Published in The MetroWest Daily News on May 26, 2020. By Jeannette Hinkle, The MetroWest Daily News. Photo: Ann Ringwood
FRAMINGHAM — Monique Patilla, a longtime resident of Framingham’s Red Roof Plus, walked through the open door of the hotel lobby on Tuesday of last week. Once again, the smell of peroxide bleach washed over her.
Patilla greeted Dana Silva, who stood behind a glass shield at the front desk, through the patterned mask she wore. Patilla, who has a sewing machine in her room, has spent a lot of time making masks recently. She’d given one to Silva.
From Patilla’s perspective, not much has changed at the Red Roof Plus since the coronavirus took hold in the state, except for the smell. The lobby, the vending machine room, the hotel rooms all smell like peroxide bleach now.
“It feels different in the sense that it’s more sterile now,” she said.
For employees, everything has changed in many ways.
General Manager Dan Fritz ran a tight ship before the pandemic – he’s managed the hotel for 16 years – but now he’s almost obsessively focused on cleaning every surface at the “chalet-style” hotel essentially after every human touch.
The company has instructed managers to ensure touch points are sanitized every two hours, but Fritz told Silva to clean the desk counter, the credit card machine, the lobby door handle, the two chairs arranged against the back wall, each time a guest uses them.
When the cash register is filled, Fritz himself removes the bills and lines them up on a counter in the back – he arranges them so they are all face-up – before he grabs a bottle of yellow liquid, the peroxide bleach, and sprays down the bills. He lets them dry for about 15 minutes before flipping them over to spray the other side.
There is less cash for Fritz to clean these days. Occupancy at the 170-room hotel, where a standard room costs $87.99, went from 90% to 60% in a matter of weeks.
When Fritz, a lifelong Framingham resident and graduate of Framingham North High School, talks about the guests who have always made the hotel tick, he talks about them in the past tense.
At at 650 Cochituate Road (Rte. 30), the Red Roof Plus is nestled amongst a tangle of highway ramps (it’s easily accessible from both Rte. 9 and the Mass Pike), smack dab in the middle of Framingham’s Golden Triangle. Many companies and retailers that surround the hotel are at least partially closed.
“Because it’s the retail mecca of New England, we would see a lot of district managers coming in,” Fritz said. “TJX, we used to see a lot of guests coming to showcase their products to them.”
He’s trying to take a sunny view of the downturn wherever he can. The drop in business has given him time and space to do things like paint doors, caulk bathtubs.
“I like getting my hands dirty,” Fritz said.
The nosedive in occupancy has also forced Fritz to spend hours rearranging his staff’s schedules. There is less work to be done now, even with the room cleanings Fritz added for long-term guests like Patilla.
To make the schedules, he adds and subtracts hours, building a formula that will ensure employees that have benefits – those who work 30 hours per week or more – can keep them, and employees without benefits make enough to feed their families.
There are 21 employees at the Red Roof Plus. Fritz is proud to say he hasn’t laid off a single person.
The steady employment, even if the paychecks are smaller, has helped offset other financial hits sustained by employees like Roselidia Miranda, who has worked at the hotel for 20 years, 21 in July.
Miranda supplements her income from the hotel with other housekeeping jobs, but since the pandemic began, three of the four families she works for have told her they don’t need her right now.
Miranda said she’s lucky.
“Thank God I was a little prepared for some situation like this,” Miranda said. “But I know a lot of people who have a lot of problems because not all have help from the government. I have a friend, she is in a very bad situation.”
Miranda has lived in Framingham for 23 years. She’s built a foundation in that time, savings. She has two daughters, one in Framingham Public Schools, one in college.
“She got a full boat scholarship to UMass Boston,” Fritz said with pride, when Miranda mentioned her eldest daughter.
When Miranda received an email from her daughter’s elementary school informing families of a Framingham initiative to offer rent, mortgage and utility assistance for two months, she sent the application to her friend, hoping the city could offer some relief.
But Miranda’s friend is undocumented.
“She said, ‘Oh, I can’t. It’s only for people who have papers.’ It’s ridiculous because we pay the taxes the same. They charge from our paycheck every single week, but they didn’t help her.”
The only help that has been available is food assistance, she said.
“The churches are helping a lot of people,” Miranda said. “I drop something there like once a month, some food. When I go to shop for myself, I do some and drop it there because I know a lot of people really need it during this time.”
She tries to uplift friends who call with worries that compound by the day.
“I try to tell them something good, you know, hope. But it’s hard. It’s hard. Sometimes I like to cook to make my thoughts go away.”
One friend has remained in Miranda’s quarantine circle for the entirety of the stay-at-home advisory. She comes over often, and the two experiment with new recipes. Bread. Cauliflower pizza crust.
But when Miranda arrives at the hotel, she has to focus.
Before the coronavirus, she said, a day of cleaning was second nature. Her mind was free. Now, she’s constantly scanning for an invisible threat.
“Now, we have to think first,” she said. “Before we open the door, we have to clean the lock.”
Before Miranda cleans a room, she props the door open to let the room air out. When she’s inside, she keeps the door open.
Each time she cleans a room, she first checks for signs that the guest was sick. Are there tissues in the bathroom wastebasket? Had she seen the guest coughing before checking out?
If she thinks there was illness in the room, she tells Fritz. He doesn’t make housekeepers clean rooms they’re not comfortable cleaning.
And if it does seem like the guest was sick, Fritz doesn’t hesitate to put the room out of commission for 30 days.
“We’ve done that for three rooms,” Fritz said.
Not knowing who could be carrying the virus is scary.
The city of Framingham primarily uses The Residence Inn to isolate COVID-19 patients and frontline workers who don’t want to expose their families, but it has sent at least one coronavirus-positive person to the Red Roof Plus.
Fritz recounted getting a call from the Health Department in March informing him that a coronavirus-positive person was staying at the hotel.
“I said, ‘OK, who?’”
The Health Department staff person said the city couldn’t tell him the person’s name because of privacy laws.
“I said, ‘I don’t need to know the name, just tell me what room,’” he remembered. “They said, ‘I’m sorry we can’t. We’ve got to protect their privacy.’ So I was extremely upset. I sent an email to our mayor.”
Eventually, the front desk received a call from the guest, a nurse. She was positive, but asymptomatic.
“So there would have been no signs whatsoever,” Fritz said. “I said, thank God. Now that we now know, we can keep things safe. We put that room out of order for 30 days. We took the batteries out of the door so no one could accidentally go in there.”
Fritz isn’t opposed to hosting COVID-19-positive guests or frontline workers. He offered 112 free nights to nurses who need a place to stay. Fritz’s wife is a certified nursing assistant, and she is also Brazilian, though Fritz still hasn’t learned much Portuguese.
“Poco,” he says, smiling behind the Red Roof face mask he is testing out for the company.
“He is lazy,” Miranda jokes. “He doesn’t like to practice.”
Fritz calls the housekeepers, or “the girls,” heroes. He is planning to get a photograph taken of them that he would display in the lobby, like hospitals do for nurses.
Miranda’s routine when she gets home from the hotel isn’t much different from nurses caring for coronavirus patients.
She leaves her shoes outside the door to her condo after spraying the soles with Clorox. She makes a beeline to the bathroom, where she takes off her clothes and puts them in a bag to launder. On her way, she has to gently shoo her 9-year-old daughter away.
“My daughter says, ‘Mommy, I want a hug.’ I say, ‘Not until I shower.’”