Some hotels may choose to stay closed until tourist demand rises high enough to sustain the cost of operations. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco hotels prepare to reopen Monday

Will travelers return to The City?

San Francisco hotels will be able to open for tourists as soon as Monday, Sept. 14, but it remains to be seen how quickly they will be able to return to normal operations.

Mayor London Breed made the announcement Thursday night, exciting hotel companies, which have been waiting for months for the date.

“It’s a date we’ve been waiting for, and now the question is: How soon will hotels be able to open and welcome back guests?” said Kevin Carroll, executive director of the Hotel Council.

Although hotels are able to open as early as Monday, Carroll said most won’t actually be open for business for travelers just yet.

Those that have been putting up essential workers and essential visitors will have an easier time broadening their clientele, he said, but others will likely wait until tourist demand begins to tick back up to levels high enough to sustain the cost of operations.

According to SF Travel, the average occupancy rate for San Francisco hotels in 2019 was 82.9%.

Reports show the occupancy rate dropped to below 5 percent at its lowest point during the COVID-19 shelter-in-place restrictions, when those staying in hotels were essential workers, essential visitors or individuals unable to self-quarantine in their own homes.

But travel professionals believe there’s reason to be optimistic that visitors will return to San Francisco, even as tourism levels continue to be notably down from last year.

According to Christie Hudson from Expedia.com, traveler interest in San Francisco has increased by triple-digits for stays in October and November as compared to last month.

Hudson said prospective travelers are currently looking to book only 30 days out from their departure, so hotels that offer flexibility in the form of refundable rates and free cancellation are likely to get more booking traffic.

Of course, travelers are also keen to select options that advertise enhanced cleaning measures.

The Hotel Council and other trade associations have worked closely with city officials to develop a safe reopening plan that protects employees and visitors alike, according to Carroll.

“Our hotels are prepared. They’re focused 100% on safety and cleanliness, and when people are prepared to travel, we’ll be prepared to welcome them,” he said.

Hotel workers from Unite Here Local 2, the union that represents over 14,000 hospitality employees in San Francisco and San Mateo counties, aren’t quite as confident.

“We can’t cut corners on cleaning and safety, both for the sake of hotel workers and their families as well as their communities. But also so that the industry can build back more quickly,” union spokesperson Ted Waechter said.

In July, the Board of Supervisors passed an emergency measure that mandates daily cleaning and disinfection of hotel common areas and guest rooms. The Healthy Building Ordinance represented some of the strictest hotel cleaning requirements in the country.

Groups such as the Hotel Council oppose the measure, and have filed a lawsuit to block it. They say it will raise costs, hinder industry recovery and force more layoffs or furloughs.

Already, most of the estimated 25,000 San Francisco hotel employees remain out of full-time work, and Waechter described the need among workers as “profound.”

“Many are struggling to put food on the table or are unable to make rent. It’s a real crisis,” he said.

Waechter added that as the pandemic persists, many former employees face increasing uncertainty around their health care as well. Furloughed and laid-off workers aren’t eligible for the same level of health care subsidy as they are when working, which means they could face rising out-of-pocket costs if they don’t get back on the payroll in the near future.

Recovery will be slow, Carroll said, and a combination of opening date and demand will inform how quickly hotels can rehire former employees.

Hudson speculated a shift toward travel to larger cities could occur as the holidays get closer.

“I think it really depends on how confident people are feeling about traveling, and what travel restrictions look like,” she said.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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