Students quarantine in USC Hotel

Students, employees and a faculty member are the only guests residing at USC Hotel. It canceled guest reservations in March. | (Daily Trojan file photo)

When junior Sandra Olmedo returned home March 12 from studying abroad in Madrid, she was scared for her mother’s health. After self-isolating in her Los Angeles home for three days, she called Student Health and said that although she was asymptomatic, she was afraid she could be a carrier and unknowingly transmit it to her immunocompromised mother. 

A day later, she checked into USC Hotel. Olmedo described the 12-day stay on the sixth floor of the hotel  as lonesome.

Unable to walk outside or interact face-to-face with anyone for the duration of her quarantine, she often opened the room’s windows, taking comfort in the limited sun and fresh air and listening to the busy streets, all while measuring her temperature every day and speaking with Student Health representatives every weekday to update them on her symptoms. 

“It was really just trying to make a routine for myself, taking advantage of the amenities in the room like the TV and WiFi,” Olmedo said. “Just making time go by as much as I could.” 

She was also provided free room service, $400 in Grubhub gift credit and given cleaning supplies to disinfect her room to avoid putting the hotel workers at risk. Still, she was constantly worried of symptoms appearing, especially since Student Health was only testing those with severe symptoms. Her only symptom was a slight dry cough. 

“I didn’t get to get tested, which was kind of frustrating because I didn’t know if I had it or not. I should technically be fine… but not knowing for sure is a point of anxiety for me,” said Olmedo, who has since returned home. 

Another student, who asked to remain anonymous because he violated social distancing protocol, described his experience at the hotel differently. Arriving back from his Rome study abroad trip in early March, the student asked to be accommodated at USC Hotel, as classes had not yet been moved online. 

“I pushed to go back to L.A. because I, at the time, didn’t think that campus would take the steps that it has,” the student said. “I wanted to be part of campus life still, even in the event that I could not attend my classes in person.” 

On his flight back to L.A., the student expected to receive continued guidance about testing and the quarantine period but was met with limited aid, he said. 

“I was supposed to get a call [from Student Health] — and nothing,” he said. “They should have just told me ‘You know what, I’m sorry,  you can’t come back to school right now.’ That would have sucked, but at least I would have understood it. But I was told that I could come back.” 

As the coronavirus pandemic evolved during Olmedo’s stay, the hotel implemented new protocols. After Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home mandate, Olmedo said she noticed activity in the hotel, including room and food service, decrease. 

“Before the [stay-at-home] order, Grubhub people could come [to the floor], my parents would come up,” Olmedo said. “After the shutdown, they stopped letting people come up, and it would just have to be the workers.” 

Yaneth, a housekeeper at the hotel who asked that her last name be ommited out of concern for her job, said initially only room service personnel were informed about students self-quarantining at the hotel. However, after a room service worker misrepresented the situation to other employees, hotel management held a meeting to inform the rest of the staff that students were being quarantined out of precaution. 

“For our safety, we weren’t allowed to [go up to the floor] — only room service was allowed to leave the food at their doors,” Yaneth said in Spanish. “There was bags [available for each students’ trash]. All the food was in disposable kitchenware.” 

Although Yaneth worked in housekeeping, she did not interact directly with the self-quarantining students. As the situation continued, she and her co-workers were assigned less work each day. 

“We didn’t have anything to do on those floors, our work in a sense slowed down,” Yaneth said. “As co-workers, all of us looked out for each other and protected each other and had cleaning supplies, masks, gloves to protect us from any situation.” 

In an interview with the Daily Trojan, Deona Willes, safety director for Environmental Health and Safety, said USC Hotel has since minimized workers’ contact with students. By creating a virtual contact list, students were able to check into the hotel without any in-person contact. More thorough cleanings have also been implemented in high-traffic areas in the hotel and across campus. 

The student who requested anonymity said he often left the hotel to meet friends but did not enter campus. 

“[Student Health] highly suggested that I stay inside my [room],” he said. “I won’t lie — I definitely left. It was a little bit selfish on my part … but there was no guard at the door.”  

Olmedo, who stayed at the hotel throughout her quarantine, said that the initial letter she received from Student Health during her stay seemed to only suggest that students remain in their rooms. She later received stricter guidelines from Vice President for Student Affairs Winston Crisp. 

“I would agree with [the anonymous student] that at the beginning, especially the first few days I was there, it did feel like a suggestion — the only explicit rule was to not go onto USC campus,” Olmedo said. “Later on, we got a different letter, and it was more strict.”

In the letter, Crisp instructed students to follow social distancing guidelines and stated that those who did not would face disciplinary action. 

“In order to effectively help us protect the community, we need all residents to follow the social distancing guidelines,” the letter read. “Failure to do so endangers those around you and will not be tolerated … Please be advised that any violation of the University’s Student Conduct Code … can and will result in disciplinary conduct proceedings.”

Although limited resources prevent the hotel from enforcing self-quarantine measures, Chief Health Officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman said she hopes those at the hotel follow social distancing guidelines.

“We don’t really have the resources to monitor people, nor should I believe in any way that we should have to monitor people to do what is not only the legal but also the ethical and the moral thing to do,” Van Orman said.

While no systemwide security measures were put in place, Olmedo recalled overhearing a conversation her friend had with a hotel worker who asked her to return to her room after she left to collect ice from a machine on their floor. 

“They were all very nice,” Olmedo said. “I could hear from my door that an interaction was going on outside, and they were just like, ‘I’m sorry, you need to go back to your room … Whatever you need, we’ll take it to you — just don’t leave your room.’” 

The student who wished to remain anonymous left his self-isolation period four days before it was complete and said he received limited help from the University to secure housing. Now in New York, the student said he believes the University forced him to relocate to a region that faces worse conditions than both L.A. and Rome. Currently, New York has nearly 76,000 cases, while the full country  of Italy has more than 105,000. L.A. County currently has more than 3,000 cases.

“Objectively, USC has put me closer to this two times over,” he said. “Say what you will with it being in my home, that’s fine, but I also paid for housing … In an ideal world, I would have liked to stay in L.A., even during this whole situation. It’s better for me professionally, personally, mentally, emotionally … and I expressed that to them.”

In an interview with the Daily Trojan, Ho said all room spaces at the hotel are currently reserved for University students and employees. A new program, called Care for the Caregiver, will accommodate Health Sciences Campus employees who live far from campus or cannot return home for fear of spreading the virus to their households.

“[The hotel houses] people who are returning from studying abroad and many of those people were also self-isolating,” Van Orman told the Daily Trojan. “It might be someone who needs to self-isolate but has nowhere to go … The really important role that the hotel will be playing in the coming weeks … is to provide a place for our healthcare workers who are working at Keck Medicine.” 

According to an email to the Daily Trojan from Executive Director of USC Hospitality and USC Hotel Dirk De Jong, guest reservations were canceled following Folt and Zukoski’s memo March 13 and will not resume until April 14. Students, employees and a faculty member are the only current occupants of the hotel. 

A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed information to Executive Director of Marketing and Communications for USC Student Health Minne Ho. The information was provided by Safety Director for Environmental Health and Safety Deona Willes. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.