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COVID-19 precautions at hotels, airlines: Is the travel industry focused on safety or saving money?

By Christopher Elliott for USA Today | June 11, 2021

If you've stayed in a hotel lately, you probably know the drill: When you check in, a receptionist apologizes about the lack of housekeeping, in-room coffee, and towel changes. But they're doing it to keep you safe from COVID-19. Right?

Laurel Barton has her doubts. She was looking forward to leaving housework behind when she made plans to visit the Oregon coast recently.

"But when we arrived at our hotel, the clerk advised us there would be no servicing of rooms due to the pandemic," says Barton, a guidebook author from Forest Grove, Oregon. "But we could come and ask for clean towels when needed."

Barton wonders if hotels are going too far to protect guests from COVID-19 or any other harmful contagion that could come along. And she's not alone. While many travelers view the precautions as overkill, experts say you can't be too careful.

This summer, people traveling for the first time since the outbreak will find a different experience. It includes scaled-down room service, reduced in-flight amenities, and rules that may seem a little too strict. At the same time, prices may be as high as or higher than they were before the pandemic.

Talk about "less is more."

"Any company's efforts to keep travelers and their employees safe from COVID-19 are important," says Ben Carothers, the medical flight coordinator at Global Air Ambulance. "Of course, some of them are more important than others."

These precautions seem excessive

Hotels. Many properties only service their rooms between guests to keep them safe from COVID-19. That includes emptying trash, changing towels and linens and making beds. In some cases, the rooms don't have tea or coffee. You have to ask at the front desk. Guests can request housekeeping service but they don't always have the time to ask.

Airlines. Air carriers cut back on drink and meal service during the pandemic. Instead, they parceled out plastic bags with snacks and bottled water. Hot meals and beverages have returned but are more common in first-class or business cabins.

Theme parks. Until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its mask guidelines in May, some theme parks had rules that require you to wear a mask at all times, with exceptions for eating and taking photos. These rules seem excessively rigid to some guests, who have fought them and ended up getting sent back through the turnstiles – and out of the park.

Travelers want to be protected, but not overprotected, says Terry Barhi, a travel adviser with TerryB Luxury Travel.

"No matter what luxury hotel I am staying at, I still want my daily housekeeping and nightly turndown. My clients feel the same," she says. " When they have traveled to hotels during the pandemic, they wanted those services, without a doubt. They wanted the coffee in the room, the amenities, the snacks, housekeeping and turndown services."

Similarly, some travelers feel that no one should force them to wear a mask if they're outdoors.

"Especially, the vaccinated ones," she adds.

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Are they doing this to keep us safe or save money?

Some of the changes seem financially motivated, say industry watchers.

"Housekeeping staff doesn’t often engage directly with guests, so the risk of COVID transmission between guests and housekeeping staff in either direction is quite low," Kansler sai

Hotels are constantly looking for an excuse to cut service. Two decades ago they began changing towels and sheets less frequently, citing environmental concerns. Now they've cut room service.

"They've shifted to grab-and-go food operations, for example, in order to prepare attractive, healthy food options with less kitchen labor and placing them in lobbies and high-traffic areas to get food and beverages directly into the hands of guests," says Michael Collins, an associate professor in the school of resort and hospitality management at Florida Gulf Coast University's Lutgert College of Business. "It's eliminated the need for room service or table-service restaurants."

In fact, some hotels have already suggested that the changes they've made during the pandemic will stick around. Put differently, they think they can save money and increase their profit margins by making these changes permanent.

Experts: We can't be too careful

Many experts say it's almost impossible to go too far to protect you.

Requiring theme park visitors to wear masks inside and outside, for example, might seem like overkill. But Dr. Vivek Cherian, an Internal medicine physician affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System, says it's a reasonable precaution, particularly for people who are unvaccinated or are at risk.

"There is a possibility of a risk existing in hotel rooms that don’t have updated ventilation systems," he adds. "It would be best to avoid housekeeping, especially if you’re not vaccinated yet."

But maybe it would help if travel companies explained the reasons behind their precautions. Do housekeepers spread COVID-19? Are first-class passengers immune and therefore able to enjoy a hot meal while the rest of the plane eats pretzels? Is the virus more easily spread at a theme park?

Stephanie Roberts, a frequent traveler who works for an industrial machinery company in Michigan City, Indiana, has similar questions. Why did she have to make an appointment to use the gym at her Miami hotel recently? At a hotel in Las Vegas, masks were required at the pool, even if you were alone.

"It really takes the enjoyment out of travel," she says. "I hope we can find our normal again."

So do a lot of other travelers. But that's the problem: Maybe we've already found it.

What if you disagree with a rule?

Know before you go. Don't get blindsided by a rule or policy that you might not like. Ask your hotel about room service or your airline about meal service. If you disagree with a rule, book with another travel company.

Ask about your options. For example, if you're checking into a hotel with no housekeeping, ask if you can make special arrangements. If you can request a change of towels in advance, let them know when you check in. And you can bring your own meal on a plane and skip the pretzels.

Don't fight it. A theme park or restaurant is a terrible place for a protest. In front of your kids and other park guests with cellphones, who can turn you into the next viral video star? No thanks. If an employee tells you to mask up, do it. You can write a scathing op-ed for your local paper when you get home.

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