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Pedestrians pass Vancouver's Burrard Hotel, which lies across the street from St. Paul's Hospital. Medical staff can now use the hotel's abundant empty space for naps, showers or other comforts between shifts.

Photography by Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Usually the Burrard hotel in downtown Vancouver hosts design-focused couples looking for an independent hotel with a mid-century modern aesthetic. These days, their guests just want a place to nap.

A new partnership between Providence Health Care, the agency that manages hospital staffing for St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver and the boutique hotel means that medical staff now have access to hotel rooms for shift breaks and more.

The Burrard is located directly across the street from the hospital. It’s the first place the hospital called after businesses in the community asked how they could help, says Shaf Hussain, Providence Health Care’s vice-president of public affairs and communications. “We had an extraordinary request,” Hussain says of the ask. “We realized staff needed a place to shower and change before going home. In most cases, they just needed a couple of hours to rest, recharge and recalibrate at the end of their shifts. The Burrard helped make that work for us. And for them to take this on has been wonderful.”

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A vacant room awaits hospital staff from across the street.

The resulting “Relax Rooms” are regular hotel rooms stripped of the decorative accouterments you’re used to – decorative pillows, throws and knick knacks – to provide the basics in a well-sanitized environment.

Frontline workers who come over to the Burrard now have access to a room for some privacy to take a nap, have a shower, watch TV or chat with friends in between shifts or before they return to their homes. There is no charge to them for the multihour stay though Providence pays a small fee on their behalf.

The hotel also offers medical workers two other reduced-rate options.

Providence Healthcare or staff themselves can pay a reduced rate for overnight accommodations needed due to work demands.

In situations where staff are paying their own bills, the Burrard offers them a rate that is substantially lower than the $99 to $175 a night the property usually charges.

According to Darren Simpson, the hotel’s general manager, the decision to help wasn’t a hard one to make. “We want to be here to support the medical staff as much as we can. They’re the heroes in this and we want to be there for them,” he says.

They definitely had the room. Provincial and federal rules around physical distancing and the requirement that people stay home because of the COVID-19 pandemic have meant that there are no leisure travellers these days.

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The hotel courtyard. Other than the medical personnel, the remaining guests are mostly people with hospital appointments and their loved ones.

The hospital is seen from a hotel room. In its first week, 55 medical staff used a room. Many left thank-you notes for the remaining staff.

Occupancy rates across North America have hit record lows and the ripple effect has led in many cases to staff layoffs or hotel closures. The Burrard hasn’t escaped unscathed. Outside of the medical personnel guests, the only others at the hotel are people overnighting ahead of procedures at the hospital or waiting for loved ones who have appointments.

In fact, offering rooms to medical staff is saving jobs at the hotel. Before the outbreak, the hotel employed 25 staff and could expect 15 of them to be working on any given day (seven housekeepers, five front desk attendants and three managers). That number is now down to seven staff in total each day.

But it’s also abundantly clear that the hotel is answering a need. In its first week, 55 medical staff made use of a room at the property. Most of the guests have been nurses and several have left notes thanking staff. “You have no idea how much of a burden you have lifted off my shoulders,” reads one letter. There have also been emotional moments. One nurse was so moved by the offer that she broke into tears at the front desk as she thanked them.

For Karan Brar, a front-desk attendant and head of housekeeping, those interactions have been moving. “They’ve been with the patients all day but having a stay at the Burrard either for a couple of hours or for the whole night before they go home, it kind of relieves the pressure [they feel for] their safety and the safety for their families,” he says. “If they have time, they do like to talk and tell a little bit about the day they’ve had.”

The exchanges leave him proud of his workplace and colleagues. “It feels like we’re doing our part,” he says.

It’s also a huge responsibility. Taking care of the caregivers introduces the Burrard into a delicate health balance chain that requires a commitment to keeping the hotel virus free. It is at the centre of the partnership, Hussain says.

Idalia Torres cleans a room. Staff got extra training on how to more effectively disinfect the rooms.

Cleaning staff hose down a floor mat. Guests have fewer common areas to use: They can't sit on couches in the lobby, and they can only use the elevator one at a time.

Providence reached out to hospital cleaning staff and connected them with hotel management to ensure that proper protocols were in place, he says. In turn, Simpson brought Ecolab, a global sanitizing company, on to the property to train staff in how to effectively use their disinfectant products that kill the virus. The training has changed everything from how staff enter the room – the entire door is first disinfected – to how guests make their coffee. A check-in bag provided on arrival includes towels, coffee pods and bottled water to avoid the possibility of contamination by a previous guest.

Daily housekeeping has been cancelled and instead, after each guests departs, rooms are thoroughly cleaned. This includes having all linens and pillows removed and disinfecting any high touch points – hair dryer, taps, pumps for soap, TV remotes. (Guests can request cleaning during their stay, but are asked to leave their room while it happens to avoid any potential interaction with staff.)

The restaurant and coffee shop on site are also closed under provincial order. The common spaces where chance encounters might happen are regulated too. Lobby couches are now no-go zones. Elevators are restricted to one person at a time. And its near impossible to touch a door handle, stair railing or countertop without having a hotel staffer wiping it down behind you.

Tape on the floor enforces two-metre distancing at the front desk.

A bright red tape marks the two-metre requirement for physical distancing between guests and the front desk staff. Anything that is transferred between the guest and staff, a credit card, for example, is taken with a gloved hand, disinfected and returned. And in between guests, staff remove gloves and wash their hands. Currently, neither staff nor guests are required to wear masks. “In hospitality we always try to be welcoming.,” Brar says, “but now we have to keep our distance. I’m not sure everyone likes that, but I think everyone understands that it’s necessary at the moment.”

As pandemic numbers increase, there’s a chance that there won’t always be enough rooms at the 72-room property for everyone who needs one. Other offers to help are already pouring in from across the community and currently being fielded through the St. Paul’s Foundation, Hussain says.

Keeping everyone focused on doing what they can in unpredictable times has become a mantra at the Burrard. Simpson says he and his wife have been repeating a line they picked up watching Frozen 2 with their three daughters. “One of the characters in there says, ‘We just want to do the next right thing,’” he says. “I think that’s how we all feel right now.”

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