Two figures in hazmat suits sweep through an empty suite at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman hotel, coating all surfaces in a chemical sheen.
A waiter in gloves, apron and mask wheels a tray of food noiselessly down the soft carpeted corridors of the resort’s upper floors.
At the elevator doors, a ‘sanitation butler’ wipes down surfaces and ensures a ‘touchless’ transition between floors.
On a fenced-in lawn to the rear of the hotel, a solitary guest pushes through a strenuous workout during his allotted hour of exercise.
This is life inside the resort’s isolation tower – the five-star option for returning residents who want to go through their enforced 14-day quarantine in a degree of luxury.
General manager Marc Langevin admits he was cautious, at first, about using part of the hotel for this purpose.
Delivering friendly first-class service with a smile from 6 feet away and behind a protective mask was never part of his vision for what an ultra-high-end resort should be.
“That was one of the points of resistance I had at the beginning,” he said. “I was a bit concerned that people would have the memory of The Ritz-Carlton as being a jail.”
In fact, the guests have been largely happy with the experience, with some even returning for staycations.
And Langevin believes running isolation facilities has allowed Cayman’s hotels to drill procedures that could be adapted and fine-tuned for when tourists return.
He and other hoteliers have floated the idea of ‘resort bubbles’ – a concept that would allow tourists to take ‘all inclusive’ vacations at hotels without coming into contact with the rest of the Cayman community.
Langevin said The Ritz-Carlton and others had demonstrated, through their quarantine facilities, that they could create a virtually touchless environment with minimal risk of guests transmitting COVID into the wider community.
He believes one of the early phases of tourism’s return could include arrangements for guests to vacation at the hotel without venturing beyond its perimeter.
A proposal is being worked on between hotel leaders and government officials.
Though Cayman has successfully eradicated COVID-19 within its borders, Langevin believes risks will have to be taken to prevent an economic disaster.
“We are in a beautiful situation right now [with no COVID-19], but it is not sustainable,” he said.
Some of the procedures in place for isolation could be here for the short term as the threat of COVID lingers, others are expected to stay for much longer as the legacy of the virus leads to different expectations around hygiene and cleanliness from hoteliers.
Smile with the eyes
The challenge in the current system, for a hospitality industry that prides itself on friendliness and ‘Caymankind’, is maintaining that warmth from a distance of 6 feet.
“I like to smile with my eyes,” says Charlton Sinclair, a driver with Majestic Tours, which works with The Ritz-Carlton on airport transfers for quarantining guests.
Sinclair shows us his serious face, his eyes wide open, staring impassively forward. Now he smiles and his eyes contract and light up, laughter lines rippling across the visible portion of his face.
He is the first guide in the Cayman Compass’ behind-the-scenes look at how an isolation hotel operates.
Sinclair greets us from a distance. We place our baggage on the ground between us and he collects it with a gloved hand before spraying it with disinfectant and transferring it to the trunk of his car.
Following his instructions, we step into the back seat of the vehicle. A clear plastic partition separates the driver from his passengers. The air conditioning is switched off as a precaution and a warm breeze comes through the open rear windows.
It’s a direct route to the service entrance of The Ritz-Carlton resort, where we are met by guest relations supervisor Marina Patrashkova.
The bags are sprayed down again and whisked away to be transported to the room.
Patrashkova leads us across a grassy area known in the hotel as the ‘Great Lawn’.
Check-in is handled digitally before arrival and guests have a smartphone code which will open the door to their suite. There is no need to go through the main lobby, and so we follow her through a back entrance to the wing of the resort that is reserved for isolating guests.
Like all the staff in this part of the hotel, Patrashkova deals, for the time being, exclusively with quarantiners.
There is a different level of training and safety procedures required for workers who are interacting with visitors from outside of Cayman’s COVID-free bubble.
It is also a precautionary measure for the staff in each section of the hotel not to mix with each other. That way, any outbreak would be confined to the isolation wing.
At the elevator, a ‘sanitation butler’ is on hand to summon the lift, open the doors and press the necessary buttons. The idea is that we don’t touch anything.
As a fail-safe, the surfaces are sprayed down periodically and after every use. On the upper floor, a second uniformed butler performs the same function as a security guard stands sentry.
