Coronavirus: Hotel workers describe being on COVID-19's frontline

Fighting on the frontline: As we transition into alert level 2, Newshub is talking to the essential workers who have provided vital support to Kiwis during lockdown.

New Zealand's COVID-19 lockdown had a sudden, life-changing impact on Kiwis.

The deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes the respiratory illness was spreading around Aotearoa as haunting images were broadcast to Kiwis of the fear and anguish it was creating overseas. 

To avoid catching it and to limit pressure placed on our healthcare system, a large segment of the population had to leave the streets and stay home. 

But while most New Zealanders bunkered down, others in essential services kept the wheels turning. Among them were those working in a select group of hotels which became homes for Kiwis arriving back from overseas.

Without careful management of people coming across our border, an imported case of the illness could get through, potentially cause an outbreak, and destroy any chance New Zealand had at elimination. A "water-tight" process was needed, as the Prime Minister said.

In the early days of the virus' global spread, only those returning from a handful of countries needed to self-isolate at home upon their arrival. But as the situation around the world turned grimmer every day, self-isolation for anyone crossing the border - including Kiwis - was required. Eventually, in early April, it was announced that any arrival - not just the symptomatic - was required to spend at least 14 days in a managed isolation facility, or a strict quarantine for those with symptoms. 

Although the number of people arriving back in New Zealand began to dwindle as airlines pulled out of routes, the meticulous management of these arrivals required significant effort. 

Inside the hotel

Among the first people anyone will meet when arriving at the Novotel Auckland Airport hotel - which is now being used as a managed isolation facility - are the front-of-house staff.

With guests asked to remain in their rooms for the majority of the time without direct contact with each other, Raksha Ram, the hotel's front office manager, says there have been significant changes to daily operations. 

"Most of our day is based on [managing guests'] dietary requirements, getting their food delivered in a timely manner three times a day, scheduling them for a walk…also assisting them for any personalised needs that they may have," Ram told Newshub.

"[It's quite] different from our daily operations prior to the lockdown where we used to check in about 300 people a day and check out approximately the same number and most of our guest's stay was just for a night or two.

"The biggest difference is looking after people who are staying in-house for a prolonged period of time and also the restrictions that they have because they are in a managed self-isolation."

With the longer length of stays, Ram says a human touch from the staff is especially important.

"We try and make it as homely as possible for them. We have celebrated milestones, birthdays, anniversaries. We have also celebrated Easter and Anzac Day. We are just on stand-by for anything they would need," she says.

"We try to do courtesy calls as well and try to talk to everyone every single day to ensure if they [should need anything] we are there for them."

Although Ram says guests can move around the hotel - such as on their way to a scheduled walk outside or to grab something from the lobby that they may have had delivered to the hotel - and staff do often have some limited face-to-face interactions with them, there are strict health and safety protocols. 

"We do come in contact with them and then our food and beverage team does the daily delivery of the meals as well. We just ensure it is mandatory that everyone has their masks and gloves on. They have to follow the two-metre rule distance, particularly if  we are delivering anything to their room," Ram says.

"We knock on the door, we announce we are here, we leave the food outside the door and then they open the door and pick it up.

"Anything, in relation to coming downstairs to the lobby to deal with us or pick up any of the items, our desks are situated in a manner that allows the two-metre rule very easily. So they just stand by the desk while we pass on.

While the hotel Ram works in doesn't accommodate people who have arrived in New Zealand with symptoms for the COVID-19 illness, she says staff must wear personal protective equipment. 

"We have a large stock of PPE and all the staff make sure they don their PPE for the duration of the work time."

Health and safety protocols aren't just in place for the front-of-house team, however. Nancye Pirini is the hotel's executive chef and told Newshub that the kitchens are cornered-off, no-go areas. 

"I am not having any contact with [guests] as we normally would because the kitchen has been isolated as a no-go area for anybody to come in. Just for food safety, the extra food safety protocols we have put into place," she says.

"Our kitchen and our restaurant area is cordoned-off to any public access, so only staff are allowed in those areas and that is just to ensure we are preventing cross-contamination of any sorts coming through into the kitchen, especially with us preparing food."

Pirini estimates that they are producing food for between 200 and 400 people with three meals a day as well as morning and afternoon tea.

"We normally do breakfast buffet, that's the norm for us, breakfast buffet, conferencing through lunchtime and a la carte dinner. Now it's kinda mass production and what we have called it now, instead of plating up, we are boxing up," she says.

