The LaGuardia Plaza, about a block from the airport, looks from the outside like any hotel that caters to business travelers: a sweeping circular driveway and meticulously landscaped entrance leading to a shiny glass box on Ditmars Boulevard.
These days, however, a new kind of guest is staying at the Queens hotel: recent travelers placed there by the city hospital system to quarantine to stem the spread of COVID-19. And one such resident, Cynthia English, says the LaGuardia Plaza feels more like jail than a hotel.
English, 56, has been confined to her room since shortly after her return last month from South Carolina, which has a high COVID-19 infection rate. The grandmother, who lives in a crowded Brooklyn apartment, is grateful for the support as she seeks to protect her family from potential transmission of the virus.
But as the days pass with a seemingly endless wait for her COVID-19 test results — Sunday was Day 10 — she’s increasingly questioned the government’s handling of a well-intentioned effort.
“I almost regret being a good citizen, you know?” she told THE CITY of her voluntary decision to check into the hotel to do her required 14-day quarantine. “I feel like I’m being punished for doing the right thing.”
Prisoner of Ditmars Blvd.
English is not allowed out of her room except for three scheduled 30-minute breaks a day, and she can’t leave the hotel grounds.
She’s not allowed out into the hallway or spacious marble lobby, and the glass door leading from her room to a patio is locked from the outside.
Yet the locks on all the guest room doors have been disabled. The city also places homeless individuals and families at the hotel, and does not require that they be tested for COVID-19 first.
English was tested for the virus on Sept. 25, four days after she returned from her trip. She’s been told the clock began ticking on her 14-day quarantine when she arrived at the hotel on Sept. 24, so her time still hasn’t run out.
Meanwhile, she’s left grappling with limited food options and access to medication as she misses her family and her freedom.
“I understand the need for quarantine,” English said. “I totally agree with it. However, being here voluntarily, if I want to go outside and get some air as long as I’m wearing a mask, what’s the problem?”
A List of Rules
English is one of more than 1,500 people the city Health + Hospitals system has placed in isolation rooms at the LaGuardia Plaza since May to help control the spread of the virus by quarantining vulnerable people for 14 days.
The city picks up the tab, which comes to $109 per night per guest, with hopes of getting a 75% reimbursement from the federal government. As of Friday, 104 quarantine guests placed by Health + Hospitals were staying at the LaGuardia and several other hotels around town.
Among the guests are COVID-positive former hospital patients well enough to go home but unable to safely quarantine there due to living conditions, such as too many people in not enough space.
The guest list also includes anyone who has been in close contact with a COVID-positive person and wants to stay isolated, but has no practical way to do so.
More recently, they have been joined by travelers arriving in New York from states with high-infection rates.
As of Sept. 29, that list included 32 states, plus Puerto Rico and Guam, where on average over seven days 10% or more of tests came up positive. New York City had an average positivity rate of 1.34% as of Thursday.
Travelers arriving from these places — both locals returning home and visitors from elsewhere — are required by state mandate to “quarantine and safely separate from others for 14 days” and “remain indoors and only go outside for critical needs like medical care, including getting tested for COVID-19,” according to Health + Hospitals.
A Long Return Home
In response to questions from THE CITY, Karla Griffith, a spokesperson for Health + Hospitals, described in an email the protocol once the agency is notified that a traveler from one of the listed locations has returned to the city.
“Individuals will receive a robocall from us prompting them to reach out for more information including hotel accommodations,” she wrote. “The Hotel Program is completely voluntary. New Yorkers have the option to safely separate at our hotel or to quarantine at home.”
Out-of-towners must find adequate lodgings that allow them to safely quarantine at their own cost. But the city pays for local residents returning home if their living situation doesn’t allow for safe quarantining.
As of Friday, 16 New York City residents were staying in quarantine hotels as part of the Health + Hospitals effort.
English is one of them. On Sept. 21, she returned by bus to New York City from a 10-day visit to South Carolina at a time when the share of coronavirus tests coming back positive in that state was consistently above 10%.
At airports, travelers on flights from the listed high-infection states are told to check in with the city. People arriving by trains and vehicles — ranging from private cars to commercial buses — are given no such notification. The city relies on them to take steps to safely quarantine or contact the city if they’re unable to self-isolate.
English, who works for the Coalition for the Homeless, learned from a friend of an online form to fill out, which she did a day after she returned.
