Lehigh Valley hotels, including Four Points by Sheraton in Allentown, have remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Four Points is offering rate discounts for health care workers. (Courtesy of Mike Mozart, via Creative Commons)

Lehigh Valley hotels adjust services during COVID-19 outbreak

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With increased sanitation measures and despite some employees taking a leave of absence, hotels in Bethlehem and Allentown have remained open since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to accommodate anyone in need.

Hotels have been deemed essential businesses because they serve as a temporary residence for families that have lost their homes, and have housed long term guests even before the coronavirus, said Eric Lawton, a front desk agent at Days Hotel by Wyndham in Allentown.

“Business definitely has dropped since COVID-19, especially when it got to the area over here,” Lawton said. “I’ve seen a lot of people that I usually check in at least once or twice a week that I haven’t seen since the outbreak got serious. So I know a lot of them are probably out of work right now.”

He said Days Hotel has dropped to around 50 percent occupancy since the pandemic started to spread.

Comfort Suites Bethlehem front desk manager Doris Barker said normally the hotel has anywhere between 35 and 50 reservations a day. Right now, they are seeing about seven reservations a day, if that, Barker said. The hotel has 124 rooms. 

“We did lose a lot obviously, with Lehigh being closed, number one, and the casino being closed,” Barker said. “It’s going to affect us, but we still have our truck drivers and our construction crew that are maintaining us to stay open —thank God for them — and, of course, the hospital. So that’s helping a lot.”

Since the move to online learning, the cancellation of many big college events that hotels normally benefit from has led to a significant decrease in profit.

Choir performances, theater shows and sports have all been canceled. Lehigh parents, alumni, trustees and faculty members are no longer traveling and booking hotel reservations, Barker said.

“We lost all that because we are, you know, their favorite hotel to be at, and it’s hard,” Barker said. “Graduation, that killed us right there. We’re just hoping and praying they choose a date in the fall that’s not already a busy weekend to accommodate all the parents because that’s going to be another issue.”

Het Gandhi, the general manager at Four Points by Sheraton in Allentown, agreed with Barker. 

“The graduation, that was a big weekend we were looking for: Muhlenberg, Lehigh University, Cedar Crest,” Gandhi said. “Hopefully they postponed it, hopefully everybody will be able to enjoy it, it’s hard on both sides.”

Gandhi said Four Points is only at about 15 percent occupancy right now. Since the hotel is close to Interstate 78, they are receiving most of their current business from truck drivers, as well as nurses and construction workers.

However, these hotels are not allowed to house any COVID-19 patients. 

“I have been told by management, if someone comes to check in and I’m suspecting that they may be infected or that they appear to be so, to refuse service,” Lawton said. 

Comfort Suites Bethlehem has offered the hospital to house any patients who are not COVID-19 positive and any doctors or nurses that are required to stay because of the overwhelming workload they may have. 

“We will not house anybody that’s COVID-19 (positive), unfortunately. As sad as it is, we can’t jeopardize everybody else,” Barker said. 

Some hotels are putting out discounts for health care workers.

Four Points is offering rate discounts and a free meal from their restaurant that is open for take-out in the evenings. Gandhi said the hotel is in the process of starting delivery as well. 

Comfort Suites also has a restaurant open from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and a store open 24 hours a day with frozen food and snacks, Barker said.

Lawton said that a month and a half ago he had read about other hotels in Ohio offering discounts for health care workers and employees in grocery stores and banks. Eager to help his community, he said he suggested the idea to his hotel and they decided to implement the discount as well.

After putting the health care employee discount advertisement on Facebook, Lawton said that word didn’t spread far, and management stopped the discount after only a few days of initiating it.

Furthermore, though hotel clientele are now supposed to be mainly health care workers and essential business people, Lawton said that he thinks 80 percent of all guests at Days Hotel have been staying for pleasure and not business. 

“Unfortunately, one thing I’ve noticed is that many people are ignoring lockdown orders and getting hotel rooms. Unnecessary travel especially during an epidemic,” said Lawton. “It’s something I’ve observed the past 10 weeks and, quite frankly, surprised me.”

The hotels have been operating at minimal staff. Gandhi said several employees had to be furloughed. 

The threat of the virus has all three hotels sanitizing and disinfecting all surfaces constantly. At Days Hotel, housekeeping is using a lot more bleach and doing thorough cleans of each room, Lawton said. 

Lawton has a desk set in front of his desk to remain a 6-feet distance between himself and guests as they are checking in . He bleaches his entire front desk, every door handle and every single pen that guests may use on a daily basis before each shift.

“It’s definitely been mentally taxing, I’m basically on the front lines,” Lawton said. “I’m at the front desk, I see everybody that comes in and out the door here. It’s been stressful.”

At Comfort Suites, they soak their key cards in sanitizer overnight, and have started denying entrance to anybody entering the hotel without masks or, at least, something covering their faces. Barker said that she understands that masks are not that easy to get right now, and some people may not even have the funds to get them.

At Four Points, Gandhi said that they aren’t intimidated by the virus because his employees are well prepared. 

All employees wear masks and gloves while washing their hands and using clorox on surfaces. There is a 6-foot rope, a table and a couple chairs blocking the guests from getting too close to the front desk. Gandhi also said they minimize interaction by using a bowl to pass items to the guests like their hotel key.

Barker said the surge of people wanting to travel once this is over will be a lot to handle. She foresees employees doubling up because phones might end up ringing off the hook. 

“It’s going to be overwhelming for a bit until it mellows out again and people are satisfied, you know, other than from their living room to their bathroom,” she joked.

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