The COVID-19 pandemic has quickly impacted businesses and people across the hospitality industry, closing hotels nationwide and causing massive layoffs. The hotels that remain open must prioritize the safety of all people on-property by communicating with local health authorities, guests, and employees. Following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state-mandated guidelines also ensures that hotel owners and operators are staying within their legal rights and protecting the privacy of both guests and employees.
Keith Grossman, partner of Hirschfeld Kraemer and former senior vice president, deputy general counsel for Starwood Hotels, says communication with local health authorities is “the most critical thing that hotel owners can be doing” to keep up-to-date with the latest number of positive COVID-19 cases in a property’s area, as well as the virus’ progression. Using this information, transparency is important when accepting reservations and providing disclaimers for future guests. Communicating compliance with CDC guidelines and adherence to federal and state mandates alerts guests that there are contingencies to their upcoming reservations because of COVID-19.
Grossman mentions that hotel owners can remain transparent to guests and employees by vetting all guests entering the property. Asking guests if they have been exposed to or have experienced symptoms of COVID-19 in the past 14 days shows that “arguably, you are doing the kind of due diligence that your employees and other guests are expecting you to be doing.” If implementing this strategy, hotel owners must ensure that every guest is being asked the exact same questions to avoid discrimination.
While transparency is critical, hotel owners must protect the privacy of their guests and employees when providing information about potentially positive COVID-19 cases to avoid committing any HIPPA violations. After contacting local health authorities, the process of informing employees that a colleague is having symptoms of COVID-19 changes on a case-by-case basis, according to Grossman. He says, “The right thing to do is to inform your employees that one of your coworkers is exhibiting symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and has been sent for testing.” Hotel owners must also consider that employees may be members of high-risk groups when relaying this information and act accordingly.
Grossman adds that each case must be considered individually. “In the event that an employee exhibits symptoms but has not been tested, and other employees live with or are in regular contact with high-risk groups, we don’t recommend a broadcast to the entire hotel because we don’t know that the employee has COVID-19 yet. But we are processing information and passing it along to the groups who might be most immediately affected.”
In addition to communicating with local health authorities, employees, and guests, it is important for hotel owners to be informed of federal and state laws concerning the pandemic. Grossman specifically mentions the California WARN Act, which was recently suspended because of COVID-19. Instead of notice 60 days in advance for a mass layoff, Grossman describes, “This is an unforeseen business circumstance, and you can give as much notice as practicable.”
Navigating hotel operations during a pandemic is unprecedented, but hotel owners must continue to make business decisions with their guests’ and employees’ legal rights in mind.