Today's hotel is tomorrow's coronavirus hospital

Mark Johanson, CNNUpdated 25th March 2020
Up next
(CNN) — The Ayre Gran Hotel Colón is a four-star, 365-room design hotel in downtown Madrid close to Retiro Park and one of the city's largest hospitals.
Earlier this year, its guests enjoyed newly renovated rooms, stained-glass windows, serene gardens and even an onsite art gallery. For the past week, however, the hotel's two towers have been transformed into a medical facility to treat patients with mild cases of coronavirus.
With global travel at a standstill -- and millions of people projected to contract Covid-19 in the coming months -- governments around the world are looking to otherwise closed hotels as a way to alleviate stresses on overburdened health systems.
Some plan to turn hotels into shelters for coronavirus patients with mild symptoms, others as safe houses to isolate those who may have been in contact with confirmed cases.
Still more hotels will be set aside for hospital workers who are exposed to patients daily and need a safe place to sleep close to their work.
The latter was a strategy utilized by officials in Wuhan, China, who erected specialized facilities -- or in some cases, commandeered hotels -- to isolate doctors and nurses. Health workers, of course, are at a higher risk of contracting the illness and subsequently passing it on to their families or fellow commuters.
Ayre Gran Hotel Colón is but one of dozens of hotels across Europe that are now being repurposed to fight the pandemic. Hoteliers in the Madrid region alone have offered authorities access to some 40 hotels to add 9,000 beds for future patients.
In the UK, major chains such as Best Western, Travelodge and Hilton are all in talks with the National Health Service to gauge the viability of turning some of their properties into makeshift coronavirus wards.
Europe's largest hospitality company, Accor, opened up 40 of its hotels in France for nursing staff, vulnerable populations and anyone fighting the spread of coronavirus.
Now, the United States is following suit.

A rapid search for more beds

According to the American Hospital Association, the United States has just 924,107 staffed hospital beds, and more than two-thirds are typically full. In fact, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) statistics show that the nation has only 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people. That's compared with 13.1 in Japan, 12.3 in South Korea and 8 in Germany.
These numbers underscore a growing concern that there are precious few beds available for the number of expected coronavirus cases in the coming weeks.
The US Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday it was working to create more than 10,000 hospital beds in hard-hit New York City by converting hotel rooms and college dormitories into makeshift care facilities. It's considering similar initiatives in California and Washington.
"These hotels are empty. The people don't have jobs," Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, chief of engineers and commanding general of the US Army Corps of Engineers, said at a news conference at the Pentagon.
"We go in and cut a contract to be able to have the state set up a lease with that particular facility, and then we would then take the building over. And in an exceptionally short amount of days, we would go in and turn this into an ICU-like facility."
Under the plan, contractors would use air-conditioning units to create negative pressure rooms that could suck air outside the room through a vent, minimizing airborne contaminants. Plastic seals would also be placed by the doors, while nursing stations would be set up in the halls.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Monday that America's third-largest city would set aside 1,000 rooms in five hotels to isolate people who are mildly ill with Covid-19, fear they've been exposed or are awaiting test results. That number will increase to 2,000 by the end of the week.
The plan in Chicago is unique in that hotels will be staffed by a hospitality team working the front desk, kitchen and housekeeping, though they will have no direct contact with the quarantined patients, who will be handled by the city's health department staff.
"We are the logistical support team in a war that's going on," said George Jordan, president of Oxford Hotels & Resorts, the hotel group that runs the five downtown Chicago hotels participating in the effort. "We're gratified to be able to help the city."
"We feel like we've done our part for not only our brethren here in the city of Chicago, but also our investors and keeping our employees at work. It's just a win, win, win all the way around."

Hotels for Hope

Hotels around the world have seen occupancy rates plummet in recent weeks. Industry experts hope models such as Chicago's could be a way for them to both weather the storm and maintain a skeleton staff.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) estimates that, since mid-February, US hotels have lost $2.4 billion in room revenue. Worse still, they're on pace to lose more than $200 million in room revenue per day going forward.
That's why the association just launched Hotels for Hope, a national database to connect hotel properties with the health community to help them meet their growing demands.
"We have a lot of vacant hotels right now since there are no customers, so we thought that if we could present to elected officials and healthcare professionals a list of hotels in their local area that are willing to participate that it would really help everybody," AHLA president and CEO Chip Rogers told CNN.
Rogers said more than 7,500 hotels across the nation have already expressed interest, adding that they "have the structure and personnel in place to almost replicate the hospital experience."
"Everyone is pitching in and recognizing that -- even though they are themselves facing extreme financial hardships -- what others are facing can be even more dangerous, especially if it's a health care scare," he said.
Of course, not all hotels have shuttered. Some are assisting in different ways.
OYO Hotels & Homes, for example, announced Tuesday that all of its 300-plus properties in the United States would offer free rooms to medical first responders working on the front lines in the fight against Covid-19.
The Four Seasons has offered up its iconic property in midtown Manhattan to provide five-star rooms with a $0 price tag for doctors and nurses toiling away at nearby hospitals.
Two hotels in Manchester owned by Manchester United icon Gary Neville -- Hotel Football and The Stock Exchange -- closed last week so that National Health Service staff could stay free of charge.
Others, like New England's Ocean House Management Collection, are taking care of their local communities by delivering free lunches to children affected by school closures.
CNN national corrrespondent Omar Jimenez contributed to this story.