Open, somewhat reluctantly
Oceanfront Hotel co-owner and manager Ann Spamm says navigating the rules of the lockdown have been difficult for her. Sarah Wright / Review

Oceanfront Hotel co-owner and manager Ann Spamm is still allowed to operate the eight-room Miramar hotel, but business has been slow and it comes at a cost: putting herself, her staff and other guests at risk for COVID-19.

“It’s almost like you reluctantly do business,” Spamm said.

Under San Mateo County’s shelter-in-place orders, hotels are considered “residences,” meaning they’re allowed to remain open to provide basic services like rooms and food to guests. Other hotel functions, like running restaurants and hosting conferences, are prohibited, county Public Information Officer Preston Merchant said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, hotels have been a key tool for providing temporary housing to those who need it. Across the country, they have been used to house essential workers like nurses and patients recovering from COVID-19 and, through the state’s Project Roomkey, homeless people who have nowhere else to isolate.

But in the county, there are no restrictions or guidelines governing who might stay at a hotel. Nonessential travel is prohibited, but hotels here aren’t being asked to stop it.

“It's not up to the hotel to determine the intention of the guest,” Merchant said.

Spamm said the situation puts her in a tight spot. She asks each guest if they are traveling for essential reasons, but when they say they are she has no way of confirming it. She doesn’t want to pry but does advise potential guests to stay home, warning them that businesses on the Coastside are closed as they are elsewhere in the county.

“Usually I just tell people straight up, if you are looking to celebrate something, this is an extraordinary time,” Spamm said.

She said such warnings don’t stop everyone. While she hasn’t had any international guests since mid-March, Spamm said local guests, like those who just want to get away for the weekend and enjoy the fresh air, are still coming to the coast and staying at her hotel. In the process, she knows they potentially put her staff, her family and other guests at risk.

That fact leaves her conflicted. Her only alternative is closing. She said she’s considered it, but the bills won’t go away and she has yet to get any government relief. Spamm said she is also thinking about converting the hotel into long-term housing.

The pandemic has debilitated the hotel industry — from Miramar to Mumbai — and Coastside hotels are not immune. Jan Freitag, senior vice president at STR, which analyzes global hotel data, said the week of April 11 was the most damaging so far. Hotels reported an 83 percent decrease in U.S. occupancy rates compared to the same week last year.

Freitag said luxury hotels are feeling the worst of the pandemic effects. On the Coastside, the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, temporarily laid off 507 employees in March, a report from the California Employment Development Department shows.

Erica Franco, a manager at Cameron’s Inn, a Best Western hotel, said they are operating at around 20 percent capacity. A manager at the Harbor View Inn in El Granada said they’ve been operating at around 50 percent capacity.

Both managers said they are following county guidelines to close communal spaces and sanitize rooms. They said that many essential workers — like PG&E employees, police officers and nurses — have come to stay with them. But at the Harbor View Inn, weekend business is starting to pick up to around 70 percent capacity.

Craig Carroll, CEO of the Half Moon Bay Brewing Co. and the Inn at Mavericks, has a different problem to solve. The combination of canceled bookings and concerns about keeping guests and staff safe led to the decision to close the six-room facility in mid-April. A few weeks ago, they finally laid off their three staff members after keeping them on for as long as possible. But now, Carroll said, he is considering reopening and instituting a 24-hour vacancy policy between each guest in a room along with other safety precautions.

“The biggest hurdle is the unknown,” Carroll said.

Spamm said continuing to operate with just one or two of her rooms occupied isn’t sustainable, but concerns about summer travel worry her even more. She said that without the spillover business from larger hotels, her bottom line is suffering.

‘The longer this goes, who knows,” Spamm said. “We might be rearranging the Titanic.”

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