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Are You Less at Risk for Coronavirus at a Hotel or Airbnb?

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With COVID-19 restrictions starting to lift, travel dreaming is turning into travel planning. In addition to deciding where to go and when to go, you need to decide what kind of accommodations will make you feel at ease enough to relax and have a good night’s sleep. But how do you decide what’s clean and safe from a virus that’s too small to see? Here’s what you need to consider.

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We Want It Clean

COVID-19 brings with it an expectation for a new normal. “Stepping into a hotel, we must feel comfortable knowing that the hotel has done everything possible to protect our health and wellbeing and every detail is looked after,” says Natalia Shuman, EVP and CEO of Bureau Veritas North America, a company that provides testing, inspection, and certification in the COVID-19 context for hotels like Meliá and Accor.

According to a COVID-19 travel survey by Zapwater Communications, 75% of U.S. frequent travelers surveyed said that hotels’ health and safety protocols are the top priority for influencing their immediate travel decisions. But with so much still unknown about COVID-19 (and so much unproven info being shared as fact), it’s hard to figure out what “clean” and “safe” even mean anymore.

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The Risks: Other People, the Air, and Touching Things

Everything we do outside of our homes increases the risk of spreading COVID-19 and we each need to determine the kinds of risks we’re comfortable with. If you or someone you contact regularly is at elevated risk for COVID-19, more caution is needed. Scientists are still learning a lot about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease that’s infected more than five million people. From what they know now, you can get coronavirus if someone coughs (or even breathes) on you and, though less likely, if you touch something contaminated and then touch a mucous membrane, such as your eyes, nose, or mouth.

Staying at least six feet from people who aren’t in your household is the key way to prevent disease transmission. Early studies also show that aerosolized droplets contaminated with the virus can float in the air for one to three hours (although, because SARS-CoV-2 is a large virus, gravity makes most of it fall to the ground quite quickly). Other COVID studies show that the virus can survive on surfaces for a while: 24 hours on cardboard, and two to three days on plastic (like an elevator button) and stainless steel (like a doorknob).

The bad news is that no matter where we go, there’s a chance we can breathe in the COVID virus or have it enter our eyes, even when alone in a hotel room. Scientists don’t yet know how high those chances are. The good news is, you have control over the key ways to minimize your risk of exposure. Staying six feet away from others is the best way to protect yourself. Wearing a face covering minimizes the risk that you might spread the virus to anyone else. Making sure you have clean hands (the 20-second hand wash) before you touch your face means eliminating the risk of infecting yourself by transferring the virus to your eyes, nose, or mouth. Touching things isn’t the danger—sticking your hand into a petri dish full of the virus won’t make you sick, so long as you wash your hands well before touching your face. And, on May 21, the CDC announced that touching objects is “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

Hotels and other kinds of accommodations are trying to make avoiding the virus as easy as possible for you. Many are working with public health organizations and other experts to develop protocols for how people interact in the hotel environment and how properties are cleaned. As Phil Cordell, Hilton’s Global Head of New Brand Development, says, “we’re coming together with the American Hotel & Lodging Association to look at the guest experience from end to end to see how we can change hotel industry norms, behaviors, and standards.” The goal is ensuring that everyone—guests and employees—feels safe and confident.

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Accommodation Options

Ok, first let’s get all the different options out on the table. When you’re not staying at home, there’s a huge range of accommodations out there and each has a different set of risk factors.

On the home share side, you’ve got everything from Couchsurfing on an air mattress in someone’s living room, Airbnbing a room in someone’s apartment, or perhaps booking the whole flat. You can rent a privately-owned tiny cottage, an entire house, or a multi-bedroom beachfront villa.

There’s an even wider range on the hotel side. Choose from drive-up motels where you access your room from an outdoor hallway and can avoid elevators. Or, there’s traditional tower-style hotels in all price ranges, from budget to luxury. Other options are boutique hotels with just a handful of rooms and huge resorts with more than 1,000. You can even book a villa on a private island like Cayo Espanto and never see anyone but the houseman who brings your meals and drinks to your veranda.

Your hotel room will have a bedroom and bathroom, maybe a living room, perhaps multiple bedrooms, and might have a kitchen and laundry facilities. It might come with an in-room coffee maker, perhaps offer a free breakfast, or might be an all-inclusive resort providing all your meals, drinks, and sports equipment. Properties might be owned by an individual family or company, part of a big chain like Marriott, or under the umbrella of a brand like Relais & Châteaux.

In between home shares and hotels, you have B&Bs, where you book a room in a house, sometimes with a shared bath, with your host making breakfast for you. You can rent a privately-owned condo or villa with kitchen and laundry in a resort complex, such as Turks and Caicos’ Ocean Club Resorts or Mexico’s Vivo Resorts. They’re managed like hotel rooms with the same kind of amenities and professional housekeeping as in a hotel, though the unit owners might have left some personal decorations or specialty kitchen items. Hostels are booked like hotels, but generally have shared dorm rooms and bathrooms.

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The Most and Least Risky

The closer you get to other people, the greater your chance of exposure to the virus. So, Couchsurfing and hostel dorms are the riskiest accommodation options. Next on the list is places with private bedrooms but shared bathrooms, as when you book a spare room in someone else’s home or when you’re at a B&B with shared bathrooms.

At the other extreme, ultra-luxe options will provide you with much more space and privacy. But even if you declined the butler, twice-daily housekeeping, minibar restocking, turndown service, and all the other niceties of a high-end stay, it’s unlikely you can be left completely alone. For example, your private plunge pool still needs to be maintained and gardens watered.

