Hotel Room Madness

May 4, 2021

Mexico City, Mexico

HOUSEKEEPING: Good evening.

PATRICK SMITH: Hola. Can you help me? The door to my mini-fridge is locked.


PATRICK SMITH: I need somewhere to store my leftovers. The fridge is locked.

HOUSEKEEPING: Yes, it is locked. For COVID-19.


HOUSEKEEPING: The fridge is locked. Because of COVID.

PATRICK SMITH: I don’t understand. What does COVID have to do with my mini-fridge?

HOUSEKEEPING: I am sorry sir.

PATRICK SMITH: But… what about my sandwich?

HOUSEKEEPING: The fridge must be locked. Because of the sanitary condition.

And so on.

I spend a lot of time in hotels. Witnessing the various ways they’ve responded to the ongoing pandemic has been equally amusing and frustrating. The focus on cleanliness has been relentless, spawning an arms race of extreme and often bizarre measures. Although different chains have come up with different gestures, there are certain constants: the remote-control handset encased in plastic, for example, and the ubiquitous QR placard in place of a room service menu. The Gideon’s have been scooped from the drawers; pens and notepads have disappeared.

How effective these measures might be isn’t my expertise, but suffice it to say I’m skeptical. The idea, so far as I can tell, is to reduce the number of so-called “touchpoint.” In a hotel room, of all places, this feels a bit absurd. Not to mention, health organizations say that the chances of COVID spreading via surfaces are tiny.

Usually the effect is merely comical, but occasionally it’s maddening. One night in Los Angeles I was forced to drink tap water out of my hand because the room had been stripped of cups and glasses. “Yes, we’ve removed all beverage-related items,” was the response to my complaint. There’s still a bed, and a shower, and toilet for that matter. But nothing to rinse with after brushing your teeth.

In a hotel near Kennedy Airport, “per order of the governor,” according to the sign, the 24-hour continental snack buffet — a small cabinet of pastries and fruit — is now available only from 5 a.m. until 10 a.m. Did I miss something about people contracting coronavirus through donuts? If so, from this point on you can only catch it in the morning.

Cynics will wonder how much of this, misguided as it might be, is truly in the interest of safety rather than opportunistic cost-cutting. We’ll see what returns and what doesn’t. When companies start throwing around words like “streamlining” to describe their customer experience strategies, that’s a euphemism for scaling back.

Meanwhile, I’m convinced that one of the byproducts of the pandemic has been a tenfold increase in the manufacture — and subsequent discarding — of single-use plastics. Everything now is wrapped in plastic, from hotel silverware to the food on airplanes.

Have you flown in first or business class lately? On many airlines, each course of the meal service — salad, entree, dessert — comes plated in its own little polystyrene house. Indeed, each individual roll or bread slice is wrapped in cellophane. Mind you this wrapping is done by hand, which would seem to undermine the whole endeavor, but in a world drifting ever deeper into dystopian madness, never let reason stand in the way of pointlessness and waste.

The morning after that mini-fridge episode, I was passing through the crew security checkpoint at the Mexico City airport. I was subjected to repeated pat-downs and was asked to proceed twice through the body scanner. The culprit was — wait for it now — a slip of paper in my shirt pocket. A man ordered me to stand before him with my arms outstretched. He slipped on a pair of sanitary gloves, touched me lightly on the breast pocket, then took off the gloves and threw them away. Off to the side, at the x-ray belt, my colleague was having his suitcase eviscerated by two guards who’d spotted a tiny corkscrew inside — the kind that attaches to a keychain.

Am I the only one who sees the parallels here? Am I the only one getting nervous? We are all familiar with the phrase “security theater.” Will “virus theater” be next?

Twenty years after the attacks of 9/11 and we’re still confiscating pointy objects from pilots, wasting billions of dollars and immeasurable amounts of time on security protocols that nobody can justify or explain. And it’s doubtful they will ever go away. Once such things become policy, with entire bureaucracies constructed to support them, they are often impossible to march back. The traveling public simply gets used to them.

Although the COVID crisis will not last forever, don’t be surprised if aspects of it — even, or especially, the silliest and most illogical ones — are still with us for years to come.


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26 Responses to “Hotel Room Madness”
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    Traveling through Montana last year, I stopped at a state roadside parking area that had a single-occupancy outhouse. On the door was a sign requiring the use of masks indoors.

    An outhouse that only one person can use at a time.

    Not sure who I was going to give COVID to that they were worried about.

