Just like other businesses across the United States, hotels are in the process of reopening — and reinventing their rooms as safe havens where travelers don't have to worry about being exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that's caused the novel coronavirus pandemic. But is staying in a hotel room right now a good idea? For those dealing with home maintenance or are in the process of moving, there might not be another option; and for those looking to escape on vacation, they're wondering if new cleaning procedures are enough to keep themselves safe. Like any public place, hotels pose a risk for COVID-19 transmission, and the most dangerous areas might actually lie outside of your hotel room.
Andria Rusk, PhD, a research assistant professor specializing in infectious disease at Florida International University's College of Public Health & Social Work, has firsthand experience with calculating the health risks of staying in a hotel; she's traveled for research during the pandemic. "As with any public place, there are transmission risks in hotels. This risk comes from interacting with fomites — what we call objects or surfaces that are likely to carry infection — or with infected people," she tells Good Housekeeping. Since the greatest established risk for COVID-19 transmission is being in close contact with strangers, your main concerns in a hotel are hotel employees and other hotel guests, and all the areas that you may bump into them. Below, Rusk shares the main risks of staying in a hotel, and how she works to lower her own risks as she travels as an essential worker during the pandemic.
Why are hotels a health concern during the pandemic?
Normally, travelers are wary of germs in hotel rooms, and they should be now more than ever; Rusk says infectious droplets can be dangerous when in close proximity to others, but also in your private spaces. Here are the main COVID-19 risks associated with hotels:
Hotel staff and other guests. Again, COVID-19 is primarily spread by being in close proximity with others, as infectious respiratory droplets can easily be dispersed in small spaces. Furthermore, leading medical experts estimate that most people who are spreading the novel coronavirus are without symptoms, meaning staff or guests in a hotel may be silently spreading SARS-CoV-2. Hotel staff, in particular, are repeatedly exposed to direct contact with other guests and their belongings; think of housekeepers and front-desk personnel, for example. Rusk says there's a greater chance that these individuals could act as vectors for a potential spread among the hotel itself, even if they are taking on new safety protocols — most will be wearing masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), and Marriot, for example, is testing new machines that spray rooms with disinfectant autonomously.
Shared amenities and common spaces. These spaces are more dangerous than your private hotel room, Rusk says. Lobbies can become crowded places in the morning rush to check out, and hotel pools and spas are particularly concerning as guests can easily congregate there. Elevators pose their own risk, too, as sharing an enclosed space with multiple guests (all those floors!) isn't ideal due to restricted air supply.
How frequently rooms are turned over. SARS can live on some hard, non-porous surfaces for up to three days (including plastic and stainless steel), according to a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. While it's unknown how long infectious droplets can remain viable on soft, plush surfaces, Rusk explains that even a deep-clean by housekeepers may fail to eliminate the virus from all surfaces. If another guest stayed in the room right before you check in, there's a higher likelihood that there are virus particles lingering in the air and on any of the surfaces within a hotel room.
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How to lower COVID-19 risks in a hotel:
If you can't avoid staying in a hotel, there are a few things you can do to lower your risks — some of which can be done before you even check-in. Here's how Rusk travels safely during the pandemic:
Ask the hotel what they're doing to keep guests safe. Rusk says hotels that are committed to fighting COVID-19 should be talking about new disinfecting routines being instituted in rooms and common spaces. Staff should be well aware if there are policies in place that require both staff and guests to wear masks at all times; are they well trained on how to use PPE? If the booking or management staff can't answer these questions for you (or if they don't have any updates to share), you should think about finding another place to stay, if possible.
Request a room that has been empty for 3 days. Ask booking staff if they could provide you a room that hasn't been entered within the last 72 hours, but has been cleaned after the previous guest. Doing so might lower the risk of coming into contact with any viable SARS virus in your room when touching different surfaces.
Skip hand-to-hand contact at check-in. "I brought my own pen to sign any documents or receipts, and I held up my ID to be viewed rather than handing it to someone," Rusk explains.
Avoid common spaces. The pool, spa, gym, or business center may be closed, but if they're open, think twice about using them when others are around. If you do end up in these spaces, do your best to keep ample space between yourself and others.
Bring disinfectants and sanitizers with you. There are many surfaces you can properly disinfect when you walk into your hotel room: "Don’t forget the remote control to the TV, and the face and buttons of any telephones! They're often overlooked," Rusk adds. Keep in mind that most disinfectants require surfaces to be wet with a cleanser for at least five minutes, if not more. Disinfecting hard surfaces in your room might help lower your risk, and as always, you should avoid touching your face as much as possible.
Wash your hands as often as possible. It's the most important piece of advice to follow when you're outside of the house, and you'll need to do it frequently in a hotel. "Regularly washing your hands with soap and water is more effective at neutralizing a virus than hand sanitizer, which is only to be used in a pinch when water is unavailable," Rusk says.
The bottom line: If you're on a necessary trip for work or to see family, a hotel might allow you to skip exposing loved ones or colleagues to any additional risks. Ultimately, you should weigh the risks of staying in a hotel against your own personal risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms. Officials at the CDC share that "staying at home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick" in their traveling recommendations, adding that you shouldn't travel if you've been sick, someone you live with has been sick, or if you've been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the past two weeks.
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