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Boston Hotels Hammered By Coronavirus Fears, Cancellations

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts increased to 92 Tuesday, and thousands of hospitality jobs across the state are in jeopardy in light of major events canceled or postponed over fear of the virus spreading even further. 

Thirty-two confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Massachusetts are tied to a Biogen conference held at the Marriott Long Wharf.

Organizers of the Seafood Expo North America, one of Boston’s largest annual conventions, decided last week to postpone the event, which was slated to begin Sunday. The groups putting on an international oncology conference and a Boston University journalism conference postponed their events in the last week. Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, also scheduled for Sunday, was called off Monday. 

While other major events like the New England Cannabis Convention, ACE Comic Con and the Boston Marathon are still on the schedule — for now — leaders from the region’s hospitality sector are still bracing for major impacts for the first half of the year. 

“You’re seeing hotels experiencing as much as a 40% drop in occupancy,” Massachusetts Lodging Association President Paul Sacco said. “It’s not limited to the hotel industry. A lot of businesses in Massachusetts are depending on these meetings, conferences and tourism. It’s pretty dramatic, and we’re feeling it."

Confirmed or presumptive Massachusetts cases of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, spiked from 41 to 92 Tuesday, according to the state's Department of Public Health. Seventy of the 92 cases in Massachusetts are tied to a Biogen conference held in late February at the Marriott Long Wharf in downtown Boston. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker declared a State of Emergency Tuesday following the announcement of the newly reported cases. 

Sacco and other hospitality leaders acknowledged the postponements and cancellations are the right public health move, but were quick to point out how widespread their impacts will be. Hourly employees that set up a convention and then break it down could expect to make thousands of dollars from an event like the Seafood Expo.

“We only have about 500 direct employees, but that can quickly touch 5,000 people when you think about the convention workers, hotels and restaurant employees,” Massachusetts Convention Center Authority spokesperson Nate Little said. “Every decision we make impacts others really fast.”

The Boston Convention & Exhibition Center

The string of event postponements and cancellations come ahead of what would normally be some of Boston’s strongest months for hotels. 

The Boston Marathon, New England’s most-watched annual sporting event, is slated for April 20 and draws runners and attendees from around the world. For the health of the local economy, the marathon is far more critical than the events already being affected.

The event’s organizer, the Boston Athletic Association, didn't respond to Bisnow’s request for an interview but says on its website it is working with city and state officials to “ensure a safe and successful Boston Marathon.”

“The St. Patrick’s Day parade is more of a local event and not a lodging demand generator,” Pinnacle Advisory Group Vice President Sebastian Colella said. “But the next that comes to mind is if the Boston Marathon, which is a huge event for lodging and city’s economy, got called off. Hopefully, there will be some righting of the ship between now and then.”

Weeks later, hotels would normally be jammed as graduation season begins for Greater Boston’s many colleges and universities. But even the higher education sector is taking precautionary measures against the coronavirus. 

Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow told students via email Tuesday not to return to campus following spring break as the campus transitions temporarily to online courses. Amherst College announced Monday it was switching to online classes, and MIT has moved classes with more than 150 students to online instruction. 

It is too early to know what impact the coronavirus will have on Boston hotel performance for this and future quarters, Colella said. But the likely negative hit comes when the city’s hotel sector is already stumbling out of a weak end to 2019. A lackluster convention calendar and flood of new supply led to Boston performing the worst of any top 25 U.S. hotel market in Q4. 

“We were expecting, especially because of supply growth, the market would continue to see declines in occupancy and rates already,” Colella said. “This is another layer. Consumer confidence is such a big player when it comes to travel, whether corporate or leisure. This is at the core of that.”

The Hynes Convention Center in Boston

The city’s hotels were looking forward to 2020's strong convention calendar compared to last year. There was an anticipated 25% increase in booked hotel room nights stemming from events scheduled at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and Hynes Convention Center, Colella said. The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority is working to keep those room nights on the book for this year by postponing events to later in the year, rather than canceling them. 

“My guess is everyone is going to do the best they can to make the right call, but make that call as late as possible,” MCCA's Little said. “You can’t tell people how to feel, and they’re rightly nervous. Collectively, when the board moves, off it goes. People make choices on choices others make.”

Not all Boston hotels are feeling a sting from coronavirus fear quite yet. The Revolution Hotel in the South End was fully booked last weekend and revenue was up from last year, said the hotel’s owner, Mount Vernon Co. Chairman Bruce Percelay

“Obviously, the wind is in our face; however, we are not a convention hotel,” Percelay said. “We have a low price point, target a very young demographic and are less vulnerable for this. So far, so good.”

Nevertheless, Percelay has mandated employees sanitize back-of-house rooms at a high level and place hand sanitizer around the property for guests and staff. Revolution Hotel workers are wiping down the hotel gym and elevator buttons several times a day, among the many proactive measures Percelay said are taking place each day at the Revolution Hotel. 

Representatives with Marriott didn't respond to Bisnow’s requests for comment on what it has done to sanitize the Long Wharf hotel following the Biogen conference. But Sacco said Marriott is working with city and state health agencies. The Mass. Lodging Association is also working with hotels across the state on precautionary measures against the coronavirus. 

“If they were cleaning something once a day, it’s now twice or three times a day,” Sacco said. “What we’ve encouraged hotels to do is completely scour and cleanse more than ever. They do that anyway, but it’s time to basically go above and beyond the call of duty.”

UPDATE, MARCH 10, 4:10 P.M. ET: This story has been updated to reflect new confirmed or presumed positive cases of the coronavirus in Massachusetts, which were announced shortly after this story was originally published.