REOPENING REALITY: Coping with Quarantine
An inside look at The Spa at Sea Island’s approach to handling exposure to COVID-19 with grace.
by: Jamison Stoike

Even though your spa may follow the most stringent and extensive sanitation guidelines possible, there’s still a chance that a case of COVID-19—or a potential exposure to COVID-19—may occur in your spa and among your team. When that happens, it pays to have a plan ready to tackle the challenge.

At The Spa at Sea Island, every precaution was taken to avoid potential exposure to COVID-19 upon reopening. “We fully cleanse the room after every service,” says Ella Kent, Director of Rooms at Sea Island Resort. “We spray down the room, then wipe it down after 10 minutes. When we re-opened, we limited the amount of people in steam and sauna, and we physically distanced in the space where [guests] wait. We restricted guests from arriving earlier than 30 minutes before their treatment time.” The Spa at Sea Island enacted other protocols common across the industry, such as eliminating snacks and unbottled water, taking the temperatures of guests and employees and making masks mandatory for employees.

The spa’s amenities were closed when it first reopened on June 5, but when the hotel reopened on June 11, the spa’s steam and sauna reopened at reduced capacity. Masks were not mandatory for guests at the time, in part because mask-wearing was deeply controversial in Georgia, says Kent, but also because the spa industry had not yet fully coalesced around the efficacy of mandatory mask wearing for guests as it has now.

The spa was operating safely under the new sanitation guidelines. Then, a member of Sea Island’s hotel staff tested positive for COVID-19 around midsummer. Despite screening for temperatures and COVID-19 symptoms, ‘patient zero’ at Sea Island was asymptomatic—without a test, there was no way to know. The staff member was not in a guest-facing position, and they did not contract COVID-19 at Sea Island Resort, but rather at a restaurant or bar in the local area. Once that first person tested positive, Sea Island enacted its robust COVID-19 plan, which required the quarantining of every employee who had been in close contact with the infected individual.

That is what makes a single case of COVID-19 in a spa or hotel so challenging—despite ‘patient zero’ not being a spa employee, anyone who was in contact with them for more than 15 minutes had to be quarantined. Despite no real ‘outbreak’ of COVID-19, the spa soon found its staff decimated by a single case. “Everyone who has been in contact with that person for 15 minutes or more at a time is taken out and quarantined,” Kent says. “So if that person wasn’t careful in the lunch room or while stopping to talk, they have to be taken out of the workplace.” When one of the spa’s support staff soon tested positive, The Spa at Sea Island had to quarantine virtually all of its leadership and support staff, leaving itself with just a few unexposed employees to run the spa.

To deal with the shortage of staff, The Spa at Sea Island shortened its hours to five days a week from 10 am to 5 pm for the two-week duration of the staff’s quarantine. This allowed the spa to run with a small number of support staff working 40 hours per week. One spa co-ordinator worked from home during their quarantine window to call guests and reschedule them to fit the spa’s altered hours of operations.

Another thing to consider if your spa staff needs to work from home while quarantining: laptops. “We found we didn’t have enough laptops!” adds Kent. “We’re not willing to risk all of that data on a personal computer.” Allowing quarantined staff to work from home freed up the in-person staff to focus just on guest interaction, rather than computer work or logistics.

In the spa itself, Kent stepped back into the role of spa director while the spa’s full-time director quarantined. After screening out staff who had potentially been exposed, Kent was able to staff her spa with one front-desk worker and one back-of-house worker during the spa’s operating hours.

Since quarantining much of her staff, Kent has closed the steam room and sauna at The Spa at Sea Island. “More and more data is coming out that sug-gests COVID-19 can stay airborne. We don’t know how long it lingers,” Kent says. Closing a space like a steam room and sauna—where sanitation and social distancing are difficult—just made sense. All guests are now required to wear masks, although guest pushback continues.

When asked for her advice to fel-low spa leaders, Kent stresses that spa directors need to be as concerned with the social distancing of their employees as they are with their guests. Says Kent, “You can’t take it for granted that they’ll read a memo and comply. It’s just against our nature. No one intentionally broke the physical distancing rules.” Humans are social creatures, but that social nature can lead to a domino effect within a spa.

Spa leaders need to be prepared for this eventuality, Kent also suggests. “It’s going to happen. You need to have a frank conversation with your employees about their responsibilities when they’re not at work. Assume that everyone who works for you and everyone who walks through the door has COVID-19.” In addition to building an action plan as thorough and safe as Sea Island’s, Kent recommends that spa leaders also cross-train their team members to cover for each other in the event of absences.