What it's like to stay at a Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt hotel during the COVID-19 pandemic

David Oliver, USA TODAY
·9 mins read

WASHINGTON – Salivating at the buffet table, eagerly awaiting a sizzling omelet to be done. Cramming into a crowded elevator with a long weekend's worth of luggage in tow. Debating whether to go for the Peanut M&M's or Twix minibar purchase.

None of these quintessential hotel moments happened during my three nights at hotels in Washington this month, and it doesn't take a public health degree to know why: the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic has slaughtered the travel industry, leaving four out of 10 hotel workers unemployed, more than a thousand hotels closed and occupancy rates decimated.

We'll get to this: Is it safe to stay in a hotel amid the coronavirus pandemic?

I wasn't comfortable staying in a hotel in mid-March and felt the same through July, despite assurances from the hospitality industry about its cleanliness measures. By August, Washington's low positivity rate and my burgeoning curiosity inspired me to mask up and see for myself.

The city's hotel occupancy rate has been below the national average and hasn't gone past 40% the past four weeks, according to STR data, suggesting social distancing wouldn't be difficult.

Many hand-sanitizing wipes, meals and mirror selfies later, I'm here to tell you that staying in a hotel during the coronavirus pandemic felt generally safe, with the caveat that these three hotels don't wholly represent their respective brands nor the industry at large.

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Hilton 'CleanStay' labels in place, but so-so on masks

What stuck out to me most during my stay at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Washington was the lack of diligent mask wearing from staff and guests.

Hilton's CleanStay label made me trust my room was, indeed, clean.
Hilton's CleanStay label made me trust my room was, indeed, clean.

Were people wearing masks? Yes and no. Not a great sign to walk in and have the front desk manager not wearing his mask, even behind the plexiglass barrier. I saw a mask on the desk once I approached the station. The screen seemed a safe enough risk mitigation effort for me, though it is Hilton's policy that all guests and employees wear face coverings in indoor public areas of the hotel.

"We take the safety of everyone entering our hotel very seriously and, consistent with District of Columbia requirements, have signage throughout the property stating that employees and guests should wear masks in public areas," Lee Seiler, the hotel's general manager, told USA TODAY in a statement on behalf of the franchisee. "We will act on your feedback and ensure our employees understand the importance of this policy." This Hilton Garden Inn is independently owned and managed.

"We expect this policy to be implemented, like all things we do, by leading with hospitality," Corporate spokesperson Nigel Glennie told USA TODAY. This includes telling guests about the face covering policy before they arrive; reminding guests and visitors of the policy if they don't have face coverings; and offering them a face covering for free if they don't have one.

"That said, we also understand how challenging enforcing these rules can be for our team members, so have provided de-escalation training to help them diffuse challenging interactions and reach a great outcome for our guests," Glennie said.

Weaving through floors, I noticed a mix of personnel and guests with and without masks.

Tiara Poole, 23, of Severn, Maryland, and Sunny Gordass, 24, of Capitol Heights, Maryland, were some of the only people I saw in the restaurant and bar area that doubles as extended lobby seating. They had removed their masks to take pictures but quickly put them on as I approached.

The couple took a local vacation to celebrate Poole's birthday and ventured throughout town during their stay. "We walked around, went to (restaurant) Founding Farmers, then we saw (the Black Lives Matter plaza)," Gordass said. "It's pretty cool seeing that in person."

Was there social distancing? I felt comfortable, given how few people were around. Signs encouraged guests to social distance in the lobby and the (empty) gym. I could buy grab-and-go food options to the left of the main entrance. Some of these options included full-blown meals in the form of breakfast bags or frozen dinners, and there were beverages such as wine and coffee. It beat the minibar in terms of offerings, but there's something special about having a snack already in your room that I missed.

This remote was clean, according to Hilton's CleanStay label.
This remote was clean, according to Hilton's CleanStay label.

How clean was everything? The "CleanStay" label attached to the door inspired confidence. Guests know their room has been cleaned if this seal is not broken.

Hilton's cleanliness measures include placing the sticker in between the door and wall of rooms. Its protocol calls for disinfecting many surfaces in the room such as light switches, handles and knobs, major bathroom surfaces and the remote control. The remote control in my room included a "CleanStay" label.

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Marriott: Not 'too many inconveniences because of COVID'

I immediately felt safer in the Courtyard by Marriott seeing the front desk person had a mask on. First impressions don't necessarily hold that much weight – but during a pandemic, I wanted to feel taken care of more than usual. I signed a form promising I wouldn't host any parties and showed my ID through the plexiglass barrier instead of handing it to the staffer, reducing another potential point of contact.

