Penn Presbyterian Medical Center is visible outside the seventh-story window, a presence even when Christine Rolon, an intensive-care nurse, is done with her shifts.
The view is not one that Rolon is used to. Neither is the kitchen where she cooks or the TV that she watches CNN on each night.
Four nights a week, Rolon stays at the Homewood Suites by Hilton in University City, one of the hotels that have opened their doors to Philadelphia’s doctors and nurses afraid of bringing coronavirus home to their families. Health-care workers, who make up 10% to 20% of coronavirus cases nationally, say treating the city’s sickest COVID-19 patients is less frightening than going home afterward.
“We’re with our friends and we’re not scared of what we’re doing. We’re able to be with each other," said Rolon, 38. "We’re scared of getting our families sick.”
Rolon’s husband, a psychologist, is worried that she could infect their 2-year-old daughter. Rolon, though, is more worried about her 45-year-old husband.
“He’s in good health,” she said, “but the men in this pandemic have not been doing as well.”
David Adelman, chief executive of Homewood Suites’ parent company, Campus Apartments, began offering free rooms for front-line workers in late March. The cost is considerable, he said, about six figures each month.
“We made the decision that we didn’t want to furlough or lay off hotel workers,” Adelman said.
Hilton has since provided health-care workers free accommodations at all their hotels nationwide. In Philadelphia, health-care workers or their employers have made arrangements for stays at hotels, Airbnbs, even friends’ vacant apartments.
“The fact that they’ve done this has made it a lot easier on us,” Rolon said of the Homewood Suites.
Bon Ku, an emergency physician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, spent a night at the Homewood Suites and more recently has been spending up to four nights a week at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel on Broad Street. He works nights, and walks to Jefferson on streets vacant of all but the city’s most indigent, he said. It’s so desolate that he feels unsafe at times, but the alternative is the pervasive anxiety that if he went home he could sicken his wife, 14-year-old daughter, and 11-year-old son.
“Sometimes I just think I am the biggest risk to my kids right now,” he said. “I’m literally the most dangerous person in the country to my kids.”
Rolon, who is studying to become a nurse-practitioner, was so anxious in the early days of the pandemic that she kept on a N95 mask and protective clothes at home.
“I cannot be in full hazmat all day and then come home and do schoolwork and be in full hazmat at night,” she remembered thinking.
She had been staying at the Sheraton Philadelphia University City, where Penn Medicine booked rooms, but moved to Homewood Suites on March 30. It’s only four blocks from the hospital and the rooms have kitchens.
“I can’t keep living through this with pizza and leftovers,” she said.
Both Rolon and Ku experience emotional swings between fear of making their families sick and pain over the separation. When home, Rolon still wears an N95 mask despite the discomfort. Ku is struggling to avoid close contact with his children but suffers when he’s away.
“I hate hotels,” he said. “It’s a lonely experience being in one.”
At Homewood Suites, a third of its 136 rooms are occupied by non-health-care workers, most of them business travelers, Adelman said, so nurses and doctors take precautions to protect other guests and one another.
On a recent night, Hollie Scarboro, 28, arrived at the hotel with a fellow nurse, both still in scrubs and masks. Scarboro’s Southern drawl gave her away as a newcomer to Philadelphia. She lives in Kentucky, and was placed by an agency at Mercy Philadelphia Hospital’s critical-care unit for a month.
“It’s a pretty cute little town,” she said of Philadelphia. “I wish more things were open.”
She would shower as soon as she entered her room, she said outside the hotel. Ku changes out of scrubs at his office in the hospital, he said, and showers as soon as he gets to his room. Rolon bags her scrubs in her room before showering. She washes them herself at the hotel’s laundry facilities.
“I’m doing laundry there every day,” she said.
Operations at Homewood Suites have adapted too, said Dan Harrison, the general manager.
The restaurant and pool are closed, and there is no food service to rooms. A plexiglass barrier separates workers at the front desk from people checking in, and staff frequently sanitize such high-touch areas as elevators, the ATM, and door handles.
Guests staying fewer than five nights must do their own housekeeping. Towels, toilet paper, and other supplies are left outside rooms in plastic bags.
When a guest checks out, staff does a deep cleaning while wearing masks and gloves, Adelman said.
“There’s really no interaction between guests and service workers,” he said.
Hotel representatives declined to say how many workers have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The haven these hotels offer keeps front-line health-care workers isolated even from one another. There are no after-work drinks or socializing. The fear of infection, even though the hotel does not provide rooms to people with COVID-19 symptoms, keeps health-care workers separated when they’re away from work.
“I’m always wearing my mask as soon as I step out into the hallway,” Scarboro said.
Ku wonders how much staying in a hotel really helps. People without symptoms can spread COVID-19 for weeks, and the sense of safety the hotels offer may be more psychological than real. To protect his family, he said, he probably shouldn’t be seeing them at all, something he can’t bring himself to do.
“It doesn’t make sense, man,” he said. “Some of us, we just feel better at least being apart from them for a little bit.”