Honolulu has committed $1.7 million in federal relief funding for the exclusive use of the Pearl Waikiki Hotel to quarantine people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or await confirmation of a possible exposure.

The hotel is one of nine sites participating in the program statewide. It’s a resource offered only to people who cannot safely isolate at home, but have been confirmed to have COVID-19, have come into contact with someone with COVID-19, or are awaiting diagnostic test results.

The Pearl Waikiki Hotel’s 130 rooms, which were made available in August, is the largest quarantine space rental deal since the pandemic began in Hawaii in late February.

Patient transporter Randy Puaatuua stands in full personal protective equipment outside the van he drives to transport people diagnosed with COVID-19 or those who were possibly exposed to the disease to the Pearl Waikiki Hotel. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

In total, the state has almost 300 units to offer at four hotels on Oahu and three hotels on neighbor islands. Isolation and quarantine space is also available at a city-owned building on Kaaahi Street that offers 12 units for homeless people or people with specialized medical needs, and 34 rooms at the Hawaii State Hospital for people who need additional court-ordered medical or psychiatric attention. Isolation is for people confirmed to have COVID-19, while quarantine is for those who could be infected or are awaitiing test results.

Department of Health Behavior Health Services Deputy Director Edward Mersereau during press conference on the Pearl Hotel Waikiki. September 10, 2020
Department of Health Behavior Health Services Deputy Director Edward Mersereau said the hotel deals are inspired by similar moves in California, Massachusetts, and other tourist-destination countries. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The city is leasing the hotel properties and other spaces, and the state Department of Health provides services like wellness check-ins three times a day by case managers from the state’s Behavioral Health and Homelessness Statewide Unified Response Group. Meals are offered three times a day using a “knock and drop” system at the hotel door by volunteers with the Hawaii Medical Reserve Corps. Housekeeping services are not offered.

“If we can keep some of the hotel workers working, properties going a little bit and we can utilize them as quarantine and isolation space, it’s a win-win,” said Edward Mersereau, deputy director of the state behavioral health division. “When we first started doing this, it was very difficult to get hotels to agree to do this for obvious reasons — the fear and stigma of being called a ‘COVID’ hotel.”

As of Thursday, about 66 of Pearl Waikiki Hotel’s rooms were occupied by 118 people either isolating or in quarantine for possible exposure. Forty-four other rooms were going through a deep clean — rooms are aired out for 72 hours before they are sanitized for the next guest. People generally stay about two weeks, sometimes longer, Mersereau said.

Kelly Sanders, the vice president of operations at Highgate Hotels, the management company for Pearl Hotel Waikiki, said he was able to bring 25 of his 45 employees back to work once the hotel was repurposed for this use.

Rent for the entire hotel is running about $330,000 a month through the end of the year.

“It may sound like a lot of money, but $100,000 is the monthly property tax, so we’re just barely covering utilities, property tax and other things,” Sanders said. “We spent months prior to this preparing for opening with all new personal protective equipment, chemicals and full training of our staff. Implementing those protocols is a learning process. We made sure we had practice time with our staff.”

Highgate Vice President of Operations, Kelly Sanders during press conference discussing the hotel’s role in assisting patients and the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Highgate Hotels Vice President of Operations Kelly Sanders said he was able to bring back half of the 45 Pearl Waikiki Hotel employees once it was repurposed for coronavirus quarantine and isolation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Sanders, who sits on the board of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said most hotels in Hawaii are running at 5% to 10% occupancy. Many are at the brink of closing.

“We don’t see a true recovery in demand coming back for at least two years,” he said.

Hundreds of people are calling the health department’s Cares Line every day to inquire about using the space. Approximately 300 people have stayed at a hotel quarantine room since mid-August, and 615 people have participated since April. Another 64 people have stayed at the Kaaahi Street facility to quarantine since April.

“We’re decompressing families, especially multi-generational families,” he said. “That’s one of our big focuses, especially with the Pacific Islander community — to decompress families who are squeezed into small living quarters, because the risk of infection and having it spread to entire families is really high.”

Now, the state is starting to hear from more property owners who say they’re interested in participating, Mersereau said.

“We should celebrate their choice to step up and be part of the solution,” he said.

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