Welcome to Hotel Covid
A look inside New York’s hottest and most contagious deal.
By Chase Cutarelli
Over the past year, New York City hotels have been offering the bargain of a lifetime: 10 days in a mid-price downtown suite, free of charge. Limited time offer, can’t get it anywhere else, a special that ends at herd immunity! You do not want to miss the picturesque views of maskless outdoor diners, brick walls, and billboards advertising cheap wine—all with the luxury of sharing a floor with people who’ve also been exposed to a deadly and contagious disease!
Such is the reality of the New York City Health + Hospitals Hotel Program, implemented by the Test and Trace Corps in the summer of last year. It provides those who have either tested positive for Covid, or been in contact with a positive case, with a place to isolate safely, three meals a day, and mental health services, all for free. It’s a program as ingenious, obvious, and entirely necessary as it is dystopian and absurd. For those who have participated in the program, it brought us closer to the extremes of the Covid experience, leaving us to grapple with isolation, empathy, and the overall uncertainty of our present reality.
On January 22nd, my roommate summoned me for some unfortunate news: Corona was coursing through her body. Instantly, my heart sank. Our daily schedules were upended as contact tracing phone calls filled the rest of the afternoon, during which I learned about the hotel program. “Is this something you would like to participate in?” the woman on the other end asked calmly. While I knew opting in would be an absolute fuckstorm of a chore, in the end, I said yes because it felt like the right thing to do—I didn’t want my roommate to feel responsible for my getting sick after she knew she was positive. So just like that, within 48 hours of the call, I found myself being Ubered downtown to the Hilton Garden Inn at Times Square.
Although I was told over the phone that I’d be tested upon arrival, the check-in process was limited to a couple of forms, a search through my belongings, and a short elevator ride up to my 5th-floor suite. The place itself was altogether fine, free of pests and ungodly smells, although the sight of empty screw holes on the door of the room (where the bar lock had been removed) did give me a shudder. Because of the required “health checks” throughout the day, I couldn’t lock my door, and if I didn’t answer, a nurse would storm into the room to make sure I was still breathing, even at 5 a.m.
While a wave of solitude swept over me that first night, I wasn’t alone in my situation. Around the same time, two of my fellow Blue and White-ers, Zoe Metcalfe and Becky Miller, also relocated at the whim of Health + Hospitals, themselves staying at the Sheraton Tribeca.
As we chatted a couple of weeks ago to share our experiences, I realized just how unequal our living conditions turned out to be. My room included a microwave and bathtub; the others weren’t so lucky. However, the Tribeca spot provided time to breathe on the roof of the building, whereas I never once left my room for over a week. The closest I came to fresh air was the AC vent on the wall.
Despite these discrepancies, one thing we all did was fall behind in school. In a situation as stressful as being uprooted from your home to some random location in the city, priorities change. For me, at the top of the list was my mental health, which already wasn’t all that hot. Still, I felt my anxiety escalate, and self-harm became a real and constant ideation.
Much of the frustration I felt came from the choices I’d made in the weeks leading up to my roommate’s positive test result. You know, there’s this thing called Tinder that all the washed-up sons of bitches are using these days, and I just happen to be a washed-up son of a bitch. Actually, I happened to meet a really nice man around Christmas last year via the app, and began traveling to his place in Williamsburg semi-regularly beginning around the new year. We always got tested beforehand, but of course, that didn’t alleviate all risk. While I never developed symptoms or even tested positive following this whole debacle, as I sat in my Hilton suite, peering through the white curtains to watch the erratic and flashing Times Square ads glow through the falling snow, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt for not being more cautious; for not fighting my urge for intimacy just a few months longer, until I could get the vaccine; for not putting the health and safety of my friends before my lust. This might have all been my fault.
Such remorse isn’t uncommon among the hotel stayers. Metcalfe herself felt guilty that she could have infected one of her friends, when she had mild symptoms prior to her Tribeca stay. However, we all came to realize, upon discussing our regret, that such a state of mind is unproductive in any situation, but especially in one where the safety of everyone is at risk, no matter who introduces the virus into the pod. It’s important to remind ourselves that, even after a year of a pandemic, nobody’s got it all figured out. As long as we try to balance sanity with safety, and don’t point fingers, there’s not much more we should demand of ourselves.
While neither Metcalfe nor Miller stayed in Tribeca for more than a week, I remained for the full 10 days—making the most of my Covid coupon, if you will. Perhaps the idea of an authentic pandemic experience is problematic, but having gone through the hotel program, the three of us are content knowing that at least we can tell posterity that we did the Covid thing, while it was still available. Just as my grandmother chirped in my youth, “Coupons don’t last forever.” And, luckily, neither do pandemics.