A growing number of hotels across Canada are converting into special COVID-19 crisis sites, as low occupancy rates have prompted dozens of properties to suspend normal operations, putting tens of thousands of Canadians out of work.
The Quality Suites hotel in Laval, Que., is housing up to 130 mental health and palliative care patients. They came from the nearby Hôpital de la Cité-de-la-Santé, which brought in its own staff and is now essentially leasing out the property, explained Brian Leon, president of Choice Hotels Canada.
Patients from a different hospital, in Northern Ontario, are staying at another hotel in the franchise. And two affiliated properties in the Montreal area have government contracts to house isolating international travellers.
West of Toronto, an additional two hotels are housing shelter clients to aid with social distancing.
And such collaborations could become more widespread as Canada’s health-care facilities face the added strain of the COVID-19 pandemic while beds in hotel rooms across the country sit empty.
So far, more than 12,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Canada, and 177 have succumbed to the viral respiratory illness.
Global News reached out to nearly three dozen hotels, hotel chains and industry associations to find out how the pandemic had affected them and nearly all that provided a response confirmed a drastic and unprecedented drop in revenues. Some expressed an interest in working with government in some capacity to meet future needs.
“The hotel industry in every community in Canada is answering the call of public health to support this pandemic, whether that’s providing overflow capacity for hospitals, or offering people a facility to self-isolate and protect their families,” said Elizabeth Smith, a spokesperson for the Hotel Association of Canada.
Across the country, there have been 4,100 hotel closures and over 250,000 layoffs as of April 2, the group said.
Canada’s Quarantine Act gives the federal government authority to designate “any place in Canada” as a quarantine facility, and Theresa Tam, the federal chief public health officer, said that hotels could be among the sites that wind up getting used.
In Alberta, which is under a state of emergency, the chief medical officer of health recently explained that taking over private facilities to meet health care needs would be a last resort.
“I want to emphasize that doesn’t mean that it will happen, but it is a possibility that’s laid out in terms of the powers that are given to government in an emergent situation such as this,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw told reporters late last month.
In recent months, at least two other properties — Canadian Forces Base Trenton and the NAV Centre hotel in Cornwall, Ont. — have been used to quarantine Canadians who were brought home on repatriation flights from international destinations.
Dave Kaiser, president and CEO of the Alberta Hotel & Hotel Lodging Association, said he knows the hotel industry will step up.
Some hotels in Calgary are already providing accommodations to health-care workers and recent travellers to stay so they can remain isolated from their families, he said. In some cases, he explained that hotels were offering spots to health-care workers on a complimentary basis.
The industry is also in contact with government, which has sought information on hotel resources just in case the space needs to be rented as part of the pandemic response.
In Manitoba as well, the government has put out a formal call for hotels and other hospitality businesses that can offer up accommodations for people and patients affected by COVID-19.
A hotel association spokesman in that province said that some Manitoba hotels were interested in answering the government’s call, but wanted to ensure they have necessary guidance from the government to ensure the safety of guests and employees.
COVID-19 has brought travel and tourism to a standstill, as events ranging from concerts to conferences have been cancelled in compliance with national, provincial and municipal rules around social distancing.
As a result, hotel occupancy rates have reached “shocking lows” — a national average of less than 10 per cent, according to the Hotel Association of Canada.
Many hotels are small- and medium-sized businesses who are franchisees for major brands, Kaiser explained. With Alberta’s tough economic situation, some were struggling before the pandemic hit.
At Isabella Hotel, a 39-room historic property near downtown Toronto’s LGBTQ2 village, bookings are down 95 per cent over this time last year.
“Not only is April a decline, but we’re actually now starting to see numbers for May, June, July and August start to dwindle because of the fact that some very large events, especially Pride, have now been cancelled,” said operations manager Trisha Kalia.
The hotel has been offering heavily discounted rooms to support health-care providers. At the time she spoke with Global News, eight rooms were booked — four to nurses working nearby.
But the business will likely have to close its doors soon, Kalia said.
“We’ve already been operating in a deficit, but by the time we hit next week, the deficit will be so drastic that it just won’t be feasible to stay open for another week after that,” she said.
— With files from Mike De Souza and Crystal Oag, Global News