When Mary Lankford checked into the Salish Lodge & Spa with her husband and six-month-old baby on Sept. 30, the lodge had known for a week that multiple employees had tested positive for COVID-19. But Lankford did not find out about it until a news report announced the outbreak later that evening.
Lankford and other guests who stayed at Salish Lodge between Sept. 22 (when Public Health – Seattle & King County began its investigation) and Sept. 30 (when Public Health publicly announced the outbreak) were angry that they had not been informed as soon as the cases were discovered.
Salish Lodge says it followed the guidance of the county public health office, and Public Health – Seattle & King County says it generally focuses on zeroing in on who may have been exposed and informing that targeted group.
Hotel guests say they just want to know whenever there are COVID-19 cases where they’re staying.
The Salish Lodge outbreak of 25 cases, and a recently confirmed case of six guests who tested positive for COVID-19 at the Residence Inn by Marriott Seattle Downtown/Lake Union, has raised the question of who should be notified, when, and by whom when there is a COVID-19 outbreak at a hotel. (The Residence Inn’s general manager declined to comment Wednesday, citing guest privacy concerns, but said no staff members have tested positive.)
The answer, it turns out, isn’t one size fits all. When and who to inform about a COVID-19 outbreak is a delicate balancing act that must take into account the resources of county public health and the affected business, employee and customer privacy, the potential for spreading misinformation, community well-being, maintaining customer trust and numerous epidemiological concerns.
The Salish Lodge outbreak showed that hotels are in a unique position as businesses that provide many services to a large clientele over days rather than hours, and as places that guests see as a home away from home.
As Seattleites become quarantine-weary and many Washington hotels see an uptick in local staycationers, the situation that unfolded at Salish Lodge carries lessons about the evolving relationships and responsibilities between guests, hotels and public health in the COVID-19 era.
“Safety is the new luxury”
The pandemic has taken a significant toll on the hotel and travel industries. According to Visit Seattle, hotel occupancy rates in the Seattle metro market sat at 38.5% for the week of Sept. 20 — compared to 82.4% for the same period last year.
Anthony Anton, Washington Hospitality Association (WHA) president and CEO, says hotels must invest in COVID-19 safety for guests and staff if they want to survive the pandemic.
“So much of our reputation and public trust is connected to our profitability,” said Anton. “We’re having to learn and get better and we’re really diligent about it, because if people don’t trust us, they’re not going to