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Traveling during coronavirus: Tips to stay safe in hotels

Hotel check in during the covid 19 pandemic Photo by Edwin Tan / Getty Images

We asked the experts about hotel safety during the pandemic.

Hotels are reopening across the country, deals are plentiful, and your cooped-up clan is clamoring for a change of scene. It’s tempting to pile everyone in the car for a much-needed getaway.

You’re not alone. AAA estimates that travel-starved Americans will take more than 700 million trips this summer, and the vast majority of these are expected to be road trips.

But SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, will be traveling, too. With rising health risks come more questions about a hotel’s disinfectants and physical distancing, and fewer queries about spa reservations and snagging a prime pool chair. And cleanliness, once a basic and assumed service, has become as coveted as a concierge-floor upgrade.  

“We’re hearing from the hotel industry that there’s a seismic shift in how important cleaning is to travelers right now,” confirms Scott Hammerle, director of the AAA Diamond program. “A lot of people are asking about our Inspector’s Best of Housekeeping badge for properties that consistently receive the highest cleanliness scores.”

For their part, hotels are rolling out deeply sanitized, socially distanced welcome mats, trying to reassure a nation of newly minted germaphobes that it’s safe to stay. Not only that, traditional housekeeping has given way to hospital-grade disinfection and high-tech “clean commitments,” the likes of which this industry has never seen. 

“The cleanliness stakes have changed,” observes Frank Lavey, senior vice president of global operations for Hyatt. “Everyone has to elevate their standards.”

At the same time, the guest experience is undergoing a huge change. A hotel getaway now includes face coverings, staying 6 feet away from other humans, and ordering food delivery. That’s not what a vacation is supposed to be about, right?

To help you stay healthy when you travel, we asked several lodging, public health, epidemiology, and legal experts important questions about potential risks and how to minimize them. Here’s what they said.

How safe is it to stay at a hotel right now?

“Your risk is the same as going to any crowded public place,” where staying 6 feet apart is not always possible, says Dr. Michael A. Ben-Aderet, associate medical director of hospital epidemiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. 

That’s because the No. 1 way the COVID-19 virus spreads is through face-to-face contact—in as little as 15 minutes, according to Jennifer Horney, founding director and professor of the epidemiology program at the University of Delaware. “Good hygiene can protect you, but not if someone coughs in your face,” warns Ben-Aderet.

It might even be possible to catch the virus beyond the standard “6-foot” spacing. The World Health Organization has found emerging evidence that COVID-19 could be transmitted via aerosols or tiny droplets in the air in poorly ventilated spaces. “We still don’t know a lot about aerosolizing, but we know other respiratory viruses can be transmitted this way.”  

Your best defense at a hotel is to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mantra: Wear a face covering, wash your hands frequently, disinfect surfaces, and keep a physical distance from other people. Reduce your risk even more by staying away from locations where the “curve” is not flattened. Visit the CDC COVID Data Tracker or Johns Hopkins University Tracker to see updated statistics.  

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Is it safer to stay at a chain hotel or an independent property?

It depends on whom you ask. Some travelers feel more comfortable at chain hotels because of the consistency they offer. “My clients are asking for big brands, so far,” says Lori Warner, a California-based AAA travel agent. “They know what to expect from Hilton, for example.”

But don’t cross smaller, reputable independent hotels or chains off the list. “This is 100 percent top of mind for them, too,” says Hammerle. “They may exceed expectations because they can’t afford an outbreak that could close their doors.”

What are hotels doing to reduce my risk of getting sick?

To meet the new safety challenges presented by the coronavirus, the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) has developed “Safe Stay,” enhanced cleaning guidelines for the industry that comply with CDC recommendations. 

Big chain hotels have added extra muscle to their programs by partnering with top medical institutions and sanitation companies on global cleaning commitments. Examples include Hilton’s CleanStay program in partnership with the Mayo Clinic and Lysol; Hyatt’s Global Care and Cleanliness Commitment with the Global Biorisk Advisory Council; and IHG Hotels and Resorts’ Clean Promise in consult with the Cleveland Clinic.

Hyatt aims to earn guests’ trust with new hygiene and well-being directors overseeing daily protocols at every property. Choice Hotels has Commitment to Clean captains keeping tabs on COVID-centric housekeeping at 6,000 franchise properties. Hotels are also hiring third-party firms to double-check their work. “Using random audits, we can tell them how well their staff is following brand cleaning standards,” says Yutta Shelton, U.S. Hospitality Leader at Deloitte. 

Gaming hotels in Las Vegas have developed some of the most stringent programs. Wynn Las Vegas, for example, publishes a 30-page manual on its website.

What changes can I expect when I stay at a hotel?

