A spa vacation is a reward — a relaxing, rejuvenating and, typically, expensive way to pamper oneself for a few days or more. Across the world, spa complexes are the marquee feature of many luxury hotels, and their treatments — from facials and massages to peels and pedicures — leave virtually no piece of flesh untouched.

But as hotels and spas reopen and consumers start to consider resuming travel and wellness, will even the most ardent sauna junkie be willing to sit in a steamy hammam, surrounded by naked, sweating peers? Will any fan of facials feel comfortable having her face oiled, scrubbed and massaged by an aesthetician hovering just inches away? And how will spa hotels confront real safety and sanitation concerns, as well as guest apprehension at the idea of wading into hot, foggy chambers and small treatment rooms?

Here’s a look at what to expect if you’re considering a massage or a sauna session, and some tips for discerning whether a spa is taking seriously its responsibilities to keep guests and staff members safe.

A look at new procedures

Health and wellness facilities, from day spas to hotels and resorts with pools, thermal areas, and treatment rooms, are subject to state and local regulations for hygiene and safety. Depending on the authority, guidelines for how spas operate in the coronavirus era may be mere suggestions, or they might be enforced by law. Nicola Fortunati, general manager of spas for the Italian Hospitality Collection, a group of five high-end spa resorts in Italy, says that whether by mandate or voluntarily, spa safety upon reopening is a three-pronged approach. “The pillars,” he says, “are personal hygiene and protection (for clients and staff), social distancing and cleaning of the spa environment.”

So entering a spa will definitely have a more clinical feel compared with the past, starting from the moment you book treatments. Tammy Pahel, vice president of spa and wellness operations at the Carillon Miami Wellness Resort, says minimal human contact is the objective now, no matter how antithetical that might seem to the spa concept.

At Carillon and elsewhere, resort guests book and pay for their appointments ahead of time, either online or with the hotel app. When they appear for their treatment, they’re greeted by a masked, gloved attendant who takes their temperature before taking them to a treatment room. Therapists wear masks, gloves and a disposable apron, all of which are changed after every client.

In Miami, clients are also required to wear masks per city ordinance. But Lynne McNees, president of the International Spa Association, says that regardless of state or local laws, its 4,000 member spas are 100 percent compliant with requiring clients to wear masks. The exception is during facials, when aestheticians — who work with their faces only inches away from clients’ — wear face guards over their other personal protective equipment.

And there’s no more chit-chatting with other guests before your appointment, as spas are taking steps to avoid unnecessary contact. For most, that means running at 50 percent capacity and staggering appointments to allow time for sanitizing treatment rooms between clients. At the spa at the Island House in Nassau, Bahamas, hotel general manager James Wyndham says they’ve extended spa hours to make sure guests “won’t bump into another client” while there.

The Carillon also offers totally touchless treatments. One involves lying down on warm Himalayan salt, pushing a button on the massage bed, and getting a 25-minute massage from the nape of the neck to the middle of the back. “It’s calm, soothing and antibacterial,” Pahel says.

Saunas and safety

In Europe, many large spa resorts are built over fonts of natural thermal waters that have bubbled up from beneath the Earth’s crust for millennia. But as Fortunati — whose properties all contain thermal complexes — points out, those waters are valued for their mineral content and healing properties, and they can’t be sanitized or treated with chemicals. And despite what was already a rigorous system for monitoring water safety, the coronavirus, he says, “is an enemy we don’t know or understand.”

Kurt von Storch is managing director of EuropeSpa, which develops quality and health standards for European spas. Like Fortunati, he cites a rigid set of regulations already in place before the pandemic, in part a response to persistent waves of norovirus, a contagious gastroenteritis. The organization has authorized the opening of hot, dry saunas at its member facilities — for example, Finnish saunas that are typically 160 to 210 degrees Fahrenheit, temperatures in which, “in theory,” von Storch says, “the virus cannot survive.”

But steam saunas are riskier, he explains, “because we know the virus droplets can stay in the air and on surfaces for maybe 15 minutes,” and the heat in humid saunas may not be enough to kill the coronavirus. For that reason, Fortunati’s hotels’ hot mineral pools, steam saunas and other shared areas where humid heat is used will remain closed — as will those at almost every other spa we contacted. Some facilities will book private, exclusive-use sessions, but von Storch points out that’s a costly option for guests and spas alike, since staff members have to drain whirlpools and sanitize surfaces after every use.

The alternative for those desperate for a hot, steamy sauna is to book a stay at an ultraexclusive — and ultraexpensive — spa like Sensei, the wellness resort on Lanai, the Hawaiian island owned almost entirely by Oracle founder Larry Ellison. For $600 per person, guests have two hours of exclusive access to 1,000-square-foot spa “hales,” Zen-inspired bungalows where they receive treatments, soak in Japanese-style onsen tubs, and use saunas and outdoor soaking pools. The resort opened in November 2019, abruptly closed for the pandemic and reopened July 1. It may find its hushed, holistic, way-away-from-it-all vibe more in demand than ever.

A show of (clean) hands

Would-be spa-goers might be reassured to know that even before the pandemic, the industry was one of the most rigorously controlled, by state and local regulations, associations and accrediting bodies, and by self-policing. Just one case of norovirus or foot fungus, much less the novel coronavirus, traced back to a spa could be a death knell for that facility, so spa owners have plenty of incentive to keep their places squeaky clean. The difference now is that spas are taking back-of-the-house cleaning measures to the front of the house, in what Sensei chief executive Kevin Kelly refers to as the “theater of protocol.”

“It’s really important for spas to leave a trail of bread crumbs,” he says, “and show people from the moment they book that we’re already working on their safety.” That means handwashing, spraying and wiping down of surfaces, and other measures once done out of sight are now done in plain view of guests.

“Now more than ever, hygiene practices have to be forward-facing,” agrees McNees. They’re among the markers clients should look for to ascertain whether a facility is taking safety seriously. Safety protocols should be posted online, McNees says, and spas should be set up for contactless payment. Once at the spa, you should see those protocols posted in plain sight, as well as hand sanitizer stations and an absence of clutter — like magazines, plants and decorative knickknacks. The spa should not be taking walk-ins, and everyone — including guests — should be wearing masks.

“To tell a guest ‘no’ goes against training,” McNees says, especially at high-end spa hotels. “But the industry is finding a new cadence. They want to first and foremost protect consumers — but it’s just as important to protect staff.”

“Clients are going to reenter the marketplace with pent-up desire,” Kelly says. “And they’re going to go to places that have proved they take seriously their responsibility to guests.” Fortunati agrees. “People are stressed, and they’re ready for a little pampering. But they’re apprehensive.”

Now it’s up to spas to show they can provide that same indulgent service while ensuring guests and staff feel — and are — safe and secure.

Heath is a writer in Allerona, Italy. Her website is elizabethfheath.com. Find her on Instagram: @myvillageinumbria.