Protecting Hotel Guests from Risk of Coronavirus
Every hotel brand and their extensive network of owners and operators should be aware of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) and World Health Organization (“WHO”) statements regarding the coronavirus / COVID-19. Compliance with best practices and standards for cleanliness and hygiene is essential to protect the safety of guests. Lax housekeeping and hygiene protocols can lead to guests contracting the highly infectious virus thereby risking further spread, serious illness and death.
Some hotel brands have issued public statements on heightened cleaning standards and protocols, and others have remained silent. All hotels should be following heightened mandatory protocols for disinfecting contaminated surfaces and linens. Of those brands issuing coronavirus-related statements, attention must be paid to the specific language describing the precautions taken to mitigate the risk.
Are COVID-19 Cleaning Procedures a Brand Standard?
In the hotel industry the exact verbiage of a policy or procedure is of critical importance. Based on the typical franchise or management agreement, hotel management companies must operate the hotel in compliance with brand “Standards.” While it may sound reassuring for a hotel brand to have a “program,” or a recommended Local Standard Operating Procedure, unless the housekeeping procedure is deemed to be a “Standard” it is not binding on the hotel owner-operator. Based on usual practice, Brand Standard Audits are periodically conducted to confirm compliance with brand Standards.
When the Brand Standard Audit inspection detects noncompliance with a specific Standard, the hotel operator must take prompt corrective action. But such audits only address compliance with specific brand Standards. This means that compliance with a “program” or “recommendation” is not included within the Brand Standard Audits conducted on behalf of the hotel brand. If a procedure is not mandatory, then the local owner-operator is not subject to adverse action by the hotel brand/franchisor, including but not limited to termination of the franchise or management agreement. In other contexts, experience has shown that absent binding oversight by the brand franchisor, local operators seeking to save on expenses often take a short-sighted view and ignore or fail to enforce the merely “recommended” procedure. It is further concerning that some major hotel brands, as an expense mitigation measure, are temporarily deferring certain brand standards and suspending Brand Standard Audits.
Generalized or Absent Statement
The public has the right to know where the major hotel brands stand on protecting their guests. Yet, as of March 19, 2020, a significant number of major brands have not yet posted any online statement regarding specific heightened cleaning protocols to deal with the coronavirus crisis. These brands include Choice Hotels. Others such as Hilton have posted brief highly generalized statements merely stating that guest safety remains its “highest priority.” Wyndham has issued a similar generalized statement accompanied by the reassurance that it is “currently recommending” [not mandating] that its hotels in China follow the “guidelines” established by CDC and WHO. No mention is made of recommendations for Wyndham brand hotels in the United States. Hyatt has reportedly implemented these “guidelines” for all of its properties. Although it is laudable that Marriott has issued a relatively detailed statement, its announced cleaning and hygiene protocols are described as a “program,” and it is not clear whether the enhanced protocols have been adopted as a Marriott-imposed Standard governing mandatory action.
If Open for Business, Comply with the Standard
While guest occupancy has plummeted across the hospitality industry, if a hotel remains open for business, every guest who checks into a hotel that remains open deserves protection from deadly hazards. Accordingly, it would seem to be an ill-advised expense savings measure to merely recommend heightened cleaning procedures. Moreover, Brand Standard Audits regarding room cleanliness should be escalated rather than suspended. Taking hygiene and cleanliness seriously requires that an effective, proactive cleaning program be made a binding Standard, subject to recurring, uninterrupted brand audits, and in this manner the risk to guests can be mitigated.
The attorneys at Whitney, LLP have experience representing guests in lawsuits against hotels arising from violations of standards and cleanliness. Whitney, LLP offers Legal Consultations. Contact us now at 410 583 8000 to discuss your potential case.