Some Anchorage hotels are transforming from tourist havens to quarantine sites

Mike Davis, a doorman, works in an empty lobby at the Hotel Captain Cook on Friday. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

At the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, demand collapsed quickly over the past month.

“One minute we have a hotel that has a lot of staff in it and restaurants that are open and the feel-good buzzing noise going on,” said Raquel Edelen, vice president of operations at the Captain Cook. “And now we’re a hotel that is quiet.”

As the coronavirus continues its unrelenting spread, halting most travel, hotels across the globe are feeling the strain. In Anchorage, it’s no different. To keep their doors open, some hotels say they’re shifting their business model — transforming from tourist havens to quarantine sites. 

“The quarantine business is sustaining us, albeit at much lower rates, but it’s a business that we think is vital to the essential services provided in the state,” said Greg Beltz, general manager at The Lakefront Anchorage hotel near the city’s major airport. 

At the Captain Cook, The Lakefront and other hotels, the global pandemic has also meant fewer guests, quiet lobbies and massive layoffs at a time when the businesses would normally be ramping up for a busy summer tourist season. 

“We’re working every day trying to figure out how we can keep another housekeeper working or keep a server working,” Edelen said. 

The Hotel Captain Cook in downtown Anchorage. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

The Captain Cook is a 546-room landmark in downtown Anchorage that also has several restaurants, bars and gyms. But those were shut down, or limited to take-out, last month as government mandates tumbled out in response to the pandemic.

“It’s a huge impact,” Edelen said. 

The hotel laid off roughly two-thirds of its staff, shrinking to under 100 employees. On a recent weekday morning, the hotel’s spacious lobby was nearly empty, the remaining employees wearing face masks.

Ryan Marcey, a front desk clerk, works in a quiet lobby at the Hotel Captain Cook on Friday. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Instead of tourists, the hotel is now mostly serving three groups: Airline crews, oil employees and Anchorage workers, including those in health care, who are choosing to distance themselves from family.

“Alaska Airlines, FedEx, ConocoPhillips, we’re grateful for them,” Edelen said. 

The hotel is housing the Conoco workers in a separate tower, she said. The governor mandated that people arriving in Alaska quarantine themselves for two weeks, and Conoco is having its out-of-state workers stay at the Captain Cook before flying to the North Slope oil fields.

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The hotel has also created a new “sanitation squad” — a team of housekeepers charged with deep cleaning the hotel, from its walls to its elevator buttons to its railings. 

“We’re cleaning all of our public bathrooms, I mean, three times an hour to make sure that people know that those things are clean constantly,” Edelen said. 

Fletcher’s, one of the restaurants at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, is closed to dine-in service but continues to offer take-out. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Similar practices are going on at hotels across the city, said Alicia Maltby, president and chief executive of the Alaska Hotel and Lodging Association. 

Housekeepers are leaving fresh sheets and towels outside of hotel rooms, instead of going inside. They’re wearing face masks and gloves. If they can, they’re waiting at least three days to clean the rooms after guests leave. Some hotels are also locking their lobby doors, so the public can’t just walk in.

“It’s a whole change in the game of how they are servicing rooms and doing checkouts and what the check-in process looks like and the security of the hotel properties,” Maltby said.

Anchorage hotels may be hovering around 30% occupancy on average, Maltby said, though she described that as a generous estimate. Meanwhile, a few hotels have decided to temporarily close, including the Westmark downtown.

“This pandemic is going to affect the industry worse than 9/11 and the 2008-2009 recession combined,” Maltby said. 

The Westmark Anchorage has closed temporarily during the coronavirus pandemic. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

State economists expect the impact to only grow as hotels don’t hire like they normally would for summer tourism.   

“There won’t be the job gains that we typically have,” said Neal Fried, an economist with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Catch up on the latest news on coronavirus in Alaska.

Last April, Anchorage hotels employed about 3,400 workers, with that number rising to nearly 4,000 by August, Fried said. The state, as of Thursday, did not yet have data on how many total hotel jobs were eliminated in recent weeks. 

Neither did Marvin Jones, the president of UNITE HERE Local 878, a union that represents Alaska hospitality workers. Over the past few weeks, Jones said, he’s received dozens of phone calls from members who were suddenly laid off as the pandemic crushed business.

“I do have a rough time sleeping at night, because I know what I’m dealing with during the day,” he said. “And my phone starts early in the morning and it continues to late at night.”

In his 30 years in the industry, Jones said, “I have not seen anything that even comes close to what we’re dealing with right now.”

A sign at The Lakefront Anchorage alerts the public that only guests and authorized personnel can enter the building. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Instead of hiring, The Lakefront Anchorage has laid off about 70% of its staff, and it’s down to around 40 employees, said Beltz, the general manager.

“We’re not seeing any tourism-related travelers, people that are sightseeing, for obvious reasons — everybody’s hunkered down,” he said.

The number of rooms filled at The Lakefront depends on who’s quarantining, he said. 

Keith Osowski wasn’t quarantining yet, but he recently stayed at The Lakefront after flying into Anchorage from South Dakota, where he goes to college. His classes were all moved online.

Osowski said he had just one night in the city before going home to Kodiak, and he didn’t want to stay at his brother’s apartment, worried he could be carrying the virus. So he went to The Lakefront, where he hardly saw anyone. 

“It was just the person sitting at the counter, and it just seemed kind of dead,” Osowski said.

The Lakefront Anchorage photographed on Wednesday. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Beltz said he’s trying to remain positive despite the quiet hotel. But he can’t help thinking about how long it will take for business to rebound. 

“The main thing that’s going through my head, you know, is what’s to come?” he said. “When are we going to see tourism have some type of bounce back?”

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.