Big or small, accommodation options where you can maintain a six-foot distance from others are the safest. You can make them even safer by knowing the risks and how the properties are mitigating them, and by changing your behaviors accordingly.

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Arriving: The Hardest Part of Maintaining Distance

Properties are taking extra care to ensure everything in their lobbies—railings, doors, reception countertops, credit card PIN pads, pens, and keys—is sanitized. They’ll offer you hand sanitizer upon arrival and you can use it after you’ve touched anything. You can bring your own pen, avoid leaning on counters, and keep your phone in your pocket.

What matters more is keeping six feet away from others, and you have a lot of control over that: Don’t crowd other people and respect floor markings reminding you of the six-foot distance. Accommodations staff are being trained to greet and help you while maintaining that distance.

Many hotels are installing plexiglass to separate reception staff from guests and having everyone wear masks. Some are expanding their virtual check-ins too. For example, you can check-in online and turn your phone into your room key via Hilton’s Digital Key or the World of Hyatt app. Check-in for home shares, like Airbnb and VRBO, are often already virtual. You enter the property via a key code and can call or email if you need help.

Whether in a tower hotel or Airbnb apartment, it’s wise to avoid crowded elevators. Elevators are a challenge if you plan to go in and out a lot, so lower floors may be more coveted than the penthouse. When you book, ask whether you can easily use the stairs to get to your room so you can leave elevators for people with disabilities and for moving luggage. Hotel staff can leave your bags outside your room for you.

Other than at check-in, you need to keep a distance from others at restaurants, the pool, and in the property’s other public areas. Most hotels have thought this through and rearranged dining rooms and created more space at the gym and between the pool lounge chairs.

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But How to Choose?

For now at least, each property’s COVID practices are different. The big brands have come up with comprehensive cleaning protocols. For example, Sandals’ Platinum Protocols of Cleanliness focus on 18 areas, from their airport lounges to how they receive deliveries, and they’re cleaning and inspecting public restrooms every 20 minutes. Palladium Hotel Group created a Global Customer Experience and Safety Council and is adding an ozone mist disinfection system. Many smaller properties have intensive new practices too, like Cabo San Lucas’s Solmar Resorts that sanitize luggage upon arrival and have detailed new cleaning processes. Check properties’ websites so you know what they’re doing.

The safest properties are the ones that base their cleaning regimes on science. For example, Hilton has a partnership with the Mayo Clinic, Four Seasons is working with John Hopkins, and many properties are following the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s new Safe Stay guidelines and the WHO’s advice for the accommodation sector. You’ll want properties that have mechanisms to review and update their procedures as we learn more about COVID-19.

Most importantly, choose hotels that treat their staff well. Employees who feel well taken care of are better able to ensure the health and safety of guests. Look for properties that pay a fair wage for the work and risk of the job, that provide their employees with regular training, look after uniform cleaning, supply personal protective equipment, and that support employee physical and mental health. If a housekeeper will lose her pay or her job if she stays home sick, her employer is leaving her with little choice but to come to work and potentially spread COVID-19.

This may be a key distinction between hotels and home share companies like VRBO or Airbnb. The latter are more often cleaned by the owner or by the neighborhood cleaning lady, although some owners do hire professional cleaning companies.

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How Clean Is Clean Enough?

No one really knows at this point. And it might be counterproductive to have cleaning protocols so complicated that they cause housekeepers to rush or take their focus away from the things that matter most. Sure, there’s a chance the shoes the housekeeper wears might have the virus on them. But unless you’re licking the floor, it’s unlikely to matter. At least one hotel brand is advertising that they’re disinfecting housekeepers’ shoes–but the rooms there won’t be any safer if that means housekeepers have less time to thoroughly clean the bathroom faucets.

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Should My Room Be Vacant a Night or More Before I Stay?

In the height of the pandemic, hotels that hosted healthcare workers often allowed rooms to sit vacant for a few nights between guests. This made sense then, given that we were still learning about COVID-19 and because of the greater likelihood that healthcare workers would be exposed to the virus at work.

Airbnb is encouraging vacancies between stays. Airbnb’s Enhanced Cleaning Initiative, announced April 27, was developed with a former U.S. Surgeon General and “informed by” the CDC’s standards. It differentiates between three types of properties. Some have “Cleaning Protocol certification,” meaning that the host enrolled in Airbnb’s learning and certification program and attests to the implementation of the new standards. As Airbnb says, “we encourage them to commit and adopt these enhanced cleaning practices.” These properties need to be guest-free (though not cleaner-free) for 24 hours prior to booking. Other properties are designated with a “Booking Buffer”, meaning a 72-hour vacancy period between guests. The third option is the status quo, normal cleaning and no between-guest vacancy.

We now have a better sense of how long the virus can hang in the air, how long it remains infectious on various surfaces, and the cleaning processes needed to kill it. We also know that keeping six feet from others is the best way to prevent transmission. Given that, a 24- or 72-hour vacancy seems unnecessary.

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The Bottom Line

Hotels and vacation rentals that aren’t taking extra COVID-19 precautions are the exception. Whether budget or luxury, properties want to keep you and their staff safe. Some are even overcompensating by adding extra protocols that might not make your stay any safer, though they might sound reassuring and will, eventually, add to the cost. Worry less about how often properties clean door handles and more about keeping your distance from others and washing your hands.

So long as you avoid sharing space with people outside of your household, your accommodations—whichever you choose—will be one of the safer aspects of travel in the COVID world. That means avoiding hostels and Couchsurfing, but also means not going into the pool or elevator if it’s crowded, and being vigilant about keeping your distance in the lobby and gym. Oh, and use that hand sanitizer whenever you see it (especially before AND after eating).