Social distancing a distantly contrived social exercise
Social distancing a distantly contrived social exercise
11 MAY 2020 7:00 AM

Governments have hoteliers' and tourism’s best intentions at heart but attempts to get economies running again will mean the risk curve is increased. With hotel guests needing to go through numerous stages from their homes to their hotel beds, social distancing will become a nightmare both to guests’ sanity and hoteliers’ P&Ls.

As governments attempt to get economies back on track, or as close as is possible, already there are fears that such efforts will be at the detriment of health, causing a second wave of COVID-19 illnesses.

Hotels do not operate efficiently if airlines do not.

This week Irish airline Aer Lingus was criticized when a passenger sent photos to the Irish Times of his full flight from Belfast to London in which there appeared no notion of social distancing.

Aer Lingus said it would review the situation and add more flights on routes so that such situations do not occur again while the coronavirus does not have a vaccine. But of course a business person and his or her accountant might decide it is an altogether easier decision just to ground the entire fleet.

That would not help hotels, although everyone agrees that health comes first—I am pretty sure everyone agrees on that?

One of Hotel News Now’s longest-serving contributors, globe-trotting Tamara Thiessen, was in Australia when the pandemic stopped everyone going pretty much anywhere.

On 20 April, she managed to fly to her home in Paris, but she told me that there was no social distancing on her Qatar Airways flight from Sydney.

Thiessen said long-haul flights are no fun at the best of times, but she was extremely anxious at the idea of being crammed in an airplane for 22 hours with hundreds of other potentially sick passengers.

“All social-distancing rules (flew) out the window the minute we climbed on board,” she said.

Passengers do have the option to stay put of course, but there are genuine reasons for being elsewhere, and Thiessen said that Qatar’s “We will get you home” drive that has dominated the skies on many global routes over past weeks has resulted in few seats left empty.

Airports have got it right, she said, but then airplanes simply are narrower spaces.

“From strictly enforced social distancing in the almost empty airport departure hall in Sydney, I find myself shoulder to shoulder with other passengers on board. The only empty spots appeared to be in business and first class,” she said.

Thiessen said she understood airlines’ business models, particularly in these blighted times, require them to fill all seats, but concluded cramming people on planes still seems to fly in the face of the whole social-distancing policy everyone is practicing in all other walks of life.

Again, passengers had a choice.

“The airline is upfront about this,” she added. “Social distancing on board, (Qatar said) in a press release will be ensured only ‘where possible, especially on flights with lighter loads.’”

Hoteliers will have to come to difficult decisions when things come back a little to live, especially as some governments’ advice and regulations leave lots to the imagination.

In the United Kingdom, for instance, we can exercise once a day. The advice is that people should not drive for longer than they are intending to exercise for, but I am currently training for a 100-mile run, which I plan on doing in less than 24 hours. That means effectively I could be out all the time.

Every day reports surface in the U.K. of the police handing people fines for breaching the rules, such as the couple who drove 135 miles to the sea in order to smell the sea. But who is to say that need is not the difference between having a breakdown and avoiding one. While sacrifices simply must be made—and are being made—by everyone, there are a lot of gray areas in the regulations.

In Spain, hotels can reopen on 11 May, although as I write this, its Parliament is discussing extending the lockdown due to its death rate rising for at least one day, not falling.

The reopening rules are very confusing, and each hotel is different, which makes deciding how many rooms to rent while keeping social distancing very difficult. The current rules suggest hotels in Spain will be only able to open 50% of outdoor restaurant, bar and public spaces, which according to Spanish hoteliers is a disastrous outcome.

I want to go back to traveling, but I do not want to make other people sick, including myself. Hoteliers and airline chiefs do not want that either, but how to engage social distancing, health protocols and passenger safety properly across the entire customer journey in which the amount of space—from the taxi to the airport lobby to the airport lounge to the gate queue to the interior of the plane to a taxi in another country to a hotel lobby to an elevator and to a room—expands and contracts with every step is a small nightmare.

Roll on a vaccine, I guess. Or local travel.

Email Terence Baker or find him on Twitter.

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