  2. Re: scanners at the airport.
    I remain mystified how we knitters can carry on sharp knitting needles of a pretty long length – up to about 12”, yet I had a “knife” taken, which consisted of a miniature pair of scissors tucked in – about 1” in length – with which to cut my yarn. I haven’t traveled in over a year but am not looking forward to the craziness or the out of control passengers.

  3. Ian says:

    I have also been patted down in the Frankfurt airport because the security scanner can’t tell the difference between a tissue and a weapon of mass destruction. I feel so much safer knowing that.

  4. Wilson says:

    Murderous passengers on airliners including The Pilot’s. But not a word about that. Instead dithering and ranting about plastic and fridge in hotel room. yep, yep, yep.

  5. Joe Chew says:

    > The culprit was — wait for it now — a slip of paper in my shirt pocket.

    Ah, yes; I’ve been pulled aside and patted down for going through the porn-o-graph with a forgotten Kleenex in my pants pocket.

    A couple hundred thousand apiece for these machines and they can’t tell a weapon from a napkin?

  6. Gorji Reza says:

    No Captain, you have not lost your mind. Your article is spot on.

  7. Alex says:

    @CincyDave he does have a point to some degree. There’s a handful of (mostly democratic) governors who have been known to implement unnecessary and assinine rules in the name of “safety”, and cling to them longer after they’ve been proven useless.

    Cuomo, Murphy, Newsom, Whitmer, I’m looking at you.

    To be fair though, I thought Vermont’s travel ban on non-residents was equally ridiculous.

  8. Alex says:

    “In a hotel near Kennedy Airport, “per order of the governor,” according to the sign, the 24-hour continental snack buffet — a small cabinet of pastries and fruit — is now available only from 5 a.m. until 10 a.m. Did I miss something about people contracting coronavirus through donuts? If so, from this point on you can only catch it in the morning.”

    Cuomo. ‘Nuff said.

    The locking of the fridge and confiscating of cups is beyond ridiculous. I must say though I actually don’t mind the remote control encased in plastic considering it’s been shown to be the dirtiest part of a hotel room by far.

    In any case though most if not all these measures should’ve already been discontinued given that the whole “surface spread” theory was debunked in the early months of the pandemic.

  9. CincyDave says:

    @Mike Smith You’re going to blame Democrats for hotels skimping on dorm fridges and coffee cups? Yeesh. What, are you auditioning for a spot on Tucker Carlson? Pro tip: You might want to throw in a “Benghazi!” for good measure

  10. Michael says:

    @Wilson – Ice melts! So the leftover food would rather wet. And the quoted employee spoke perfectly good English, so I don’t know how you developed the delusion that they were being mocked for poor language skills.

  11. Jim says:

    Remember, bureaucracies function on punishment for failure, not reward for success. Just like airport security theater, no one wants the next bad thing, no matter how remote, to happen on their watch. We also need to recall that early on no one really knew how this virus was spread. The science at the time seemed to be focused on surfaces, so all the craziness went on. Tho I don’t recall any CDC warnings about doughnuts.

  12. UncleStu says:

    Allison said, “No one can hire employees because they’re making more on unemployment.”

    If someone is making more on unemployment than from their job, the employers are not paying enough.

    There’s no such thing as a “labor shortage”. There are industries and companies that refuse to pay people enough to work there.

    Look up Dan Price on wikipedia.

  13. UncleStu says:

    The Gideons!!!

    Now they’ve gone too far!!

  14. Michael Kennedy says:

    “Corona virus through donuts” . . . Thanks a lot. I blew coffee out my nose all over my keyboard.

  15. Dusty Scott says:

    The best one for me was our overnight in Huntsville AL. No microwave (or ice bucket, or cups, or refrigerator, or iron, or hair dryer) in the rooms because science. I was told there was a microwave in to lobby for use by guests. I went down to see a line of seven people waiting to heat their food in the same microwave…touching buttons and handles, in two cases tasting their food and licking fingers before replacing it for more heating, then heading back up to their rooms. Having literally no thoughts about the danger of COVID from surfaces or really anything else, I was not scared but wildly amused. Even the night manager agreed it was absurd. Also, the elevator buttons had a placard above them that said “Self Cleaning Buttons.” Wonder if I can get a house built out of whatever miracle polymer that is.

  16. Allison says:

    On a recent college trip to PNW, our luxury hotel stated they would only be cleaning rooms when asked due to Covid. We also noticed several eateries and shops stating they’d be closed till the summer season due to lack of staffing. No one can hire employees because they’re making more on unemployment.

