Medical Examiner

We Are in Desperate Need of Quarantine Hotels

The virus will probably get worse this fall. This could help slow the spread.

A worker in full PPE sprays disinfectant in a hotel room
A hotel employee disinfects the “Greta Garbo” room at Istanbul’s historic (non-quarantine) Pera Palace Hotel on Saturday. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Right now, even considering how many cases of the coronavirus there are circulating in the country, it is very possible we’re in a relative lull compared with what the virus could do this fall. Which means that, right now, we need to be doing way more work to prepare for that possibility than we currently are. In addition to improving our testing and contact tracing capacity, the big thing America should be doing is figuring out how to keep people safe indoors. Part of that should mean setting up places for people to safely and comfortably isolate, away from other members of their household. I am talking (dreaming?) about quarantine hotels, which are common in countries with experience with viruses like SARS. They’re often used to quarantine incoming travelers, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be used more broadly—for travel within a country or to help anyone who wants to carry out a recommended isolation.

Imagine learning that you were recently exposed to someone who was positive for COVID, or imagine testing positive for a case with minimal symptoms, and then actually being able to quarantine. Not in a home with roommates, children, elderly family members; not in an apartment building with shared elevators. Imagine checking into a hotel, with regular contactless meal delivery, a solid internet connection, and windows to the outside world—a safe, comfortable spot where you can keep any coronavirus that your body harbors contained to just you.

If this sounds very luxurious, consider that this is the standard of care that we started off with during the pandemic. In mid-February, American passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship who were either positive for COVID or exposed headed to a facility in Nebraska. There they found private 300-square-foot rooms, with full-size beds, gym equipment, and surfaces selected for how easy they are to wipe down. Each day, a care team delivered meals and sudoku puzzles or magazines upon request. Even as the pandemic has progressed and outstripped the capacity of specialized facilities like this, we’ve tried to create quarantine hotels in the States. In April, CNBC reported that “government officials across the country are converting thousands of empty hotel rooms into housing for coronavirus patients and first responders.” Good! But ultimately paltry: In Chicago, a city of 2.7 million that saw almost a thousand new cases every day that month, that effort involved the city leasing … a confirmed total of two hotels.

We have the capacity to do more. Since the pandemic started, half of all hotel workers have been laid off, and hotel capacity for the year is on track to be about 40 percent, according to American Hotel & Lodging Association CEO Chip Rogers. In March, AHLA started a “Hospitality for Hope Initiative” to connect local and federal governments to hoteliers to rent out rooms for first responders, coronavirus patients, and people in need of shelter. Seventeen thousand hotels signed up to participate. Some of these were offering just a few rooms, and Rogers is careful to note that a government needs to lease a whole hotel if it is going to put potentially sick people there, lest it be unappealing (and unsafe) for others to stay there. But it’s hard to see how government buyouts of spaces wouldn’t incentivize businesses in a struggling industry to offer their space.

Programs like this can hit snags. In California, half of the 15,000 rooms leased by the state in an effort called Project Roomkey sat vacant in May, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times, not for lack of need, but for lack of staff to accommodate an influx of people. (Hotels typically do not run at full capacity, so regular hotel staff would need to be supplemented.) Critics of hotel quarantining point out that everything must be kept hospital-grade clean and note that lodging confirmed sick people next to folks who are fulfilling a travel quarantine is a mistake. And checking into a coronavirus room for two weeks is hardly a luxury everyone would have, whether because they are caring for children or because they are heading to essential jobs. Requiring quarantining in a specific spot gets ethically dicey (though it would be more straightforward if the government would also provide the support to make it possible, which only sounds expensive until you consider the cost of living with the uncontained virus for months to come). But it’s also a luxury to hole up in your own home, in a private room, with a private bathroom, and to pay for meal delivery. What’s also ethically dicey is asking people to figure out setups for containing a viral load on their own or issuing quarantine orders for travelers, without giving nonrich people a subsidized way to successfully carry quarantine out.

Yes, I have heard about how in Australia, some workers at a quarantine hotel—where the country has inbound travelers stay—allegedly had sex with people staying in the quarantine hotel. This shows how shortsighted human beings are, and underscores the need to make quarantining as simple as possible—with quarantine hotels. Do quarantine hotels make it literally impossible for the virus to slip from one horny person to another? No. Are they full of far fewer ways to break protocol in a moment of weakness than a regular shared apartment? Yes! Thanks in part to the quarantine hotel strategy, coupled with other points of general competence at handling this disaster, in a population three times the size of New York, the country has seen just over a hundred deaths.

As we get closer and closer to fall and winter, a time when we will be, especially in cities, necessarily jammed together, I keep thinking about something New York Times science writer Donald G. McNeil Jr. wrote back in March: “If it were possible to wave a magic wand and make all Americans freeze in place for 14 days while sitting six feet apart, epidemiologists say, the whole epidemic would sputter to a halt.” We obviously can’t do that, but quarantine hotels would be a massive step in that direction.