American Hotel and Lodging Association proposes turning more than 50,000 U.S. hotels into vaccination sites

click to enlarge Bay Lake Tower at Disney's Contemporary Resort - Photo courtesy Disney Vacation Club
Photo courtesy Disney Vacation Club
Bay Lake Tower at Disney's Contemporary Resort
As the greatest vaccination effort in generations begins in earnest, corporations, reliant on a quick recovery, are stepping up to help health officials speed up the rollout. In the U.S., which leads the world in overall cases and deaths, more companies are joining in the effort. In recent weeks Starbucks, Publix, Microsoft and dozens more companies have offered various tools that may help to speed up the vaccine rollout.

Few industries have been hit harder by the pandemic than hospitality. While that has meant months of empty hotels, the slowdown could now become a benefit. Since mid-January, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) has been advocating the Biden-Harris administration to enlist the more than 50,000 hotels of the AHLA as vaccination sites.

The organization has enlisted the help of the former command surgeon for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Rear Adm. Louis Tripoli. In documents on the AHLA website, Tripoli is quoted sharing why he believes hotels are important to the national vaccine rollout.

“Administering the vaccine on a national scale and of this magnitude is a significant undertaking, and hotels bring a unique set of infrastructural and operational capabilities to serve as vaccine administration sites that public health agencies should seriously consider utilizing. With a substantial network of properties across the country with excess capacity right now due to the drop in travel demand, hotels could be a major asset in helping administer the vaccine safely and more conveniently to the American public.”

Hotels are unique in what they can bring to the vaccination rollout. Companies like Microsoft have offered to donate their currently unused offices as vaccine administration sites. In Orange County, the convention center’s massive parking lot has served as a testing center and now a vaccine location. But hotels offer both large parking lots and the potential for indoor spaces.

According to the AHLA, “the majority of hotels have refrigeration capabilities to store vaccines until medical personnel are ready for administration.” Hotels are also typically located near major transportation networks, allowing for easy access. Brightly lit parking lots and a business model already designed for around-the-clock staffing means hotels can more easily host 24/7 vaccine centers.

So far in Florida, the vaccine ramp-up has proven difficult, with long lines, confusing websites and overwhelmed health departments. Gov. Ron DeSantis has brought in Publix to help with the vaccine distribution. Still, the trial has been mostly limited to stores in counties with high numbers of seniors (one of the only groups currently provided access to vaccines under Florida’s strict guidelines) and areas with strained hospital resources.

The state’s hospitality industry, which is extremely reliant on international and business tourism, has not been recruited. This may be due to the limited supplies the state has so far received. Disney World is currently being considered as a vaccination site, however.

According to tourism industry analyst Len Testa, Disney is looking to use the ESPN Wide World of Sports parking lots as a drive-through vaccination site. The sports complex sits on the southeast edge of Disney’s property, meaning the increased traffic wouldn’t affect most areas of the resort while allowing for easy vehicular access. In California, a Disneyland parking lot has become a super vaccination site. Southern California’s Six Flags Magic Mountain is also a vaccine supersite. Chicago’s Six Flags Great America may soon become a vaccine site.

While office buildings, theme parks and sports stadiums are ideal vaccine sites for urban areas, hotels can provide more uniform access, including harder-to-reach rural areas.

Hundreds of hotel rooms across Florida are already being used as quarantine and isolation sites, but that hasn't caused any noticeable improvement in occupation rates.

In their annual State of the Hotel Industry report, the AHLA said it expects occupancy rates to hover around 52.4% this year, with 2019 levels not returning until mid-decade. The impact of the pandemic has so far been nine times more severe than that of 9/11.

The travel association is leaning heavily on the idea of vaccine rollout as needed tool to kickstart the industry. In research commissioned by the association, 52 percent of frequent business travelers said the vaccination is essential for them feeling comfortable returning to hotels. Vaccine distribution is also vital for group and international travel. Studies show Americans are eager to travel once they feel safe to do. But nearly half of all Americans say the vaccine is linked to them feeling comfortable staying in a hotel. Right now, just over one in three Americans report being comfortable staying in a hotel.

For hoteliers, the challengers in turning their sites into vaccine centers pale in comparison to the benefits of a quick economic recovery. The offer by the AHLA has so far gone unanswered, but that may change as health officials across the nation look to increase the number of vaccine sites. The Biden-Harris Administration remains focused on their goal of 100 million vaccinations by the end of April.

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