Europe

4-star quarantine: At a Milan hotel, guests don’t get room keys

Filippo, 7, stayed at the Hotel Michelangelo with his mother this month after he tested positive for the coronavirus. (Alberto Bernasconi)

Those who arrive at the Hotel Michelangelo are treated like anything but normal hotel guests. They stay free of charge. Their meals are dropped off outside their door. They are given detergent and a sponge at check-in and asked to do all cleaning themselves.

They are given no room key. They are forbidden from leaving their rooms.

“An experience of loneliness,” said Fabio Bongiorno, 51, who stayed in Room 224 for 20 days and saw nobody other than nurses who came twice a day to his door.

Brown, boxy, overlooking Milan’s main train station, the Hotel Michelangelo has been repurposed as a coronavirus isolation facility. Its guests are those who are sick or recovering from the virus and worried about returning home and infecting loved ones.

The practice of housing people with the virus in dedicated quarantine facilities has proved crucial in places such as China that have dramatically cut the virus’s transmission. But the strategy has been rarely used in the West, including in Italy — making the Michelangelo less a model than an outlier, a hotel now dedicated to keeping people apart.

The city of Milan made a deal with the hotel's owner, allowing it to be used as a temporary quarantine facility.
Fabio Bongiorno, 51. (Photos by Alberto Bernasconi)
LEFT: The city of Milan made a deal with the hotel's owner, allowing it to be used as a temporary quarantine facility. RIGHT: Fabio Bongiorno, 51. (Photos by Alberto Bernasconi)

Military personnel stand at the entrance. The restaurant and conference rooms are sealed off. The elevators are marked with signs: One elevator is for those who have the virus, the other for staffers who do not. Guests, who go home after twice testing negative, wait out their quarantines in rooms with textured wallpapers, brass and wood paneling, and windows that barely nudge open.

They in turn say they are miserable, lonely and lucky.

The majority came to the Michelangelo after hospital stays. They were recovering — and hospitals wanted to free up their beds — but their bodies had not yet eradicated the virus. Bongiorno, who spent 15 days in a hospital, said the person in the bed next to his did not survive.

“Some of these people are coming out of a dark tunnel and fortunate to be alive,” said Andrea Casiraghi, whose company, Proges, helps manage the logistics at the hotel.

A few people arrived at the Michelangelo at the beginning stages of their illness, coming directly from their homes. Only in the past few weeks, Casiraghi said, have family doctors around Milan begun mentioning the Hotel Michelangelo as an option.

Italy, like the United States, has made little attempt to provide out-of-home quarantine facilities, apparently figuring the idea would be logistically difficult or appear heavy-handed in a liberal democracy. But in Italy, the virus has spread through families, even as an eight-week lockdown helped the country get better control of the virus.

A worker takes a break outside the hotel.
The rooms look out onto the streets of Milan, where coronavirus restrictions are being gradually lifted.
After checking on patients, a nurse uses the elevator reserved for people with the virus.
Sheets and towels are provided, but guests must clean their own rooms. (Photos by Alberto Bernasconi)
TOP LEFT: A worker takes a break outside the hotel. TOP RIGHT: The rooms look out onto the streets of Milan, where coronavirus restrictions are being gradually lifted. BOTTOM LEFT: After checking on patients, a nurse uses the elevator reserved for people with the virus. BOTTOM RIGHT: Sheets and towels are provided, but guests must clean their own rooms. (Photos by Alberto Bernasconi)

Though most hotels in Italy remain empty and closed — with leisure travel halted — the Hotel Michelangelo is one of the few that have been converted for quarantines. The city of Milan worked out a deal in March in which the owner, a company called Finleonardo, would hand over the property free of charge and allow it to be used for coronavirus patients before a previously planned renovation. The deal will continue through at least July, a city official said, with 196 of the 290 rooms being used.

Those who have stayed there say being in total isolation is its own kind of test. Guests say they are prohibited even from talking to people across the hallway. In interviews, they talk about reading, and watching TV, and marking the minutes with the day’s small interruptions — the nurses making the rounds, or the delivery of lunch and dinner, left in a bag at the door.

Food is delivered in a paper bag and left outside the occupied rooms.
Luciano Melegazzi, 72. (Photos by Alberto Bernasconi)
LEFT: Food is delivered in a paper bag and left outside the occupied rooms. RIGHT: Luciano Melegazzi, 72. (Photos by Alberto Bernasconi)

“Perhaps it would have been better in a prison, because then at least you would have been two or three in a cell,” said Luciano Melegazzi, 72, who described pacing the 23 feet between the doorway and the back wall, again and again, until he had covered 1.5 kilometers, or roughly a mile.

“I would put my iPhone in the pocket and count the steps that way,” he said.

Little differentiated one day from the next. On several occasions, he saw security staffers smoking outside. He saw a helicopter that would sometimes pass by over the central train station. He watched rebroadcasts of old sporting events and read Stieg Larsson books. But, as days passed, he was feeling better and better. After 17 days, he tested negative for the second time. He called his son to pick him up.

Soon he was back with his wife.

His daughter had prepared a roast and some tagliatelle. Melegazzi had a beer.

“The best thing for me,” he said, “was getting back home.”

A worker sanitizes one of the rooms. (Alberto Bernasconi)

Photo-edited by Chloe Coleman. Designed by Victoria Adams Fogg.

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