Moneybox

No Conga Lines in a Pandemic

Resorts have reopened. Their buffets have not.

Two lounger chairs with an arrow between them indicating social distancing
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo Devashish Rawat/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This article is part of Reopenings, a series about how businesses are operating during the pandemic.

Americans may not be able to get away to everywhere this summer, but plenty of them are trying to get away somewhere. Airbnb bookings are up. National parks are beckoning. At a time when most people want to avoid airplanes, road trips are in. While tourism has been in a free fall over the last few months as people have generally kept their distance from nonessential leisure travel, the industry is once again pitching Americans to relax on someone else’s premises. That includes one kind of venue that would seem ill-suited to a moment when communal experiences are seen, at best, with reluctance: resorts.

And yet here they are, trying to reassure potential guests that they’ve implemented adequate safety measures without dulling the just-let-us-handle-it experience. “There is a bit of skepticism about travel and what travel is going to be like after we’ve been shut down globally,” said Adam Stewart, deputy chairman of Sandals Resorts, who mentioned that he’s been on “about 155 Zoom calls” to plan for the reopening of the company’s locations. “I would say that a majority of our operations are exactly the same, except that there’s this heightened awareness of health and safety protocols and deep cleaning.” Sandals’ resorts in Montego Bay, Jamaica; Negril, Jamaica; and Dickenson Bay, Antigua are all hosting guests again, and the rest of the company’s locations throughout the Caribbean are reopening on a rolling schedule through November.

Guests will notice a difference at many resorts right from check-in. They’ll have to undergo a temperature check before entering the property. Rather than going up to the front desk, people will instead complete the check-in procedures beforehand online so that they can go straight to their rooms for the sake of social distancing. “If they do need to go to the front desk, those desks will obviously have some kind of plexiglass, and the staff will be wearing face masks,” said Beth Steucek, CEO of the New England Inns & Resorts Association. Sandals has hired 315 new staff members across its resorts to enforce social distancing from the moment guests arrive, monitoring common areas like the lobby and swim-up bars. (Rest assured, however, the swim-up bar is definitely open.)

Upon entering their rooms, guests can expect a slightly more modest experience. Resorts are trying to minimize the number of people who visit a certain room to avoid any contamination, so housekeepers, room service attendants, and other hospitality personnel will leave items outside and avoid entering until after a guest has left. The rooms themselves may also be slightly less furnished, but more thoroughly sanitized. “Think of all the items you might’ve had before. There’ll be less items to touch. All the little things are gone,” said Steucek, specifically referring to extra pillows, extra bedding, and decorative tchotchkes. Resort staff have been using UV lights, electrostatic sprayers, fog machines, and other methods to give the rooms a deeper clean. Baha Mar, a resort complex in the Bahamas that’s planning to reopen in October, will be stocking rooms with illness-prevention goody bags. “Upon arrival, guests will receive a ‘personal care’ amenity kit with hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, gloves, and a personal face mask placed in every suite,” said Karin Salinas, chief marketing officer for Baha Mar, in an email.

Resorts are also revamping dining. According to Steucek, many resorts in New England are doing away with buffets and shifting more toward grab-and-go meals that a party can eat family-style at an isolated table. Buffets at Sandals resorts will have staff serving the customers in the line so that people don’t have to share serving utensils. Certain serving stations will also be spread out to avoid too much crowding. “If you put lobster and lamb and duck side by side on a buffet line, everybody’s going to congregate there. It’s kind of obvious,” said Stewart. “And instead of having one bar, depending on the number of people in house, you may see us have four or five smaller bars.” À la carte restaurants at Sandals have been taking advantage of the beaches to offer socially distanced outdoor seating, which is easier to do because there are currently fewer people at the resorts than usual.

Attractions around the resorts will largely stay the same, though the equipment will go through more rigorous cleanings and there will be stricter capacity limits for certain activities. In New England, hiking, biking, and kayaking will more likely be done as a family, rather than with other guests at the resort. “Some of our properties have really changed up how they’re doing kid programs,” said Steucek. “Instead of going off with a group of kids your own age, you might just go off as a family unit.” Sandals is reducing the number of people who can be on a scuba diving boat from 28 to 12 and is using disinfectant to sanitize things like weighted belts and paddles. In the past, these items would just be sprayed with water after every use. And at Baha Mar, staff will be on hand to ensure that people abide by social distancing at its pools. “Seating at the beach and pools will be configured to allow for at least 6 feet of separation between every family or couple,” said Salinas. “Pool associates will assist guests with the placement of chairs, tables, and umbrella stands.”

Similarly, resort events are likely to be a bit more subdued and intimate. At Sandals, there won’t be a dance floor for the live reggae bands, and the staff will no longer initiate conga lines. The resorts are also splitting up larger events; for example, instead of having guests gather around one bonfire, there might be a few burning at once for smaller groups of people.

Despite all these new safety measures, there’s still a chance that a guest will have COVID-19 while at the resort and spread it to others. In such an event, the Baha Mar will have the 24-hour EMTs on staff consult with the Bahamas Ministry of Health to provide care. Sandals staff will also contact the local ministry of health and possibly the embassy for the guests’ home country if critical care is needed. Otherwise, ill people will be quarantined in hotel rooms while staff arranges for a plane to return them home. “I think it’s a risk that anyone traveling is aware of,” said Stewart. “No country is trying to isolate you and keep you there. The behind-the-scenes goal of any country still is to do their best to safely get you home.” Relax, take off your shoes, and—if you get sick—get out.