Our interactions have all been brief, from behind masks and from several feet distance, but there is no way to eradicate human contact entirely. We have now encountered six people en route to the room.
If there were a guest that turned out to have COVID-19, it is these frontline staff who would be most at risk.
Patrashkova believes the safety measures and the elevated training of the staff keep them safe, and she had no reluctance about taking on the job.
“I would say it’s actually our mission,” she says. “We know that, right now, in this pandemic situation in the world, a lot of people actually are struggling; they’re stranded in between countries. And a lot of people would like to come back to home.”
She feels honoured, she says, to have a part to play in reuniting families.
We arrive at the room which, for the guests, is where the journey stops.
Staff don’t cross the threshold, and when the door slams shut, quarantiners are alone with their thoughts for 14 days.
Hardeep Singh, floor security manager, keeps an eye on things in the corridors to ensure no one is getting out or coming in without authorisation.
But the guests know the drill and are compliant.
“Mostly, our guests are very understanding and are inside in their room, so we are not facing that kind of challenge,” says Singh.
For an hour each day, quarantiners are escorted to the Great Lawn where they can exercise or catch some sun and get a glimpse of Cayman from behind a fence.
It’s against protocol for guests to mingle, so each room group has a different designated hour.
This also presents an opportunity for housekeeping to play its part.
The rooms are sprayed with a bacteria-killing chemical agent by cleaners in hazmat suits, wielding electrostatic spray guns.
The process resembles an anti-terror squad decontaminating a crime scene, or perhaps an outtake from ‘Ghostbusters’.
From behind the shield of a face mask, hair net and protective suit, Angela Walters reflects on how much her job has altered in the past few months.
“There are changes but we have to run with it,” she says as she adjusts a pillow with the care and precision of a forensic scientist.
“I feel 100% safe and I feel comfortable because of my protection and my sanitising.”
Pratik Vyas, director of housekeeping, believes some of the changes could be here for the longer term.
Deep cleaning, the use of technology to communicate with guests and a low-touch environment are all expected to be part of the scenery for some time, he says. In the shorter term, Vyas believes the cleaning process can be part of the blueprint for a safe reopening even as the threat of COVID-19 lingers.
Food a priority
In isolation, the guests can use WhatsApp, email or phone to communicate their needs with the staff. With little else to look forward to, food becomes of primary importance.
For Jennifer Dodd, head chef at the hotel’s Seven restaurant, which is also responsible for room service in the isolation wing, that is a little extra pressure.
“We try to make sure it is special,” she says.
It feels like being a personal chef for an entire wing of the hotel.
It’s hard work and even in the heat of the kitchen, masks are on at all times, but she and her staff feel fortunate.
“We’re lucky to have our jobs. We’re lucky to be here on the island whereas in several other places, it may be a different story,” she says.
The orders are electronically communicated to the kitchen and the trolleys of food are left for collection by in-room dining servers, like William McLaughlin, assigned exclusively to the isolation wing. The dirty dishes are returned to a separate facility to be deep cleaned.
Clad in mask, apron and gloves, McLaughlin wheels the food to the door, knocks twice and steps away.
He can’t enter the suite but he tries to maintain some level of customer service in the circumstances. It is not just drop and run.
“You don’t do much interaction but it is always good to tell the guests what is on the table,” he says. “The Ritz-Carlton has a way of doing things and you still have to maintain the standard.”
For Langevin, the concern was around maintaining those standards in the most extreme circumstances.
But he believes his staff have shown they can achieve that mission. Birthdays have been celebrated, milestones have been reached, and the needs of every guest have been catered to.
“We try to seize every moment we can to remind the customer this is Ritz-Carlton isolation, it is not just normal quality,” he says.
Maintaining the bubble
As far as possible, he believes, the hotel has created a safe bubble for isolating guests, for its staff and for the community.
There have been no positive COVID cases at the isolation wing so far. If there were, he said, it would be difficult for it to spread beyond the perimeter of the resort.
“We have protocol for that, if that should happen. We have a dedicated staff that has been through elevated training,” he said.
If a guest turns out to be positive for COVID-19, there is a register of which staff cleaned the rooms or had interactions with them, and contact tracing would begin immediately.
“It has never happened,” Langevin says. “Knock on wood, hopefully, it will never happen.”
- Video by Andrel Harris