Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Hotels are adapting to the pandemic, some by helping the homeless

The Pineapple Inn and Housing Center is located on Richmond Road by TGI Fridays (WYDaily file)

Multiple industries have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and the local hotel business is no exception.

As hotels continue to operate at very limited capacity, many are still finding it difficult to stay above ground. In a letter from the Williamsburg Hotel and Motel Association, the organization asked Gov. Ralph Northam to consider allowing tourism businesses to re-open under certain restrictions.

That means reducing maximum occupancy in hotels, maintaining social distancing protocols and creating new sanitary practices in communal areas. 

The letter also asks for Northam to have more consistent dates in his executive orders as the dates from Executive Orders 53 and 55 have different expiration dates. Having a more consistent set of dates would help the industry prepare for reopening, according to the letter.

“We’re not putting economics before health,” said Ron Kirkland, executive director of the association. “We’re appreciative of what the governor has done, but we’re just looking for some consistency.”

In the meantime, hotels, motels and bed and breakfast businesses in the area have had approximately a third of their normal business, Kirkland said. And two dozen have temporarily closed altogether.

Kirkland said a few might stay open because they’ve borrowed money to build their structure and require someone onsite at all times.

But for those that have remained open and accepting guests, they’re changing their practices. Instead of daily maid services, some only have cleaning happen after checkout. In addition, when guests check in and out of the facility, staff are wearing personal protective equipment to keep themselves safe.

As the state prepares to re-open, Kirkland said the industry wants to know what best practices to adopt when moving forward. 

Even with the letter to Northam, Kirkland admitted there’s no real assurance that business will bounce back.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” he said. “There’s going to be a group of people still uncomfortable with traveling but there’s also the fact that people have been cooped up in their homes, so there’s a pent up demand.”

Kirkland said it will depend on when other attractions, such as Busch Gardens and Colonial Williamsburg, are able to reopen.

In the meantime, some of those locations are using the extra space to house the local homeless population.

When the pandemic first came to the area in March, Barbara Watson, assistant social services director for James City County, said the county reached out to hotels to see if they would be willing to shelter homeless individuals. The concern came after the Community Faith Mission winter shelter closed and left people without a place to go. 

However, while two hotels, Best Western Historic District and Holiday Inn Express Lightfoot, responded saying that they would be willing to house individuals, Watson said there haven’t been any who needed the resource.

“The [Community Faith Mission] shelter was only 25 people, but we didn’t know whether or not there would be people losing housing during the pandemic,” she said. “What occurred was the inability to evict people, which made a difference.”

Those in the homeless population have returned to other hotels in the area that have been providing housing services for years, such as the Pineapple Inn, Watson said. 

“We have a significant number of people in our community who make hotels their permanent residence year round, so that hasn’t changed at all,” she said. “Those people are still there.”

Watson said there hasn’t been any need to quarantine anyone in the homeless population so far, but the county is compiling a list of possible locations to do so should the need arise. 

“The county’s main purpose is to ensure that people remain housed during this time,” she said. “We don’t want anyone on the street so we are working to provide and fill in those gaps.”

Amy Lee, manager at Pineapple Inn & Housing Center, said they have implemented sanitation measures such as wearing masks, gloves and using physical, social distancing.

“We have a process,” she said. “Most of my residents are longer term, but when they check out, we do a deep clean, full sanitation of the room.”

Besides 3e Restoration, Pineapple Inn is working with localities, including James City County, New Kent County and Williamsburg, to house people who are homeless during the coronavirus.

Most of the referrals have been from James City County Social Services as well as nonprofits such as Williamsburg House of Mercy and United Way.

As of Wednesday, the hostel has 64 out of 114 rooms occupied and they are expecting more people this week.

“The first is Friday and a lot of people will get their money on Friday,” she said. “So we are expecting more people.”

Lee is not sure if the property owner has applied for FEMA funds yet.

When asked if how they were handling people who couldn’t pay rent and Northam’s executive order regarding evictions, Lee said she doesn’t anticipate they would be asking people to leave and the hostel works with people who can’t afford rent on a case-by-case basis.

Other than implementing the social distancing measures, limiting visitors and increased sanitation efforts, not a lot has changed for the hostel’s operations.

“The biggest difference for us is the outpouring from the community,” she said, adding nonprofits, church groups and restaurants are bringing hot meals to the families multiple times a week. “Tonight, we have La Tienda coming.”

Kids meals are delivered three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and night-time meals twice a week on Mondays and Fridays.

“This is all a waiting game for everybody, it’s one a day at a time,” she said. “It’s keeping people’s spirits up and reiterating why we have to follow the rules in place currently. We’re trying to make sure everyone who is here is safe.”

“Life is hard, when you’re living in a hotel, it’s really hard,” she added. “Inherently, most people are good and we have a good group here.”

Tammy Harden, executive director of 3e Restoration, a nonprofit that helps the homeless population in the area, said they have two rooms at Pineapple Inn, part of the nonprofit’s emergency homeless shelter program, Restoration Place.

Harden said they recently received a $3,600 grant from the Williamsburg Community Foundation to add two more rooms at the hostel.

“Right now, we’re taking more families with children,” she said.

Before the coronavirus, three people and one family were being housed at the inn. Now, they have added one family with another family pending, Harden said.

The COVID-19 Emergency Response Grant covers rent and additional rooms for a few months and the goal is to extend it to the end of the year, Harden said.

In the meantime, the nonprofit has partnered with home health care providers so their clients can work during the coronavirus and once the pandemic is over, they can access services like childcare assistance.

In terms of FEMA funding, Harden said she feels “it’s kind of a last ditch effort” since there are certainly requirements such as individuals being COVID-19 positive or being considered high risk.

“So everybody is just trying to navigate it and the layers of funding and how we access them,” she said. “What we are seeing is a lot of the families who have been in hotels, who have lost their jobs, are the calls we are getting right now.”

People the nonprofit can’t house are referred to the regional homeless hotline or depending on their needs, other resources like Avalon, Harden said.

“Sadly, right now a lot of the shelters are closed,” she added. “They may even have to go to Newport News or Hampton or Norfolk unfortunately.”

3e Restoration is collecting donations for their COVID-19 Recovery Sponsor A Neighbor Initiative to help people with medical health, employment work and housing related issues when the coronavirus ends. You can donate here to the fund here.

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Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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