With no bums in beds in the local hotel industry and an expected shortage of hospital beds when the Covid-19 pandemic hits South Africa with all its might, hoteliers are gearing up to assist while hoping to retain at least some jobs in the sector.
At least two private initiatives also aim to provide safe accommodation for overworked medical staff and people who need to self-isolate.
All of this at a fraction of the normal cost.
According to Lee Zama, CEO of the hospitality trade association Fedhasa, the industry is ready to make its 66 800 rooms available, provided its members can cover at least their basic cost.
Fedhasa is working closely with the Department of Health and has already facilitated the use of three hotels in Gauteng as quarantine facilities.
Zama says at this stage the department is interested in properties with at least 100 rooms. She adds that it also has specific requirements, such as separate air conditioning systems for every room.
The focus is currently on properties around Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban and the department is developing guidelines for different management aspects, including admissions and waste management.
Once a property is activated as a quarantine facility, the Department of Health completely takes over the running of it, even bringing in police to assist with security, says Zama.
On its own initiative, the Capital hotel group has managed to retain a 40% occupancy so far and is working on a blueprint it hopes will be applied by the rest of the industry.
When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the national state of disaster on March 15, occupancy levels in the group’s nine hotels, situated in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban, dropped from 80% to 10%, says Capital MD Marc Wachsberger.
The groups employs 550 people directly and supports a further 250 indirect jobs. With these people in mind Capital decided against summary closure, as most other hotels did at that stage.
It instead approached the Department of Health with an offer to accommodate travellers who arrived from other countries and had to remain isolated for 14 days.
The group introduced new protocols for cleaning and management of the properties, all aimed at protecting staff and guests against Covid-19 transmission, and the Department of Health gave the green light.
Passengers on incoming flights from China who had to self-isolate moved into the Capital properties and a sizeable number of the 800 rooms available for this service were filled.
Further interest came from health workers who preferred to stay close to work rather than go home every day and risk exposing their loved ones should they contract the virus, as well as companies wanting to isolate and protect key staff.
The appeal was safe, clean serviced spaces with good internet connection where guests could continue working, while limiting their exposure to Covid-19.
What seemed like a plan that could carry the group through the current crisis came crashing down when Ramaphosa announced the nationwide lockdown. Only essential services were allowed to carry on trading and regulations changed daily.
The group decided to go one step further and offer its facilities to guests who had tested positive for Covid-19 but were asymptomatic.
The Department of Health once again approved the plan and the group was allowed to keep its doors open.
It further entered into a partnership with Discovery.
“Discovery’s projections show that Covid-19 is going to hit very hard in May. The number of patients will overwhelm the hospitals,” says Wachsberger.
The 124-room Capital Empire Hotel in Sandton is available for guests who have tested positive for Covid-19 but don’t show any symptoms and therefore don’t belong in hospital, but cannot or prefer not to isolate themselves at home and risk spreading the virus among their loved ones.
All of this comes at a 70% discount, aimed at retaining jobs only.
Discovery developed the hospital-grade protocols for these quarantine facilities, provides nursing services on site, and covers R400 of the nightly fee for its members. Should a guest develop symptoms, they will be provided with transport to a hospital.
Wachsberger hopes the protocols developed for Capital’s properties will assist the whole industry to contribute to the management of the Covid-19 crisis in South Africa while retaining jobs in the hospitality industry.
“We are writing the recipe and hope the whole industry will follow it,” he says. “There are many risks and we are trying to show the industry that it can be done.”
Ubuntu approach from Patient No 42
Another initiative is Ubuntu Beds, driven by Kim Whitaker, owner of the Once in Cape Town and Once in Joburg hotels.
Whitaker herself contracted Covid-19. She was South Africa’s Patient No 42.
This prompted her to do a lot of research about the pandemic, and from a business contact in Italy she learnt that overworked medical staff often sleep in their cars or wherever they can find a space, because they are too tired to travel home and back after long shifts and fear spreading the disease to their loved ones.
With the help (at no cost) of other entrepreneurs, she built a platform where health workers can apply for accommodation and property owners can offer it, all on a basis of good faith. The Department of Health’s protocols will be followed with regard to cleaning and managing the properties.
It is not about the money, says Whitaker, who has since recovered from her very mild case of Covid-19. Ubuntu Beds is working on a funding model, which includes donations to cover the basic costs.
More than 80 property owners and 200 health workers have already signed up.