Around this time of year, the Lord Baltimore Hotel usually would be filled with guests: convention visitors, football fans and even ghost hunters seeking to commune with the spirits that some say haunt its corridors.
Today, the hotel’s ballroom has been converted into a COVID-19 command center. Beneath three grand chandeliers, city employees and workers from the University of Maryland Medical System take calls from coronavirus-positive residents who need a place to quarantine or health care facilities with patients, some of them homeless, who need a place to stay.
Across the globe, hotels are being used for isolating people suspected of having COVID-19. Travelers to Australia, Singapore and Taiwan head straight from the airport to inns and hotels for 14 days to prevent transmission of the virus. Sometimes, guests pay for part or all of the stay. But that’s not the case at the Lord Baltimore Hotel, which is now the city’s Triage, Respite, and Isolation Center. Since May, more than 600 people have come through its doors, and all of them have stayed for free.
The project, which is a partnership between the city and the University of Maryland Medical System, is funded through the $103 million Baltimore received from the federal government in CARES Act funding. While those dollars expire in December, city officials plan to seek additional funding from FEMA to keep it open.
“Our commitment is to be here as long as it’s needed,” said Dr. Chuck Callahan of the University of Maryland Medical Center, who splits his time between the hotel and the testing center at the convention center.
Among the hotel guests are Leon Love, a 68-year-old Baltimore resident who stayed there last month. He tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the viewing of a friend; he noticed the inability to taste while eating bean soup. Rather than risk infecting his family, whom he was living with, he checked in to the Lord Baltimore. He credits the good care he received there with helping him fully recover from the illness.
“Talk about not wanting to leave,” he said.
Early on in the pandemic, Baltimore leaders realized that people living in homeless shelters and other group settings would need a place to isolate if they tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed to the virus. A motel set aside for that purpose quickly filled up to capacity. Organizers needed someplace bigger, centrally located — and better equipped to deal with sick people. So they approached the University of Maryland Medical System for help.
Callahan, the vice president of population health at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said the medical system had approached the Lord Baltimore’s owners earlier in the pandemic to secure overflow beds should the hospital run out of room. But that ended up not happening; so it instead became a place for homeless and COVID-19-positive residents.
It’s not the first time the city has operated a quarantine facility. For centuries, Baltimore operated a quarantine hospital at Hawkins Point, now the location of its landfill. Whether facing epidemics of yellow fever, typhus or smallpox, residents were sent to the South Baltimore site to prevent infecting others. Conditions there weren’t always optimal. In 1899, according to The Baltimore Sun archives, an officer there complained that the infirm were kept in the same place as people who were only possibly sick, allowing disease to spread.
120 years later, officials carefully configured the Lord Baltimore site to isolate sick people, who stay in individual rooms. The University of Maryland infection prevention team designated a “hot zone” and “cold zone” system within the hotel floors. Hot zones, where people who are isolating stay, are sealed off from elevators with two layers of plastic. The elevator bank is now a station where staff put on and remove protective gowns and masks.
Guests don’t enter through the grand lobby; for safety reasons, they come in by the loading dock. The center also sends special cars out to pick people up from the community so they don’t need to worry about possibly infecting an Uber or cab driver.
Staff call residents “guests,” not “patients,” in part to emphasize the fact that they don’t provide full medical care at the hotel. Should anyone take a turn for the worse, they’d be transported to a nearby hospital. Since May, there have been no deaths at the site from COVID, though one resident died from non-COVID-related causes. Staff said they could not disclose information about the cause of death.
Referrals come from hospitals as well as homeless shelters and recovery houses — any place where people with COVID-19 might have difficulty isolating from others.
“Anyone is welcome here,” said Molly Rice, a University of Maryland nurse practitioner who is medical director of the project.
Guests don’t need to have insurance, or even an ID card or paperwork proving their citizenship. Staff work hard to accommodate Spanish speakers, who often live with multiple generations under one roof, a higher risk for transmission. Site director Robert “Bobby” Harris, a city employee, said he consulted with local restaurant Cocina Luchadoras to work on soups and other dishes that might be tastier for them. Nurses have helped families get set up for virtual learning once school started.
In addition to helping residents self-isolate during the pandemic, projects like the Lord Baltimore are providing a much-needed revenue boost for hotel owners as well as jobs for their staff. The American Hotel & Lodging Association estimates that nearly 60,000 hotels across the country will close due to the drop in demand during the pandemic, including more than 700 in Maryland. That could result in almost 50,000 lost jobs statewide.
At the Lord Baltimore, the new business from the city allowed general manager Onahlea Shimunek to hire back 20 of the 60 employees she laid off earlier in the pandemic, when vacancies skyrocketed.
Rehired staff include executive chef Beth Dinice, who’s grateful to be back to work; she had only just moved to Baltimore when the pandemic struck.
Since May, she and other members of the hotel staff have been busy preparing three meals a day for the guests residing upstairs. It’s not their usual fancy fare: amuse-bouches and cakes for weddings and other events, but comfort food like fried blue catfish, meatloaf and waffles. The meals are delivered in brown bags with the room numbers written on them, similar to room service. Dinice said she knows she’s done well when someone calls down to ask for seconds.
Staff say they treat all the guests as they would anyone else who came to the hotel. When a family with small children requested ice cream for breakfast, they delivered.
“If anybody wants ice cream, by goodness, we’re going to give it to them," Shimunek said.
The goal, they say, is to create as safe and comfortable environment for those staying there, who they call “heroes.”
“I view it is just a really important thing that these individuals are doing for the community, because the purpose of isolation is to protect the community,” said Amanda Rosecrans, a Baltimore City health department employee who is the project’s clinical director.
Though she’s “brimming over with pride” at what her staff have been able to accomplish in the past few months, Shimunek does worry about how the hotel’s stint as a quarantine center will impact its image moving forward. She wonders: “What are people going to think when they think Lord Baltimore? Hopefully people are going to think we did a cool thing for the city of Baltimore in a really tough time.”
Checking into his 15th floor room last month with a view of the city made Leon Love feel like a world traveler who’d just arrived in Baltimore from the airport.
For 14 days he rested on the high thread count sheets and binge-watched TV. Mealtimes — at 7 a.m., noon, and 5 p.m. — were the highlight of his days, especially once his sense of taste returned.
“The food was bar none," he said.
At one point, in the midst of a bout of COVID-brain freeze, Love called the front desk to request a 5 a.m. wake up call. (They told him to rest instead). And, as he began to feel better, city employees at the site have even helped him look for his own place, so he wouldn’t have to live with family members any more.
He doesn’t think he could afford to stay at the Lord Baltimore normally, but he’d love to go back eventually, out of sheer gratitude.