What hotels need to know about updated CDC guidance

Late last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated guidance that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks or physically distance in any setting, “except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” 

Within hours of the announcement, the American Hotel & Lodging Association noted that the new guidance put the industry at a crossroads with the group’s CDC-based Safe Stay Guidelines that require face-coverings for employees and guests. On Monday, AHLA President and CEO Chip Rodgers announced that the association’s guidelines would similarly relax mask requirements for guests who are fully vaccinated. “At this time, we are not asking hotels to require proof of vaccination status, but we do ask that all guests and workers, vaccinated or not, respect and honor these revised guidelines,” Rodgers said in the statement. “Unvaccinated guests should wear face coverings at all times and practice physical distancing.” 

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Andria Ryan, co-chair of law firm Fisher Phillips' hospitality practice, sees some challenges with using the honor system to keep guests and staff safe. “It's going to be very unlikely that people will ask their guests to show proof of vaccination,” she said. “It's just not in the nature of the service industry.” Instead, she expects to see signs posted around hotels asking guests to continue following safety precautions: “We hope you will comply with the CDC guidelines and please wear masks if you’re not vaccinated.” 

Employee Concerns

While guests may work by the honor system, the AHLA determined hotel employees should continue to wear face coverings indoors and follow local business and workplace guidance. “For vaccinated employees working outside, or not in close contact with others, our guidelines will permit hotels to implement protocols easing face-covering requirements,” Rodgers said. “Of course, all hotels are required to follow state and local requirements, which may go beyond what is recommended by the CDC.” 

Related: AHLA unveils Safe Stay Guidelines

Hoteliers will have several options to take when it comes to masking employees, Ryan said: “One option is to keep your mask on, no matter what the CDC says, no matter what your state says.” In other markets, local ordinances will require employees to continue wearing masks, regardless of what the individual business wants. And in some situations, while guests will operate on an honor system, team members will have to provide a vaccination card in order to remove their masks. 

Healthcare companies have long maintained records of employee vaccinations, but the practice is rare beyond that industry, Ryan said, cautioning that if hoteliers want to keep that kind of information on file, they would need to have a system in place to keep it confidential.

At unionized properties, unions likely will expect to bargain over any changes in the mask requirements and how they will be handled, said Daniel Altchek, partner at law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr. “I could see some of the unions being concerned that their members, who they represent, may [not be] sufficiently protected—from their perspective—because there's no way of ensuring that everyone who's not wearing a mask has, in fact, been vaccinated.”

Hoteliers also will need to be aware of possible employee complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Ryan added. If employees complain to the administration, representatives can come to a property and determine if leadership is doing everything possible to keep its employees safe. “The number of complaints from employees and retaliation complaints have skyrocketed during COVID, as expected,” she said. “The federal and state safety and health agencies are pretty active in making sure your workplace is safe.” 

OSHA already has announced that fully vaccinated workers and masked workers should not be treated differently in terms of COVID protocols. CDC guidance does not override OSHA or state or local rules, Ryan noted, so while OSHA may take note of CDC guidance, its policies take precedence.      

Altchek, for his part, does not expect much conflict between the groups: “OSHA specifically announced that they signed on to the CDC directive, so I don't think we're going to see anything different at OSHA.” 

Hotel Companies Respond

Hotel companies also reacted quickly to the new guidance. In Nevada, both the Wynn Las Vegas and Encore announced that fully vaccinated guests would not need to wear a mask. “The resort trusts guests to take the appropriate precautions based on their personal vaccination status,” the company announced in a statement, noting that employees will follow a similar policy. “The company currently has a vaccination rate of 91 percent among its employees in Las Vegas and as a result, was granted permission by the Nevada Gaming Control Board to amend its occupancy and physical distancing requirements.” Earlier this month, the gaming areas at both Wynn and Encore were permitted to run at 100 percent occupancy and plexiglass dividers were removed from all table games and slot machines. 

Related: Hotels battle COVID-19 with guest mask mandates

Meanwhile, all staff at Hilton hotels will continue to wear masks when interacting with guests indoors or in public areas on property for the time being. “As guidelines begin to be relaxed around the world, our hotels will ask guests and visitors to practice social distancing and wear face coverings only where it makes sense to do so, including in indoor public areas and in jurisdictions where it remains required,” a spokesperson for the company said.

Next Steps

As vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers continue visiting hotels with and without masks, Altchek said hoteliers should keep their other safety protocols in place. “Continue with the cleaning protocols. Continue with temperature screenings,” he said. Health questionnaires also are a good way to know who was exposed to what when and who is feeling symptomatic, he said: “Don't let those lapse.” 

Ryan also recommends risk assessments for employees. “There are certain employees that are going to be in high-risk situations,” she said, noting spa workers cannot keep 6 feet apart from guests, and even front-desk agents may need to get up close and personal. In any place where unvaccinated people might be, she said, hotel team members and guests should continue wearing their masks. 

As the summer travel season progresses, Altchek said, the industry will get more data to analyze and will be better able to determine new policies. If infections increase, he cautioned, individual hotels may require guests to wear masks again. Another possibility is requiring proof of vaccination, he said. “If you're going to start having more and more people coming through the property unmasked, at least you need to ensure that they are vaccinated.”   

As vaccinations continue to roll out and the CDC further relaxes guidance, Ryan said we can soon expect to see a visual shorthand for individual vaccination status: “It's going to be pretty clear, if I'm walking around without a mask and you're wearing your mask, that I'm vaccinated and you are not.”