At Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania, a tall man in a gray suit and a black mask approached my car. He leaned toward my lowered window and asked for my name. Satisfied with my answer, he aimed a raygun-shaped gadget at my forehead, pressed the button and read the digital display.
“Ninety-seven degrees,” he told me in a slightly muffled voice.
Three degrees higher, and the resort would have turned me away, one of several protections against the coronavirus. But since I was fever-free, the security officer stepped aside, clearing the way to the luxury property and my first getaway since shutdowns began.
The pandemic knocked the breath out of the hospitality industry, but hotels across the country are slowly rising to their feet. According to Smith Travel Research, occupancy levels reached 35% between May 17 and 23, a notable improvement from early April, when 21% of hotel rooms were booked. To reassure guests, properties are implementing health and safety measures that rewrite the textbook on hospitality.
“It’s like a hotel opening,” Chris Baran, Nemacolin’s director of sales and marketing, said of resuming operations during the crisis. “We have to forget everything we know and do it this way.”
Nemacolin was one of the area’s first luxury properties to welcome back leisure travelers. In early May, the resort opened several dozen rooms at Falling Rock, its Fallingwater-inspired lodging. (The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home is about 10 miles away). It also resumed a bevy of activities, including golf, tennis, fly-fishing, paintball, basketball, safari tours and biking on 2,000 acres of trails. A few days shy of June, the hotel added accommodations at Chateau LaFayette, the opulent spread modeled after the Ritz in Paris, as well as the outdoor pools and Laurel Lane shops. On Friday, when several Pennsylvania counties advanced to the “green phase” of the state’s reopening plan, the resort started accepting appointments at its spa and fitness center. Its on-site restaurants also switched from takeout to sit-down service at reduced capacity, so guests would no longer have to eat pan-seared scallops or a 16-ounce rib eye off disposable plates.
The day Washington lifted its stay-at-home order, I was on the road to Pennsylvania. My mission: to see how the new protocols would affect the guest experience and whether they would help or hinder my ability to relax. Ultimately, I wanted to know if Nemacolin could liberate me from the burdens of my face mask — metaphorically speaking, of course.
The hospitality industry is facing a mountain of challenges. Properties can’t just swing open their doors and hand guests a welcome cocktail, even if the staff has thoroughly disinfected the door handles and prepared the drinks while swaddled in personal protective equipment. First and foremost, the hotels must adopt the rules and restrictions issued by the state and local governments. The reopening measures touch on nearly every aspect of the hotel experience, from the number of guests permitted inside the restaurants to the accessibility of the spas and fitness centers.
For example, the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans opened June 1 with 240 out of 570 rooms available. Its Criollo Restaurant can serve only 25% — or 25 seats — of its total capacity, and customers must provide a name and phone number for contact tracing purposes. Louisiana is not allowing stand-alone bars to open during its first phase; however, the hotel’s historic Carousel Bar and Lounge received the state’s blessing because it possesses a food service license. “We have to present guests with a bar menu, even if they don’t order from it,” explained hotel manager Stephen Caputo. As for the fitness center, only six guests can workout at a time. The spa, meanwhile, could remain shuttered until July.
“The objective is to create some sense of normalcy,” Caputo said, “even if it is restricted.”
To assist hotels as they tiptoe back, the American Hotel & Lodging Association created Stay Safe, a guide based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection and an advisory board composed of hoteliers. The measures promote practices recognizable to anyone who has shopped for groceries or ordered takeout during the pandemic, such as mandatory face coverings and no-contact food delivery. However, some of the suggestions are unique to hotels — for example, housekeeping should not enter a guest’s room unless the visitor has requested cleaning service.
“So many hotels operate differently — their constructions are different, and their travelers are different,” said Chip Rogers, the association’s president and chief executive. “We created a baseline for all hotels.”
Hotel chains have also assembled their own rule books and safety committees. Hilton launched the Hilton CleanStay program, a partnership with RB, the U.S. manufacturer of Lysol, and the Mayo Clinic Infection Prevention and Control. Marriott formed the Global Cleanliness Council, a body of experts from the public health, food safety and infectious-disease fields. Northwood Hospitality’s Safety and Well-Being Promise is centered on three principles: prevention, cleanliness and minimizing contact.
“The main challenge is how do the hotels create the confidence and cleanliness that is close to a hospital without making it feel like a laboratory or clinic,” said Linda Canina, academic director of the Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University in New York.