  17. Mike Smith says:

    Unfortunately, you reap what you sow. Democrats are always spouting off on “believe the science” but only when it fits their narrative. The science was believed just long enough to rig the future of this country, now we are stuck paying for it. The overton window can’t be shifted back easily

  18. Glenn Baxter says:

    It’s certainly not just the travel industry.

    Every time I inquire about a late shipment, I get, “Because of COVID”. Hey, pal, you knew about COVID when you took my order and quoted delivery.

    The lines at the grocery stores are longer here in CA because certain cities have instituted $3/hr extra “combat pay” for employees. No problem, just lay off some employees until you’re down to the previous level of labor expenses.

  19. Wilson says:

    A resourceful, intelligent, experienced, honest individual would have ordered from room service an insulated bucket of ice and upon receipt would put the precious sandwich in it or dumped the ice in the bathroom sink and the precious sandwich down in there. Instead we get whiny, hackneyed, melodramatic theater and a quick dose of whine about some hotel employee whose spoken English isn’t perfect. Racist. Oh, the irony!

  20. Don Beyer says:

    Airlines, hotels, and all levels of government do all this nonsense blaming COVID. Yet, they refuse to do the one thing that will do the most to end the pandemic. Require everyone to get vaccinated.

  21. Ben says:

    Had an experience where a room at a very nice hotel in Miami would be cleaned/serviced every other day only, regardless of what we, the customer, wanted—“because of Covid”.

    I wanted to offer to pay for the room every other day only, you know, “because of Covid”.

    Definitely seems like thin cover to spend less while charging the same.

  22. Carlos says:

    Apart from the absurdity of the current overuse of plastic, don’t forget about the business lingo: do not order a glass of wine next time you go to a restaurant -order a ‘beverage-related item’ instead.

  23. Matt W says:

    Last fall I took a road trip within California (The first time in ages I didn’t fly for vacation). The only major difference I noticed regarding hotels was that they had all stopped offering their continental breakfasts, I’m pretty sure because California had banned all “buffet style” dining. The rooms themselves seemed pretty normal, apart from one budget level motel saying they weren’t providing maid service for multi-day stays due to the pandemic (although I wonder if they were really just short staffed).

    “Sanitation theater”, as I’ve heard it called elsewhere, is certainly a thing. It might have made sense in the early days of the pandemic when we didn’t know much about how the virus spread, but as I understand more recent research had shown that it doesn’t spread easily via surfaces. I mean, maybe if someone infected with COVID coughed on a hand rail, and then you touched the rail immediately after, and then picked your nose right after that you might get it, but it’s not likely through everyday touching of surfaces.

  24. Simon says:

    The whole thing about plastic and touching is ridiculous.

    I fault nobody for taking these decisions a year ago when even the experts didn’t have an exact idea how SARS-CoV-2 spreads. But in the meantime they’ve learned a lot, they’re telling us about it, and now we need to adapt our behavior accordingly. We want to focus on what is really important (indoor masking, distancing, vaccination) and not get distracted by rituals that serve no real purpose other than perhaps make some suit rich.

    The CDC has a short guide on how SARS-CoV-2 spreads and why surfaces and touching is no longer a real concern. They also talk about the real concern, close contact and respiratory droplets, and what to do about them. This recent Nature news article expands on the touching issue.

    The Atlantic also recently had an interesting piece on people with good intentions doing stupid things (Somerville btw features prominently, Patrick). When we say we want to “follow the science” we need to do that even when it tells us to change our ways or to stop doing something we used to do to send a certain “signal”. Get your shot, have faith in then Herculean effort that went into giving us such tools, and be wise. What you do is important, not how you appear.

  25. Stacey says:

    Fear has become a virtue and the best way to signal your virtue is to declare how your actions are being taken “out of an abundance of caution”. It’s going to be hard for any corporation to be the first to end or peel back the layers of theater for fear of being excoriated on social media for “not caring” about their customers.

  26. Bruce says:

    “The Gideon’s have been scooped from the drawers….”

    I mean, every cloud….


    You’re right about the absurd theatre, though. Glasses and pens taken away, but the bed left there, with all its germs lurking under the sheets. It is ridiculous.

    I’ll tell you what, though. If I ran a hotel and was able to cut costs by getting rid of glassware (and the collection and washing that goes with it), and pens, and buffets, and non-revenue refrigerators…. Well, it would mean I’d be offering a budget-hotel no-frills service while charging for the good old-fashioned all-frills service.

    Don’t get me wrong: I have sympathy for the huge hit the travel industry has taken because of the pandemic. But some of these “covid-safe” measures look more like cost-cutting with an easy built-in justification.