Almost everything is hands off. Expect contactless check-in with plexiglass between you and the front-desk staff. You may also be able to bypass the front desk, using the hotel’s phone app for check-in, payment, and as a room key. Social-distance lines at elevators are becoming common, too, in some places.

There will also be more grab-and-go meals and food deliveries to guest rooms. MGM Grand in Las Vegas is allowing guests to order from a QR-coded restaurant menu and come back to dine at an appointed time, rather than waiting in line. Many hotel activities, including food service, are being moved outdoors, where the virus disperses in fresh air and sunlight.

You’ll also notice hand-sanitizing stations everywhere, social-distancing signs and floor markers, and less lobby furniture. And you’ll see housekeeping teams in masks and personal protective equipment, cleaning with strong disinfectants around the clock.

Are the cleaning substances that hotels are using safe for people and pets? 

The hotel executives we interviewed assured us that the viral disinfectants they’re using are included on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of approved products for use against the virus that causes COVID-19. 

If you or a traveling companion have a respiratory disorder, however, or are sensitive to chemicals, ask the hotel which cleaning products they use and how often. There are asthma-safer disinfectants on the EPA list. The California Department of Public Health, for example, recommends choosing hydrogen peroxide, lactic acid, citric acid, silver, or alcohol-based products. 

Housekeeping practices, including disinfectant use, may evolve over time. “The landscape on virus knowledge is constantly changing, and that will dictate our cleaning protocols going forward,” says AHLA President and CEO Chip Rogers.

How will I know if my room is really clean?

“It’s impossible for a guest to tell if a room is disinfected by looking at it,” says Sheryl Kline, Aramark chaired professor and deputy dean at the University of Delaware. “Visual inspection goes just so far.”

To overcome that concern, hotels are moving housekeeping out of the shadows and into the spotlight. “Our guests don’t just want to know that hotels are clean; they want to see it in action,” says Phil Cordell, global head of lifestyle brands/new brand development at Hilton. “Our housekeeping team will now be cleaning more frequently throughout the day.”  

In addition, hotels have stripped guest rooms of coffee makers, stationery, pens, guest-services guides, and minibars. Bedspreads and throw pillows—items that weren’t typically cleaned with each new guest—have been removed. TV remotes—the leading microbe magnet—remain, sheathed in protective coverings that signal they’ve been sanitized.

And couches are getting extra germ zapping. Upholstery can harbor infected droplets of viruses up to 24 hours that dry up and become airborne when someone sits down, says Charles “Dr. Germ” Gerba, a University of Arizona microbiologist who studies how viruses spread.

Hotels are also placing “sanitation seals” across guest-room doors to guarantee that no one has been inside since it was last disinfected. “This is the cleanest you’ll probably ever find hotels,” says AAA’s Hammerle. “They’re taking it very seriously.” 

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Should I turn down daily housekeeping services?

Choice Hotels International’s research shows that “70 percent of guests don’t want housekeeping now,” says Megan Brumagim, vice president of brand management, design, and compliance.

Need extra towels, soap, linens, pillows, or toilet paper? Choice and other hotel companies are creating new door-hang tags—similar to those used for in-room breakfast orders—that list commonly requested items a housekeeping staff member can drop off outside.

Will I have to wear a face covering during my stay?

Many states now recommend or require face coverings in public spaces. A state-by-state list can be found here. Some hotels require them, too. “It’s the hotel’s 'duty of care' to set safe guidelines and ask everyone to comply,” says John Thomas, associate professor of hospitality law at Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. 

But some travelers don’t want to spend their vacation behind a mask that fogs their sunglasses and makes it hard to socialize. In fact, travel agent Warner reports that she’s fielding more questions from clients about masks than cleanliness right now. “They’re concerned about how the new hotel rules will affect their overall trip experience,” she says. 

Others may have a medical condition, such as a respiratory disease, that prevents them from wearing a face covering. The law protects those with medical conditions from being turned away by a hotel, says attorney Stephen Barth, founder of HospitalityLawyer.com and professor of hospitality law at Conrad N. Hilton College, University of Houston. In that case, hotels have a responsibility to find you a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Barth. “They can ask you to stay in a corner room away from other guests or to use certain entries and exits,” he explains. If you think you qualify for an exemption, alert the hotel in advance so they can accommodate you on arrival.

To remind guests about face coverings, many hotels are communicating their policies upfront. Some are also handing out free masks to guests who are not wearing one or left theirs at home. 

Will I have to get a temperature check when I check in? 

While not an accurate COVID-19 detection device, temperature checks are now being used at some high-volume hotels. If you visit any Disney or Universal resort hotel, for example, expect to be scanned for fever at check-in. Heading to Las Vegas? Wynn Resorts, the Venetian, and other casino hotels are using thermal cameras at entrances to spot possible infected guests. 