I loved this personal greeting from the Marriott hotel in Washington. The Hyatt I stayed at offered a similar one.
I loved this personal greeting from the Marriott hotel in Washington. The Hyatt I stayed at offered a similar one.

Were people wearing masks? Hit or miss for guests and employees, despite a policy requiring them at all times. Those with masks lifted them up upon seeing another person. I spotted a pair of gentlemen with no masks in sight sitting in two lobby armchairs, and no one on staff seemed to notice or care. Was I glaring through my mask? Who can say.

"Our hotel requires everyone to wear masks in all indoor public areas and select outdoor spaces," complex assistant general manager Togi Mahdere told USA TODAY. "We appreciate you alerting us to your concerns as feedback provides us with the opportunity to continue to enhance our services."

Rasheem Rooke, 46, of Washington was taking a staycation to get away from "all the excitement and energy at home," he told USA TODAY.

He said people had been wearing masks. "There have not been any issues with that, coming and going, even getting in and out of the elevator or walking down the hallway," he said.

Overall, how has he liked his hotel stay? "There haven't been too many inconveniences because of COVID," he said.

Get used to using your phone to check out menus the next time you stay at a hotel.
Get used to using your phone to check out menus the next time you stay at a hotel.

Was there social distancing? Given low occupancy rates and a lack of business travel, it was fairly easy to maintain distance. I rarely had to worry about sharing an elevator with someone, and when I did, the person was masked.

How clean was everything? The remote control covered in plastic in my room was encouraging. Hotel policy said there would be disinfecting wipes in my room, and I found two small ones by my soap and shampoo. Hand-sanitizing stations were available throughout the hotel as advertised, including in elevator banks on guest floors.

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Hyatt staff masked up and hand sanitizing stations throughout

The lobby of the Grand Hyatt struck me as easily the most gorgeous of the hotels I stayed in. But it also felt empty and sad. The employee who handed me my dinner seemed genuinely thrilled to see me, perhaps evidence of limited guest interaction.

The Grand Hyatt in Washington provides hand-sanitizing stations.
The Grand Hyatt in Washington provides hand-sanitizing stations.

Were people wearing masks? Hit or miss, though staffers were masked up. Two women, who were not guests, sat in the lobby with bandannas or gaiters lowered. This is against Hyatt's policy, which requires masks in hotel indoor public areas and outdoor areas. Masks are required when you leave your home in Washington.

"Some guests may be exempt from this mandate, including guests with medical conditions, guests consuming food or beverages in restaurants and children under the age of 2," Majed Dawood-Farah, general manager of the Grand Hyatt Washington, told USA TODAY.

"We encourage guests to approach the front desk when they have questions regarding our hotel policies or concerns about their safety and well-being, so we may address their concerns immediately," Dawood-Farah said.

Was there social distancing? Yes, given that few people took up the cavernous lobby. I had pictured a bustling convention hall, where people plopped down on couches, carelessly gabbing away mask-free. Different times, indeed.

I ordered meals by calling the front desk after viewing a menu via a QR code in my room on my nightstand.

Eduard Katehakis, 24, of College Park, Maryland, was working on his computer in the lobby. He's often worked from the hotel the past two years and decided to have a staycation there after being impressed by employees' cleaning prowess.

"It's the best place to work just because there's so much space in this lobby," he said. "I like staying away from people." He said there's always someone cleaning.

For the most part, people have been masked and distanced, he said. "I get very upset when people don't just because I know that I'm doing my part," he said.

Gyms at Washington hotels encourage social distancing.
Gyms at Washington hotels encourage social distancing.

How clean was everything? In front of the elevators on about a dozen floors, I saw hand-sanitizing stations, which boosted my confidence that the hotel took the pandemic as seriously as possible. Hyatt's policy said these would appear "prominently" throughout the hotel, which was true.

The fitness center had automatic lights, and the room illuminated brighter when I walked in, again, alone.

Once I checked out the food menu via the QR code, I could call down for breakfast or dinner (albeit during restricted hours). I placed my order with the front desk and picked up meals on a floor below the lobby from a masked employee.

Would I have preferred a make-your-own-waffle station? Yes, but in the COVID-19 era, I appreciated the commitment to safety.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt hotel stays: How safe I felt amid COVID-19