In late May, I found myself having strange quarantine-fatigue stirrings. With the twitchy fingers of a slot-machine addict, I checked all the last-minute travel apps for prices at Gurney’s, in Montauk.
But, even on the ocean, was a resort without an open pool, bar, or restaurant worth $560 a night? I suppose one could argue that not being allowed to mix with other guests might be a plus in the Hamptons. But with so much of the sybaritic experience jettisoned by either C.D.C. and W.H.O. guidance or by management, why a hefty “resort fee” upcharge? For the new hand-sanitizer stations advertised on the coronavirus corner of Gurney’s Web site? Complimentary masks and wipes? Self-parking instead of valet? I found a less Instagrammable but more reasonably priced option, the Southampton Inn, basic but with lovely grounds and well situated for strolling in the village.
There was barely a car on the streets as I drove to my hotel, and not one human being on the sidewalk. When I parked at the entrance, I noticed a strange noise. It was, of all things, the ocean—just a mile away, but never previously audible from the village over the traffic.
I put on a required mask (maritime-themed) at the front door, which I opened with a sheet of paper towel. The big, bright lobby was empty except for a young desk clerk, who was also masked. A sign advised guests experiencing symptoms to please cough up that information, as it were. I immediately lunged for the hand sanitizer at the counter after taking back my credit card. The clerk followed suit.
As I turned to go up to my room, I noticed a cart piled with towels. For hospital workers only, read a sign on the cart. The 90-room facility has been open through the crisis, it turns out, for out-of-town medical staff working at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, on the other side of town. Should they have warned me about that little detail before I booked?, I wondered.
Bypassing an elevator, I walked up the stairs (taking care not to touch the banister), put my key card into the slot, and entered my room. I elbow-jabbed the light switch, having read somewhere that, along with television remote controls, they are germ collectors. The room was handsomely appointed and spacious, with pastel touches and vintage photographs of surfers and tennis players in whites holding wooden rackets—all very old Southampton.
I washed my hands in the immaculate (to the naked eye) white bathroom, and armored myself for the night ahead in a pair of pajamas and socks. Then I karate-kicked the bedspread (even more germ-laden than a remote control, experts say) and the One Kings Lane decorative pillows to the floor. To my dismay, the mini-fridge was not stocked with booze. And so, with a wad of tissue, I turned off the lights.
A sign advised guests experiencing symptoms to please cough up that information, as it were.
Welcome to the new worried order of digitized keys to open room doors, less furniture in public areas for better distancing, and electrostatic sprayers. Hilton recently announced a partnership with the Mayo Clinic and the makers of Lysol. Marriott now has a Global Cleanliness Council.
Sealing cleaned rooms as if they were motel toilets? In. Self-serve breakfast buffets and stationery sets? Out. Maintaining the lobby? Make it a floor show!
“You can’t just tell people you’re cleaning,” Jonathon Day of Purdue University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management told the Chicago Tribune about housekeeping teams conspicuously wiping down elevator buttons and other public surfaces with industrial-strength disinfectants. “You have to let them see people cleaning.”
“Hotels have always been good at communicating cleanliness,” says Sean MacPherson, whose Bowery Hotel in Manhattan, along with his other hotels, has been temporarily shuttered, and who must now rethink the old-school room keys with tassels he prefers. “I mean, if you consider who was in any hotel room just two hours before you, it’s remarkable you think of it as a pristine environment.”
Some are taking it up a level or more to instill confidence. The Avani hotel chain just announced the “AvaniSHIELD” program with its own “AvaniSHIELD Agents” on staff. The details of its program are as grim as they are reassuring, including “digital check-in” to remove the human element. Also: “Anti-viral coating that has a longer protecting period … Cu + Copper film protection, as well as a range of UVC light technology.” There are cleaning devices to sterilize key cards, and HEPA-grade air purifiers sanitize space. It all sounds about as relaxing as an overnight in the E.R. But these days, who would complain? Not me.
The next morning, the inn was alive with masked squads of house cleaners. An ultraviolet room zapper—arriving any day, I was told—would soon be positioned in vacated rooms with the door closed, then activated by a remote button, like an X-ray machine at the dentist. The machine also emits ozone to get to germs in the shadows.
“But I still think masks and staying outside are the most important thing we can do,” Dede Moan, the owner of the Southampton Inn, told me. A Brearley and Williams graduate and East End veteran who still remembers when sandals weren’t allowed on Jobs Lane, Moan was wearing an ecru Brooks Brothers Pima-cotton mask that she planned to outfit her entire staff with, because she believes the thicker fabric is more protective.
We were on a spacious lawn in Adirondack chairs. She was doing a good job of calming me down even as nearby traffic starting up for the holiday weekend (which the town later deemed “hellish” because of the crowds) was doing the opposite. The nurses in residence, she informed me, were staying in accommodations with separate entrances and were “incredibly respectful.” All the rooms at the inn have windows that open, and individual heating and cooling systems. Moan has also replaced every down comforter and pillow with down alternatives that get washed after every guest visit. Same with the dreaded bedspreads.
Moan was wearing an ecru Brooks Brothers Pima-cotton mask that she planned to outfit her entire staff with.
“It’s very expensive,” she said, “but it’s what we know we have to do to keep everyone safe.”
It was enough to make me ashamed of my next-level paranoia, especially given the stoicism of the frontline health-care workers she had in residence. But even given these assurances, I had to ask if there had been anyone in my room recently.
“No, it was over 72 hours,” she told me with something like a wink. “I checked.”
That, and the news I’d read that morning of the relative unlikelihood of picking up the virus from a surface, made me feel much better, but not as much as what happened when I picked up my breakfast picnic basket downstairs. The man in charge was a Juilliard-educated piano teacher and performer named Konstantin, who Moan knew needed work and housing to get him out of the city.
I could see his eyes light up above his mask when I asked if he’d play me something on the pristine white baby grand piano in the cabaret space at the popular Claude’s restaurant, which is, for the time being, the Great American Picnic Place, at the Southampton Inn, where he used to perform weekly shows to capacity crowds.
He sat down and played the most wrenching and delicate piece, while CNN blared on a TV behind the bar. The music sent tears down my face, which I knew I couldn’t touch, and made me think about how wonderful hotels can be with the promise of camaraderie, escape from routine, and an elevated sense of both hospitality and occasion.
Konstantin finished and his last note lingered, clearing my head with the precision of an ultraviolet room zapper. I told him his music felt very reassuring and asked what he had played.
He told me it was a piece by Richard Strauss called “Morgen”—German for “tomorrow.” “I thought it was appropriate,” he said.
Bob Morris is a writer who lives in New York