Can I refuse to be checked for a fever?

If you’ve been notified of a temperature policy in advance and pose a safety risk to other guests, the hotel can deny service. Because temperature checks can change the outcome of a guest stay, the hotel policy should be provided in writing and again through email reminders “several times before and after booking,” says Barth. You can also check the hotel’s policy on its website.

Can the hotel turn me away if I fail a temperature check? 

If you have a fever, a hotel does not have to check you in right away. Rather, they can “require you go to a medical center for evaluation, and provide transportation to get you there,” says FIU’s Thomas. “But they shouldn’t lock the doors on you.” 

So, stay cool. You’ll probably get a second and third chance. Because temperature checks aren’t always accurate, most hotels will redo them a few times if your temperature exceeds 100.4, the measured threshold for a fever, according to the CDC.

At the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, for example, if a guest shows a temperature of 100.4 or higher, the screening staff will ask the guest to go to a private waiting area. If, after a sufficient cooling-off period, the guest is still registering a fever, a medical provider will do additional screening. The guest can be tested on-site for COVID-19 or at a medical facility. If a guest tests positive for the virus, the hotel will work with the health department to determine the next steps.

What happens if a guest or hotel worker tests positive for COVID-19?

Every hotel handles these cases differently. Most hotels will work with local authorities on contact tracing. Some take guests to a medical facility if they must quarantine until cleared for return by a doctor.

CDC guidelines state that “in the event of a presumptive case of COVID-19, the affected guest room should be removed from service and quarantined for at least 24 hours after checkout,” and that “the guest room should not be returned to service until undergoing an enhanced cleaning and disinfecting.”

It’s a good idea to ask the hotel how long your room will have been out of service before your arrival.

What if other guests don’t obey the hotel’s distancing rules?

Because hotels are supposed to be havens of hospitality, they’re unlikely to adopt stringent measures when guests don’t follow COVID rules, says FIU’s Thomas. Hotels operate in larger spaces than airlines, for example, and have the ability to reconfigure social-distancing markers. 

That said, many cities have ordered capacity controls to prevent overcrowding. MGM Grand limits the number of people in an elevator car to four individuals if they’re from different travel parties; larger groups may ride together if they’re part of the same household. In both cases, face coverings are required. If you’re worried about crowding, call the hotel in advance to find out their occupancy levels for your dates of stay. Physical distancing is a shared responsibility between the hotel and guests, and both are still adapting to the “new normal.”

Some upscale properties may shy away from social policing altogether. Frequent traveler Jeff Harris summed up his recent experience at tony Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles: “I can’t say the hotel was very forensic about distancing. It’s hard to tell people buying $50 Cobb salads to be clean and distant.”

Could I get COVID-19 from …

A swimming pool? 

Not likely. Chlorine and bromine can neutralize the COVID-19 virus if it ends up in the water. “We know that the virus doesn’t survive in chlorine, so pools are relatively safe, especially when outdoors,” says the University of Delaware’s Horney. “The real risk is people ignoring social-distancing rules.” So, stay far away from other swimmers, and beware of pool decks, chairs, tables, and cabanas.

Air-conditioning? 

Concern has been raised about the possibility of viral transmission via air conditioning, says Luke Leung, leader of Commercial Building, ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers) Epidemic Task Force. But a position paper on the society’s website says this risk can be reduced with proper HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems.

Many hotels are now reexamining their ventilation systems as part of their cleaning commitments, says AHLA’s Rogers. MGM Grand has some designated non-smoking table games and slot machine areas, and guests can reserve a Stay Well guest room with features that include a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter. If you’re worried about air quality, select a hotel where you can open the windows, advises the University of Delaware’s Kline. 

Fitness centers? 

If you’re concerned about COVID-19, stay away. Guests will be breathing hard and probably not wearing masks. Even if equipment is spaced 6 feet apart, you can still be at risk, says ASHRAE’s Leung.

So, is it safe to stay in a hotel?

While the CDC continues to recommend that Americans avoid nonessential travel, the decision to stay in a hotel is ultimately a personal one. Check the center’s list of COVID-19 risk factors before you make a travel plan. “Always consult with your primary-care physician before deciding to travel,” Cedars-Sinai’s Ben-Aderet advises.

If, however, you’re comfortable going to the grocery store during the pandemic, then a hotel overnight shouldn’t be a big leap. As Ben-Aderet says, “There are steps the hotel is taking to ensure a safe environment.”

Laurie Berger is a former editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter and a former travel columnist for the Los Angeles Times. She always travels with her own pillow and disinfectant wipes.

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