The answer, thankfully, is not plastic-covered furniture or long-handled claws for grabbing your key card or breakfast sandwich. However, hotels have made significant changes from top to bottom in public and private spaces. For instance, they have erected plexiglass shields at front-desk counters, removed seating in lobbies and restaurants for social distancing purposes, and placed floor decals six feet apart. Guest rooms have been stripped of such extraneous materials as menus, magazines and extra bedding. Signs at elevator landings remind guests of the rider limit. Assuming most people don’t travel with a tape measure, Hotel Monteleone has adhered footprint stickers in each corner of its six lifts.
Hotels are also adjusting their guest services and reimagining their amenities. Hotel Drisco in San Francisco will keep its buffet but replace the communal serving dishes with individually plated and wrapped breakfast items — served on bone china, of course. At Hotel Figueroa in Los Angeles, text messaging with guests is the preferred form of communication. Four Sisters Inns, a collection of boutique properties in California, is requiring guests to reserve a breakfast time in its restaurants or order a complimentary breakfast in bed. (You will have to crawl out bed at least once, to collect the tray outside the door.) The evening happy hour with communal hors d’oeuvres is out, replaced by a picnic box filled with cheeses, fruit and crackers and a split of wine. The Sisters had to retire the cookie jar but not the cookies: The baked goods will arrive in individually sealed packaging. Hotels such as Nemacolin, Hotel Drisco and Hotel Monteleone are expanding their inventory of oft-forgotten items, adding masks and hand sanitizer to their supplies of toothbrushes and razors.
Upon arrival at Nemacolin, a bellhop offered to give me a lift from the self-parking lot to the hotel in a golf cart. “We disinfect them after each ride,” he added encouragingly. I accepted.
He dropped me off at the entrance to the Chateau LaFayette lobby, which was dripping in chandeliers and fresh flowers. Hand sanitizer dispensers stood out among the lavish furnishings. At the front desk, an employee greeted me from behind a plexiglass shield. I pressed my ID against the transparent square. He informed me of the house rules: I must wear a mask at all times outside of my room, and only four people are permitted inside the elevator at one time. He said the shuttle was not running and suggested I drive my own vehicle or walk. He asked if I wanted housekeeping to tidy up my room. I declined, preferring to restrict my social bubble to members-only.
To reach my room, I had to press an “up” elevator button protected by a plastic sheath. (The covering fell off and was not replaced during the remainder of my stay.) Inside, I switched on the TV to scan the listing of restaurants and activities, but the hotel channel was not working, so I had to make repeated calls and visits to the front desk. I eventually settled on an itinerary of mostly free diversions: miniature golf, bowling, pool, yoga ($20) and a wildlife talk starring a small collection from Nemacolin’s menagerie. Three restaurants were serving meals in lockdown fashion: Call, and they deliver anywhere on the property. I chose pizza from Barattolo by the Chateau’s purring fireplace.
I learned that some activities are built for social distancing. Hovering on the mini-golf course is bad form; the family behind me waited patiently while I putted around waterfalls and over trenches. At the bowling alley every other lane was open, and an employee wiped down each ball between players. Yoga is normally held in the spa, which was closed during my stay. Even better, the instructor gathered our trio in an open-air pavilion surrounded by rolling green hills and vocal birds.
“There is no cleaning [for you to do] after shavasana,” Susan said, referring to our final relaxing pose. “I will clean the mats.”
For the wildlife talk, the two experts separated the folding chairs and, as much as we pleaded with our eyes, did not allow us to cuddle Meatball Hoagie the guinea pig or Wendell the rabbit. Nor did they allow us to touch Loki, the sled dog who made a late afternoon appearance in the Chateau’s lobby. I air-pet him from a safe distance.
The pool drew the largest gatherings, though the ominous gray clouds and wind gusts kept most people on dry land. Staff members in plastic face shields reminiscent of a welder’s protective gear disinfected tables and delivered food in sealed containers. Signs at the towel station and pool bar reminded us to keep six feet apart.
The hotel was only 35% full, so crowding was not a big concern. However, many guests did not wear masks, a troubling predicament. I tried to keep my distance, which considering the spaciousness of the property was not too difficult. I raised the issue with the front desk as well with Baran once I was home. He said masks are required in indoor public spaces and that he would remind the staff to enforce this rule. (Housekeeping also cleaned my room even though I had declined its services; Baran said he would look into this oversight, as well.)
Despite the restrictions and occasional lapses, I could feel the tight knots loosening. It didn’t take much. A shaggy-haired musician performing under a cloud-speckled sky. A hole-in-one on the mini-golf course. An ankle dip in the hot tub. Two nights in a bed unaware of the previous months of fitful sleep.
On my last morning, I slid on my mask and headed down to the lobby. A bellhop was cleaning the revolving door. Without missing a beat, another staff member raced over to a side door and held it open for me.