Starting at 10 P.M. Saturday, the Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command went from room to room at Jerusalem’s Olive Tree Hotel distributing forms allowing returnees from abroad to leave the hotel to continue their quarantine at home. The move came as a surprise as only a few hours earlier they had been told that they would only be released at midnight on Sunday.
Under the new rules, people arriving to Israel from overseas are no longer required to quarantine in a hotel for at least 10 days; from now on they will isolate at home, with the authorities relying on technology to monitor compliance and enforcement. For now, however, legislation on the use of monitoring technology has yet to be passed so quarantine is maintained on the honor system.
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Few at the Olive Tree hesitated to pack their bags and get home. “Is someone traveling to the Kfar Saba area and want to share a taxi?’ asked Ophir over the guests’ WhatsApp group. Someone else quoted Natan Sharansky, “Believe me, the drug of freedom is universally potent.”
For the hotels, the end of the quarantine program means the end of an assured, if modest, revenue stream, and the resumption of their real business of hosting tourists at a time when global travel remains depressed.
During the strictest period of quarantine measures, 12 hotels around the country had the task of hosting people quarantining or recovering from COVID-19. They included properties belonging to the Dan, Prima, Grand and other chains, which opted to remain open even if it meant hosting guests who could not leave their rooms by law.
With global tourism drying up last spring in the face of the rapid spread of COVID-19, the government’s offer was a lifesaver. In the days before the coronavirus, the Olive Tree hosted mainly Christian pilgrimage groups from the United States and Europe, but the last of the tourists checked out March 15.
For Shalom Uman, the Olive Tree’s general manager, the choice was to shut down entirely or turn the property into a coronavirus hotel under the Home Front Command’s supervision. “It was mainly a financial decision. We learned to manage efficiently enough to leave us a profit,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much we earned per room – the rate has never been publicized. But I can tell you it was a fixed daily fee and a fee per guest.”
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The Olive Tree is now going to start hosting tourists, but its traditional clientele won’t be coming back soon. “We’ll begin marketing ourselves to the Israeli public. We plan to open for Pesach in the hope there will be interest,” Uman said.
Last year, the government spent 498 million shekels ($149 million) paying for the room and board of those quarantined in hotels; in February 2021 alone the tab was 23 million shekels. The Defense Ministry said the daily rate differed from hotel to hotel, according to its rating, location and number of rooms.
According to figures obtained by the Freedom of Information Movement, the Dan Hotels chain was the biggest recipient of government money – a total of 117 million shekels through August for the three hotels it operated under the program. Next was Kinar Galilee Hotel near Tiberias, which was paid 28 million, the Hotel Yearim near Jerusalem (26 million), Ashkelon’s Harlington Hotel (22 million) and the Jerusalem Gate Hotel (20 million).
The business got going a year ago, when the Defense Ministry sought proposals from hotel chains to operate what would become known as corona hotels. Besides providing rooms, they would have to provide meals three times a day using disposable plates and cutlery, connecting doors between rooms for families, and the internet. They would be paid a monthly fee plus extra payments for the number of rooms used and a one-time disinfecting fee when it was all over.
Avi Dor, CEO of the Prima chain, also wouldn’t disclose how much the Defense Ministry paid the company for use of its Prima Park Hotel in Jerusalem.
“It was almost half the price that I charge tourists, but you have to realize that for the rooms used by the patients the staff had to do a lot less work. There weren’t services like a regular hotel; the service was very basic,” he explained. For instance, the hotels didn’t provide daily cleaning.
On the other hand, ordinary tourists leave their rooms in the morning to tour and come back in the evening, while coronavirus residents used the rooms 24 hours a day and caused more wear and tear, said Uman. Hotels now have to get rooms back into shape.
“There were times when we hosted people who treated the room well and there were times when they didn’t exactly keep them clean. Some of them took out their frustration at being quarantined on the room, dirtying and destroying carpets to the point that they can’t be cleaned,” said Uman.
He is forgiving to a degree. “It’s hard for people to sit in their rooms for 10 days, so we have additional costs and will need to go through the rooms to make repairs that will make them usable for tourists,” he said.
In the early days, managing a coronavirus hotel was more difficult. “People didn’t understand where they were staying – they thought it was just like a regular hotel and we would be providing all the same services,” said Dor.
But a lot depended on what kind of guests were staying. He said once he had large numbers of foreign workers in quarantine, who demanded nothing. “They made no demands – it was like the hotel was empty.” On the other hand, when the hotel hosted Haredim recovering from the virus, they were constantly in “red” areas forbidden to guests for minyans (prayer quorums). “By the end people more or less got it,” Dor said.
In any case, the alternative of leaving the hotel empty for months was no perfect solution either, Uman added. “Naturally, in an unoccupied building the equipment deteriorates, so we benefited from the hotel staying open for several months during the year. Systems like water, for instance, when it isn’t flowing or heating and air conditioning that isn’t operating, get damaged.”