“Because of the Sanitary Condition”

May 4, 2021

Mexico City, Mexico

HOUSEKEEPING: Good evening.

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

HOUSEKEEPING: Yes, sir.

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

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

PATRICK SMITH: What?

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.

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 how much of it returns. 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 deeper into dystopian madness with every passing day, 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.

PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR.

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5 Responses to ““Because of the Sanitary Condition””
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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.