The COVID-19 crisis in Boston began at the Biogen conference held at the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel. Executives from the pharmaceutical company gathered for two days to share ideas and celebrate achievements. They touched handrails, elevator buttons, buffet silverware, doorknobs, and remote controls. They slept in rooms that were turned over to new guests the next day. Unbeknownst to them, these common activities helped spread the novel coronavirus in Boston and beyond.
In the weeks following the Biogen conference, confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases surfaced n other Boston hotels, including the Ritz Carlton and the Marriott Copley Place. By the middle of March, the state slowly realized that travel needed to be restricted to essential personnel and many hotels closed their doors. Thousands of hotel workers were laid off and those few that have continued working are doing so in difficult and potentially dangerous conditions.
Now, as Massachusetts begins to reopen the economy, the hospitality industry needs to learn from this history. The experience of the Biogen conference and its fallout show that the industry cannot regulate itself. The state and the city need to enact regulations to guarantee that this important sector of Boston’s economy reopens in the safest way possible.
As the president of Boston’s Local 26, the union representing over 12,000 mostly Black and brown workers in the hospitality industry, I have witnessed the human and financial costs of this pandemic. Almost all of our members are laid off from their jobs at the city’s hotels, universities, airport, and casino. Dozens of our members and their families have contracted COVID-19 and some, sadly, have died.
The members of our union live in the communities that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus. They live in Chelsea, Brockton, Mattapan, and Roxbury. Many of them have preexisting medical conditions — the result of the social and racial inequities of the healthcare system — that make them vulnerable to this terrible virus. Those that are younger and healthy often live in multigenerational households with older relatives who are at risk. For these workers, the question of getting reopening right is a question of life or death.
Hotel workers want to get back to work, but they do not want to risk their lives in the process. The cavalier attitude of some business leaders about reopening the economy is irresponsible and potentially dangerous. This is why we need the state and city to provide strict health and safety regulations to shepherd the hospitality industry through reopening.
These regulations should include:
Testing The hotel industry cannot reopen safely without robust testing and contact tracing. In order to guarantee the health and safety of workers and guests, employees need to be tested on a regular basis. If an employee tests positive, contact tracing and quarantine protocols need to be followed to ensure the virus does not spread at a property.
Access to PPE Hotel workers are front-line workers. As cooks, servers, doormen, front desk agents, and housekeepers, they interact regularly with the traveling public. Even with extensive social distancing protocols, these interactions are potentially deadly. That is why hotel workers need regular access to PPE. The industry should not reopen until adequate PPE is procured to protect workers and guests.
Operational health and safety Intensive sanitation, social distancing, and training regulations must be put in place to guarantee all Boston hotels are cleaned to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization standards. In order to protect workers and restore consumer confidence, Boston’s hotels must be seen as the cleanest in the world.
Government regulation does not only punish bad apples; it helps good apples stay good. Several industry leaders, including Marriott and the Encore Boston Harbor, have proposed thoughtful health and safety guidelines that should be applauded. Despite this, if an outbreak were to occur at a hotel with lax safety standards, the entire industry would suffer a black eye.
We cannot put profits before the health and safety of hotel workers and the traveling public. We cannot allow hospitality to become the next meat packing industry. With strong regulations and a smart, gradual approach, travel and tourism will again become a robust part of our city’s economy.
Carlos Aramayo is the president of UNITE HERE Local 26.