Coronavirus Prompts Hotel Industry to Review Risk Management of Infectious Diseases

The Wuhan coronavirus has caused 170 deaths in China with the number of confirmed cases there at nearly 8,000, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This number now exceeds the tally of 5,327 infected with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed about 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.

Other cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Philippines, France, Germany, and Canada. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports five known cases of the coronavirus – all of whom have visited the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak. The CDC is also investigating another 110 people in 26 states.

While the CDC maintains that the risk for the virus to Americans is low, it has advised travelers to “avoid nonessential travel” to China. Airports in several major cities in the U.S. and elsewhere have begun entry screening of travelers from Wuhan. Additionally, more than 200 Americans, including diplomats and businesspeople, were recently evacuated from Wuhan, and are undergoing multiple medical screenings.

From an economic point of view, companies are set to face billions of dollars in losses linked to events, travel cancellations and closure of businesses.

In the meantime, scientists are working quickly to develop a vaccine capable of stopping the new virus.

What Is the Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, according to the CDC, some causing illness in people and others that circulate among animals, including camels, cats and bats. Current symptoms reported for human patients have included mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. The virus is spread by droplets from coughs and sneezes, with an incubation time between one and 14 days. There are signs the virus may spread before symptoms show.

Precautions & Measures for Hotels

The coronavirus— just as the Zika virus, Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), SARS, and other infectious diseases— is a wake-up call for hotels and resorts to check their policies and procedures to ensure they meet their common law duty to exert a high level of care for their employees and visitors to their facilities. While hotels cannot completely control the introduction of communicable diseases into their environment, they should take all available common-sense precautions, such as:

  • Carefully monitoring the virus outbreak. Assign management personnel to track the latest developments in the fight to control the spread of a virus.
  • Following the recommendations of federal, state, and local health organizations as they relate to control or mitigation of the pandemic.
  • Having a coordination mechanism in place for impending epidemics on the use of screening, immediate reporting and isolation of infected persons to mitigate the impact of future events. Have a plan for dealing with sick guests. Pre-determine what role should be assumed in reporting to the family of an infected guest who is unable to communicate.
  • Keeping employees informed of an outbreak, as the situation is fluid. Connect them with appropriate government agencies, health organizations, and other resources to learn more about the coronavirus. The CDC’s website, for example, often includes up-to-date information regarding the spread of a disease, risk assessment and guidance for travelers. 
  • Training and educating employees to recognize symptoms and provide definitive procedures for reporting suspected illness.
  • Developing a method to determine when to send employees home, as well as procedures for handling the tasks normally done by workers who have become ill.
  • Reaffirming the hotel’s established standards for hygiene measures and providing refresher training to staff regarding sanitation, hygiene and food safety. For example:
    • Perform hand hygiene frequently with soap and water, or a 70% alcohol-based hand rub.
    • Cover nose and mouth with tissue paper when sneezing or coughing and have the tissue paper discarded into lidded garbage bins afterwards.
    • Dispose of rubbish frequently and properly.
    • Wear clean, washable aprons and caps during food preparation. Clean and wash food thoroughly.
  • Implementing additional procedures to sanitize guest room telephones, keyboards, remote controls, appliance handles, doorknobs, light switches and other surfaces frequently handled.
  • Alerting guests to take certain simple precautions that can limit their risk.

Information on the coronavirus outbreak is being updated daily. It’s important for the hospitality industry to continue to keep abreast of how the outbreak could potentially impact its operation, particularly for organizations with a global reach and an international clientele.

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Sources: Reuters, New York Times, National Law Review