By Emma Saltzberg

I tested positive for COVID-19 on November 30, 2021, just before the Omicron surge. I had just traveled home and spent time with my family, including my 90-year-old grandmother, for Thanksgiving the week prior. When I tested positive, I quickly had to figure out where to isolate. I could return home to Baltimore, MD, but traveling on public transportation was out of the question. I could stay home in my Brooklyn apartment, but I would likely expose my roommates to the virus, who I had not really seen since before the holiday. I decided that my best option was to go to one of the free COVID hotels provided by the city through NYC Health + Hospitals.

At that time, it was relatively straightforward to participate in the program, called Take Care Hotels. When I received the call from the Test & Trace Corps about my positive result, they informed me of a variety of services available, including the hotels. The city also offers resources to stay at home, like food delivery, health support, social services and a Take Care package with PPE. I opted in to a hotel and they told me that a transportation company would contact me within 24 hours; they called me five minutes later. By that evening, a free car service arrived at my door to take me to the hotel.

After the Omicron surge began, however, I know that others were not as fortunate as I was.

As the number of cases and positivity rate increased, it became harder and harder to get a spot at one of the hotels. People documented hours-long hold times to speak to a representative on the phone. 

This is an equity issue because those who can afford to pay for hotel rooms to quarantine could do so, but many New Yorkers do not have that privilege. Safe spaces to quarantine or isolate are all the more necessary for vulnerable populations, like people who are immunocompromised (or live with those who are) or who are unhoused. As one example, after erroneously being told that no hotel rooms were available to them, women with COVID staying at a city shelter documented appalling conditions there.

My experience was quite the opposite. I was driven to the LaGuardia Plaza Hotel in Queens, where I had a king-size bed, desk, TV, and mini-fridge. Meals were delivered three times a day and the wifi was fast. Nurses checked my vital signs every morning and evening.

Twice a day, at 10am and 3pm, those on my floor were allowed to go outside. We were not permitted to leave the front plaza area of the hotel (if we wanted to return), so I walked in circles in the parking lot. In addition to the free hotel stay and rides, several other perks were offered to incentivize us to stay until the end of our isolation period, including a $25 Uber Eats gift card and a new purse donated by Coach.

 The locks on the hotel room doors had been removed and the nurses would come in and wake me up to check that I was still alive each night at 1am and 5am. The food left much to be desired. I didn’t mind the restrictions given the value of the service offered. For me, going to the hotel was the right choice to protect my loved ones and give myself the most space and flexibility to move around. I am very grateful for this helpful and free service. 

Of course, running this program is labor-intensive and expensive. As of the end of 2021, 30,000 New Yorkers had used the program. A Take Care representative shared that they are experiencing staffing shortages at the hotels. I interviewed Mollie Selmanoff, LMSW, a social worker from Baltimore, Maryland who was approached by a recruiter for a temporary role helping with discharge and patient services at one of the city’s hotels. They made a very appealing offer—nearly $100,000 for four months of work—but Selmanoff ultimately chose not to take the job due to bureaucratic red tape and frustrations with getting enough information about the role. They asked her to start three days later yet did not provide clear information on required duties, supervisor, or living accommodations. 

NYC Health + Hospitals has not shared publicly how many rooms and hotels they have available, though they have shared that they are working on increasing capacity. Indeed, there is very little data available about the program. I offer several recommendations for how to expand and secure this program so it can be more available to those in need. Even as the Omicron surge has subsided, these free hotel rooms are crucially important for protecting vulnerable populations such as unhoused New Yorkers or people who are immunocompromised. The city should commit to providing this service in the interest of a more equitable and safer NYC.

I urge the city to be more transparent about the process for this crucial program. They should make data publicly available on the enrollment in and benefits of the program, which could be published in an online database. Partnerships could also be created with nonprofits such as DOROT and Meals on Wheels, which serve harder-to-reach populations. As much as possible given that it is a public program, the city should get as many New Yorkers into hotel rooms quickly. While on an average day, capacity at the hotels may be sufficient, NYC Health + Hospitals needs to implement a plan for future COVID-19 surges to avoid the lengthy backup people experienced during Omicron. Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul should publicly commit to providing adequate funding for the continuation of the hotel program. While I would hope they could ensure capacity for all who request hotel rooms, at a minimum, 50-75% of rooms could be reserved for low-income New Yorkers and those at higher risk for complications from COVID-19.

Emma B. Saltzberg is an MPA student at NYU Wagner, specializing in Public Policy Analysis. Emma aims to work in public policy on wealth inequality and racial and economic justice. She holds a BS in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology from Tulane University.