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With most trips canceled, here’s what the travel industry is doing to help the coronavirus response


(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

It’s been almost a month since the World Health Organization declared covid-19 a global pandemic, and the travel industry has sputtered to a halt. Airlines are carrying a record low number of passengers. Hotels are nearly empty. Conferences are canceled. Cruise ships aren’t going anywhere.

Vacations, for now and for who knows how long, are on hold — which leaves a lot of typically bustling spaces with no bustle left.

“This covid-19 worldwide outbreak would qualify as kind of the ultimate demand shock in many ways,” said Nathan Line, an associate professor at Florida State University’s Dedman School of Hospitality.

But as coronavirus infections grow, many of the staples of typical travel are being repurposed for these atypical times.

Hotels offer rooms for hospital workers, quarantine patients

Last week, hotels were less than a quarter full across the country; occupancy didn’t quite reach 22 percent, according to data from travel research firm STR.

“Hotels are having to get creative, those that have stayed open, to drive any kind of demand,” Line said.

Even as hotels emptied out, Chip Rogers had a sense that those empty rooms might find another use eventually. The president and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association said the group was contacted by the Department of Health and Human Services asking to help identify properties that could be used as overflow for full hospitals or quarantine purposes.

Then, Rogers said, hotels started noticing demand from medical workers who needed a place to stay in areas where the number of coronavirus cases was high. When the association asked its member businesses if they’d be willing to use their rooms in that way, he expected a couple hundred responses.

“Lo and behold, now we’re over 15,000,” Rogers said this week. “The response has been considerable.”

Dubbed “Hospitality for Hope,” the initiative is finding properties willing to work with emergency managers, public health agencies and federal authorities. Hotel rooms could be leased either for health-care workers, people who need to quarantine, or for some type of medical care. Hotels being used as medical facilities or for quarantines would need to be used fully for those purposes.

“Our hope obviously is that it’s not needed, but if it is, we want to make sure there are enough hotels there,” Rogers said. He said some hotels are being paid their full asking rate, but the majority are leasing rooms at steep discounts.

He said there are probably hundreds of additional hotels giving away free rooms to medical workers and other first responders. In recent days, for example, Marriott and Hilton have announced free hotel stays for medical workers. The Four Seasons Hotel in Midtown Manhattan is now a free haven for staffers working in nearby hospitals.

And some cities, including New Orleans and Los Angeles, are turning to hotels to house people who would otherwise be on the street or in homeless shelters and at greater risk of catching the virus.

Rogers said there were initial concerns that hotels that participated would be negatively labeled.

“That quickly shifted and people said, ‘We have fellow Americans that are in need, and we have the perfect solution — or, we believe, the perfect solution,’” he said. “We’ve got to be part of this. We would be proud for people to know that our hotel helped out when people were in need.”

Airlines fly cargo, not passengers

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Transportation Security Administration screened fewer than 100,000 people each day, down from more than 2 million a year earlier. Carriers have slashed their schedules and sometimes fly with just one passenger.

Recently, airlines that typically carry planes full of travelers announced they would be operating flights consisting entirely of cargo, including medical supplies.

American Airlines said last month it was operating its first cargo-only flights since 1984 — round-trips between Dallas and Frankfurt — to bring goods including medical supplies, mail for the U.S. military and telecommunications equipment for people working remotely.

The flights, said fleet service clerk Ken Jarrell in a statement, “represent much needed aid for the world and hope for our team. Our team members across the airline are ready and willing to do what it takes to make sure people have the things they need during these unprecedented times.”

United said last month it had started operating a minimum of 40 cargo-only flights a week and is also offering free flights for medical workers to get to the hard-hit New York City area — an offer that would expand to more regions. Delta said it was “dispatching idled aircraft on cargo runs to destinations around the world, with thousands of pounds of supplies,” including medical items and mail.

And Southwest said last week it would offer cargo-only charter flights for the first time in its history. The airline typically carries cargo on its passenger flights.

Convention centers transform into field hospitals

The sprawling Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City is already operating as a hospital for patients with covid-19 after a rapid build-out. And many others — which would normally house professional conferences, fan conventions and trade shows — are expected to follow.

Chicago’s McCormick Place Convention Center is in the process of being turned into a 3,000-bed alternative hospital for people whose coronavirus infections do not require intensive-care treatment. Convention centers in many cities, including Boston, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Cincinnati, are at various stages of the same transformation.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said this week that the Miami Beach Convention Center will house a 450-bed medical facility that will accept coronavirus patients if hospitals fill up, according to the Miami Herald.

The San Diego Convention Center has become a temporary shelter for the city’s homeless population.

“When the time’s right, we’ll go back to hosting conventions and trade shows,” the convention center’s president and CEO, Clifford “Rip” Rippetoe, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “But we’re committed to lending our operational expertise to this urgent, large-scale effort.”

Cruise ships offer space for medical use

Last month, industry giant Carnival Corp. offered ships from several of its brands as makeshift hospitals, touting their potential to be used for patients who do not have covid-19. The company, which has battled high-profile coronavirus outbreaks on several ships, said governments and health authorities would be asked to cover “only the essential costs of the ship’s operations while in port.”

The company’s chief communications officer, Roger Frizzell, said this week that Carnival has gotten more than a dozen calls from interested parties and that conversations are ongoing.

“These include some from the U.S., as well as many other countries that are looking at our cruise ships as a possible solution to provide temporary hospitals in communities around the world,” he said in an email.

Read more:

What lockdown orders mean when it’s not your hometown

Carnival offers its cruise ships as makeshift hospitals during coronavirus outbreak

As covid-19 cases mount, flight attendants grow increasingly fearful of flying

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