In an industry as severely impacted by the global health crisis as any, hoteliers have had to drastically readjust their normal operations to fit the moment. While many have now reopened with new protocols in place, others — at the height of the pandemic — found their businesses transformed from hotels into something else entirely. Among those was the C.O.Q. hotel in Paris, which opened its doors to healthcare workers assisting a local hospital.
As he welcomes us to his hotel in late August, the manager of the C.O.Q. Hotel warns us of the mess we’re about to encounter. “A closed hotel is a bit sad,” sighs Florian Bitker. We enter to see a few tables shunted to the side. Packages and cardboard boxes sit here and there around the lobby. The silence makes for a strange stillness — in any other time, this place would be bustling. And yet, it’s still recognizable for the elegant boutique hotel that it is. You’d never know that, just a few months ago, it served as a makeshift bunker on the frontlines of a battle against the pandemic.
On March 16, 2020, faced with a wave of COVID-19 cases overwhelming the country, France announced its lockdown measures: a general quarantine that was then among the most severe in Europe. The C.O.Q. Paris closed its doors to guests the same day. For the Bitker, leaving wasn’t so easy.
“It took a good week to fully shutdown,” he explains. “A hotel is not meant to be closed.” To his point, a city hotel like C.O.Q. is meant to stay perennially open, welcoming guests day and night through the workweek, weekends, and holidays. There was no precedent for the logistics of the process. “We aren’t supposed to cut off the water or electricity,” says Bitker. “We don’t even have a secure front door.”
It was the first of a thousand unprecedented hurdles. The next would be even more trying.
March 27: Preparing for Battle
The C.O.Q. wouldn’t stay closed for long. Located in Paris’ 13th arrondissement, the hotel sits on a small avenue just off a major boulevard, one tellingly named Boulevard de l’Hôpital. Ten minutes from C.O.Q. along that road is Pitié-Salpêtrière — the largest hospital in Europe. Not far from is another hospital, a smaller, private clinic.
The country had been in quarantine for little more than ten days when, on the evening of March 27th, Florian Bitker received a call from the latter. “They had just opened five intensive care units in four days and were waiting for the arrival of around twenty voluntary caregivers en route from Le Havre [a city in France’s Normandy region], but they didn’t know where to accommodate them.”
The hotel manager places a quick call to his boss. The owner of the C.O.Q. doesn’t hesitate. The C.O.Q. will reopen. But welcoming American tourists and housing healthcare workers requisitioned to fight against a highly contagious virus are two very different missions.
“I couldn’t call back the hotel staff and risk endangering them,” explains Bitker, “It could only be volunteers.” Opting for a small staff with the most experience possible, Bitker, then in quarantine, returns to the hotel himself along with two managers. As far as reinforcements, they all bring their spouses.
A group of six, they find themselves develop health protocols all on their own in advance of he arriving caregivers. “We had no idea how to proceed. Healthcare workers know how to protect themselves, how to wash their hands, the protocols. That’s their job. It’s not ours,” says the hotelier. “We had to obtain hand sanitizer and masks at a time when none were available. And we had to figure out a way for the hotel workers and the caregivers to avoid crossing paths.”
Guided by advice from relatives working in healthcare, Bitker sets his own health protocols as best he can. The hotel is redrawn and precise rules are put in place. Caregivers and the hotel team will use separate entrances. Specific walkways are established within the common areas. Four floors are reserved exclusively for healthcare staff, while the ground floor will be occupied by the managers and their spouses. Meanwhile, the caregivers will disinfect their own spaces and laundry will go into large, airtight garbage bags. Bitker gets in touch with the hotel’s regular laundry service — they agree to open their doors and join the battle.
March 29: The Reopening
On Sunday, March 29, 2020, caregivers arrive at the hotel. They’re a group of about twenty young women and one man, between the ages of 20 and 30. “They were lovely, extremely nice people. They didn’t have any idea what to expect,” remembers Bitker. But the next day, the hotelier realizes that they’ll need more than just accommodation. “When they got home around 9 p.m. they had nothing to eat, restaurants were closed and supermarket hours were limited due to the lockdown.”
So he picks up his phone and calls all his suppliers. From food to bath products, everyone who can open — in whatever capacity — wants to help.
“The next day, trucks full of coffee, pastries and soaps pulled up to the hotel.”
Based in Versailles, the hotel owner stayed active, too. “Every Monday, he went around to his neighbors, who provided all salads, pasta, gratins and all kinds of dishes to send to the caregivers.” Children participated, too, drawing pictures to decorate the walls of the hotel and lift the spirits of those working and sheltering within.
“People really wanted to help,” says Bitker, who also mentions the support from the neighborhood around the hotel. He smiles. “After seeing one of our photos on Instagram, a local resident organized a food drive. We got so much food we had to turn all the fridges back on.”
The collective effort doesn’t stop there. Uber drivers get in on the action, too. Learning about the situation as they drive the director home, many of them offer their services. “Every morning, there were cars stationed in front of the hotel waiting for caregivers to drive them to the hospital.”
Life Goes On
For health reasons, caregivers couldn’t have access to the kitchen. Food prep fell then to the hotel managers and their spouses who, taking turns sleeping on site, organized breakfast as the kitchen might for ordinary customers. For the rest of the meals, they develop a room service system: they draw up the daily menu according to what’s been donated, share it on a WhatsApp group, and allow the caregivers to call down to reception with their orders.
In order not to infect their loved ones, most of the caregivers decide not to make the trip home to Le Havre when they have time off, remaining in Paris for the duration of their mission. The hoteliers are the only people they see outside the hospital. “They came home looking defeated, extremely tired,” recalls Bitker, “they needed to talk, to vent. They would sit in the lobby entrance — we kept our distance, we all wore masks — and they told us about their days. In Paris, it was a disaster. People were dying in their arms all day, and most had never seen death before. It wasn’t their job. Some had been working in orthopedics before this.”
In the midst of so much tragedy, they also share what good news they have, the recoveries. “We had some great moments,” smiles Bitker. “We were very united. Instead of the usual atmosphere of a four star hotel, it felt like a home.”
Six weeks later, the number of infections is down sharply, hospitals are gradually emptying, intensive care units are closing, and the caregivers return home.
The C.O.Q. hotel turns off its lights again.
The C.O.Q. Today
The C.O.Q. hotel will reopen its regular doors soon. In the meantime, it had found at least a partial solution. Even before the pandemic, Bitker was tinkering with an unconventional idea — one that happened to come to fruition just before the chaos hit. The idea is something like a motorhome for the luxury hotel set. And it certainly comes in handy now. A luxury room integrated into a Volkswagen RV, two rolling rooms are available for one-night bookings, with an activity included in the rate. Guests hop on in Paris and a hotel staff member drives them off — where to is a surprise. The location might be a vineyard, a golf course, or a historic site. Upon arrival, the hotel staff departs in another car and leaves the guests to their own devices, which include a kitchen stocked with champagne and a pre-prepared dinner.
Written by Manon Lemoine Tomzig, journalist and French editor for Tablet Hotels.
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When it’s time again to travel, if you’re considering a trip to Paris, be sure to consider staying at the C.O.Q. Hotel, located in the 13th Arrondissement (Gare D’Austerlitz).