Imagine this scenario. A guest arrives after a short flight for a five-night stay. A few days later, not feeling well, she goes to a local hospital for a COVID-19 test. She returns to her guestroom, advises the general manager of the situation, and immediately goes into self-isolation there. Observing protocols, staff does not enter her room. Those staff who had come into contact with the guest go for their own COVID tests and are told to self-isolate at home.
Then, the test comes back positive for the guest (and fortunately negative for all the staff). How would you manage this situation?
While all properties have updated their sanitization checklists and sick leave policies during the initial stages of the pandemic, the extended duration of this crisis means that the fight is hardly over for hoteliers. In fact, now that the news cycle has shifted away from constant coverage of outbreak after outbreak, working at a business where someone—anyone, guest or staff—tests positive for COVID will be picked up by local or national media in a heartbeat, thereby casting your hotel in a highly negative light which may impact bookings.
This abovementioned scenario was one facing a property on the West Coast—name withheld at their request. At the time it happened in the early summer months, they had no specific playbook for this type of situation. The nitty gritty of it is actually quite a head scratcher. The guest has rights, after all; you cannot reveal their status to others. At the same time, there is a responsibility to safeguard your staff and all other visitors.
The approach the general manager pursued was undertaken with input from local medical and legal staff. It was decided that the guest could not be moved; there was no place for her to go as she could not travel. With symptomology that was not of a severity that would allow her to be hospitalized, such a move to an intensive care facility was also not possible.
Protocols were thus put in place to ensure that the guest was well taken care of. Room service meals were delivered regularly; the service carts rotated in the hallway. A local physician kept up regular telephone contact with the guest. There was no need to have the physician visit as the symptoms continued to be minor, although the assigned doctor remained on standby. Rooms on either side of the guest were blocked off, as were rooms on the opposite side of the hall. Fortunately, occupancy levels were such that this did not cause any displacement.
Managers and directors were all advised of the situation. One key decision, though, was whether to tell all of the associates. It was agreed that an all-staff meeting would be held, outlining the situation and protocols. A physician was in attendance to respond to questions.
For two weeks, the COVID-positive guest remained in her room with no issues. With an apparent recovery, a physician conducted additional tests and deemed the guest fit to travel. After the guest’s departure, the room was kept out of service for 48 hours then thoroughly sanitized and put back into service. Speaking to the general manager, he considers himself lucky; there was no spread to any staff or other guests while all employees remained discrete and sympathetic.
But questions remain. Should other guests have been told? What would have happened if the COVID-positive guest had been more severely compromised?
With second waves still happening around the world, senior executives have a bit of a Damocles Sword over their heads in that we all want to put the coronavirus behind us and start ramping up occupancy again, and yet we must stay ever vigilant about the optics of having a guest or staff member test positive. This situation could happen at your property; none of us can guarantee that our hotels will remain ‘in a bubble.’
Upon reviewing your pandemic operations playbook, you must factor in positive test case identification protocols for both associates and guests, including room reallocations, emergency procedures, additional medical resources, government contacts and manners of approach for each department. For instance, besides barring room attendants from cleaning a room housing a COVID-positive guest, what happens if there is a maintenance issue? Consider all possibilities.
Second is how do you approach telling the public—that is, your crisis communications plan? Anything you develop must first and foremost be designed to minimize further risk and give express assurances to your team that the hotel is still a safe place to work. Next, while underscoring the need to protect the COVID-positive guest’s identity, would you then enforce a policy of ‘radio silence’ or would you allow open communications from your team?
There are many details to review here. And while we all have numerous other issues pertaining to growing revenues in a highly depressed travel landscape, we nonetheless cannot ignore these types of scenarios which can severely impede reservations if handled incorrectly.