"It has been a bit frustrating with some of our allergens and dietaries and all that. At the moment, I think we have got about 45 dietaries or allergens. That's one gluten-free, that's one dairy-free, gluten-free, peanut allergy, this one is lactose-intolerant. If you can serve 300 people, boom, just the same thing, it's easy. If you chuck in 50 people, that are having this, this and that… it's just like 'oh my gosh'."

But she says it's a challenge her team is up to, with staff trying to be creative about the ways they make meals and box them up.

"We are just trying to make the most of the situation."

Ram and Pirini
Ram and Pirini Photo credit: Supplied / Novotel.

How the team is coping as essential workers

Weeks on from the start of lockdown, and then mandatory managed isolation being introduced, the new routines, safety protocols and processes at the hotel are becoming the norm for staff. But both Pirini and Ram admit there was anxiety among the team when they learnt of the sudden changes.

"When we first went into lockdown, some staff were not too keen on coming to work and I think for maybe the first week, we had a few people drop off. But everybody, not just us here in New Zealand, but across the world, everybody was a bit scared and not used to what was going on," Pirini says.

"Once they saw everything was fine at work, we have got our own little messager, WhatsApp group that we chat in, and we were sending support to each other and telling each other what we were doing and then somebody would take a photo of what we were doing, send it the group and they would be like 'oh man, they are all having fun, everyone is laughing, smiling' and finally those ones that were off were like 'can I come back to work please?'

It was a similar experience for Ram and the front-of-house team.

"My team and I were nervous because at that point of time, it was quite sudden. The people who we are accommodating are not symptomatic and we also have nurses on-site and every day prior to starting work we go upstairs and we have a medical examination with the nurses prior to starting work. Nurses are available for the guests and for us." she says.

"The team, obviously, had concerns and that's the reason we have very strongly and very strictly implemented all the restrictions that are required in terms of making sure you have PPE on and how you are conversing when you are face-to-face with the guests as well."

Ram says the Ministry of Health had been very helpful, assisting them with any queries and putting her team "at ease". 

"[Staff] are very comfortable with dealing with guests when they come off the flight. We have a very large ballroom where we check them in. They have very isolated check-ins as well.

"After one week of coming into work and looking at the routine and the process we have laid out in checking in these people and looking after them, the in-house experience, the post-departure and departure experience, all of our staff were quite comfortable."

The number of people travelling the world has fallen dramatically.
The number of people travelling the world has fallen dramatically. Photo credit: Getty.

Ram called the experience "rewarding" and she is "proud" to be an essential worker, especially when her team receives thanks from guests.

"That is when we realised we actually did make a difference, it was worthwhile coming to work and assisting these people, so it is a very nice feeling."

Personally, Pirini told Newshub, she tried not to "overthink" the situation.

"I am thankful I have my family who were supporting me and encouraging me to come work and it made me feel good. It was a bit eerie driving to work. That same route that you normally take and nobody is on the road, and it is just like 'wow, this is a bit scary'," she says.

"Then you get to work and you see your colleagues and everyone is smiling and everyone is happy. You are like 'this is alright, something new, [let's] figure out how we are going to do all these boxes and packaging'."

"Although I was anxious about the virus, I was more excited about the unknown of what we were going to be doing and what was ahead for us and what was the challenge. I love new challenges."

Response to criticism

Since the mandatory isolation and quarantine processes were implemented, there has been social media criticism of some of the food provided to guests at some facilities.

Pirini says it is still difficult seeing colleagues from other hotels receive harsh comments. 

"We have seen some of our fellow people in the industry getting beaten up by social media and people. It's so sad. These people are also risking their lives coming to work. We are all trying our best. We have also left family at home. We have also taken that chance of coming out of our comfort zone and not being in lockdown with our families. We are out there doing it because we want to, because we are happy, it is for our community," she says.

"If we get a complaint about something, we really take it to heart. It doesn't matter if it is served on a plate or served in a box. For us, we still want it to be good quality kai that we can still be proud of. That is important to me and important to my team."

Millions have been infected.
Millions have been infected. Photo credit: Getty.

Pirini says while she doesn't have face-to-face contact with guests, she regularly speaks to them over the phone to listen to their feedback - good and bad. While some people have complained about a lack of access to some food or items - such as almond milk - she says these issues aren't necessarily the fault of the hotel's, but often disruptions in supply caused by the lockdown restrictions.

Once guests understand that and their items are eventually delivered, Pirini says the response is very positive.

With border measures likely to last for months to come, she says her team would keep doing what they have done since the first week - always trying to better themselves and what they are putting forward to guests.