations were available throughout the hotel as advertised, too, including in elevator banks on guest floors.
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Hyatt staff masked up and hand sanitizing stations throughout
The lobby of the Grand Hyatt in downtown Washington struck me as easily the most gorgeous hotel (inside, anyway) of the ones I stayed in. But it also felt empty and sad. The employee who handed me my dinner seemed genuinely thrilled to see me, perhaps evident of limited guest interaction.
A hand sanitizing station at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C.
Were people wearing masks? Hit or miss, though staff were masked up. Two women, who were not guests, sat in the lobby with bandannas or gaiters lowered. This is against Hyatt’s policy, which requires masks in hotel indoor public areas and outdoor areas. Masks are also required when you leave your home in Washington.
Despite Hyatt’s policy requiring all people wear masks, “some guests may be exempt from this mandate, including guests with medical conditions, guests consuming food or beverages in restaurants, and children under the age of 2,” Majed Dawood-Farah, general manager of the Grand Hyatt Washington, told USA TODAY.
“We encourage guests to approach the front desk when they have questions regarding our hotel policies or concerns about their safety and wellbeing, so we may address their concerns immediately,” Dawood-Farah added.
Was there social distancing? Yes, given that few people took up the cavernous lobby. I found myself picturing a bustling convention hall, with people plopped down on couches, carelessly gabbing away mask-free. Different times, indeed.
I ordered meals by calling the front desk after viewing a menu via a QR code in my room located on my nightstand.
Eduard Katehakis, 24, of College Park, Maryland, was working on his computer in the lobby. He’s often worked from the hotel the past two years, and decided to have a staycation there after being impressed by employees’ cleaning prowess.
“It’s the best place to work just because there’s so much space in this lobby,” he said. “I like staying away from people.” He said there’s always someone cleaning.
For the most part people have been masked and distanced, he added. “I get very upset when people don’t just because I know that I’m doing my part,” he said.
Gyms at Washington, D.C., hotels encouraged social distancing.
How clean was everything? In front of the elevators on about a dozen floors I saw hand sanitizing stations, which boosted my confidence that the hotel took the pandemic as seriously as possible. Hyatt’s policy said these would appear “prominently” throughout the hotel, which was true.
The fitness center had automatic lights, and the room illuminated brighter when I walked in, again, alone.
Once I checked out the food menu via the QR code, I could call down for breakfast or dinner (albeit during restricted hours). I placed my order with the front desk and picked up meals on a floor below the lobby from a masked employee.
Would I have preferred a make-your-own-waffle station? Yes, but in the COVID-19 era, I appreciated the commitment to safety.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt hotel stays: How safe I felt amid COVID-19