The next day, she got a call from an Health + Hospitals contact tracer who told her she had to go to a hotel right away after English described her living situation: a two-bedroom apartment in East Flatbush she shares with two daughters and a grandson. She sleeps in the living room, on the couch.
“We’re kind of a little crowded in my house,” she said.
The next day, Sept. 24, the city paid for a car to transport her to the LaGuardia Plaza. English was assigned a room and discovered the lock on her door had been disabled, while the door from her room to an outdoor patio was locked from the outside.
“I can see it and look at the great outdoors,” she said. “I don’t have a window to open to get fresh air.”
At the time, she had no symptoms and no way to know if she was COVID positive. The next day, a Health + Hospitals nurse administered the uncomfortable nasal swab test and told her she’d get the results as soon as possible.
She’s still waiting.
Troubling Testing Backup
On Friday, the nurse on duty at the hotel told English there’s a major results backup, with no way to know when she’ll learn if she was positive or negative when she first arrived.
Griffith told THE CITY that most Health + Hospitals test results are returned in two to four days. But the results of tests taken the day English got hers “were delayed due to external factors resulting in delayed receipt and communication of results to the affected hotel guests,” Griffith added.
While English said she had yet to receive her results as of Sunday, Griffith wrote on Friday, “This issue was resolved and all of the guests have received their results.”
And while the city places homeless individuals and families in the LaGuardia Plaza, they do not automatically test them for COVID.
English, who has been homeless in the past, supports the placement of people without homes at the hotel but is concerned about the lack of testing.
“We don’t know” if they’re COVID positive or not, she said.
Though English says she’s encountered some homeless guests in the hallway and outside, Griffith insisted that they’re kept separate from people who are quarantining.
“To assure infection prevention and control at the hotel, guests are cohorted to hotel floors based on the nature of their underlying health conditions and their COVID-19 status,” she said, adding that “activities” are coordinated to avoid contact.
‘How Can You Feel Safe?’
But for English, the most alarming aspect of her stay has been the lack of door locks.
Health + Hospitals had the locks disabled to ensure quick access in case of a medical emergency, and assigns “wellness coordinators” to the hallways to keep watch. But English said there’s often nobody there, and she was afraid to take a shower during the first three days of her stay.
“While I’m in the bathtub somebody could be in my room stealing my laptop,” she said. “There are men on this floor. It’s not like there are only women on this floor.
“A person with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) couldn’t stay here because they can’t feel safe. How can you feel safe if you can’t lock your door?”
Griffith wrote that “wellness coordinators” were assigned to monitor “guest activity” on each floor, and that “nursing staff” covers their posts during any absences.
“In addition, security officers also periodically conduct security patrols to monitor guest and staff safety,” she added.
And there are petty inconveniences. Guests get three meals a day, ranging from a hard-boiled egg for breakfast to a lasagna dinner English didn’t recognize as lasagna. All of it is paid for by the city.
Guests get three meals a day — including a lasagna dinner English didn’t recognize as lasagna.
Ordering take-out delivered by Uber is prohibitive (a $29 bill for a McDonald’s meal). And obtaining medication is a challenge.
“They have no over-the-counter medications here, which is crazy since this is supposed to be considered a medical facility,” English said. “So when I first got here I didn’t have my medications. I had to order it from the LaGuardia Pharmacy — $18.99 for a bottle of Advil. I asked for the smallest bottle because it’s a short stay and he said the only size is 80.”
Confined to her room for nearly 23 hours a day, she continues her Coalition for the Homeless day job via Zoom, watches TV and chats with her family via Facetime.
But the walls have — day by day — begun to close in.
None of the quarantiners are allowed out of their rooms except for 30-minute breaks three set times a day: 9:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.
“The thing is everybody’s different,” English said. “Let’s say I was claustrophobic and I needed to get air more often. Can’t do it. I tried. They refused me.
“There were a couple of days I was working and I missed the 2:30 run, and so I asked if I could go out if someone could take me down. They said, ‘No — you have to wait ‘til 9.’”
Griffith said the breaks must be staggered to keep separate guests with “differing COVID status” and maintain “appropriate physical distancing.” Although English said there was no scheduling flexibility, Griffith insisted, “Additional breaks can be accommodated as needed.”
On Friday, English and a half dozen other guests — all wearing masks — emerged from their rooms promptly into a glorious September afternoon promptly at 2:30 p.m.
They weren’t allowed to leave the hotel grounds, which limited their moments of freedom to a leisurely stroll around the circular driveway.
Robert Vest, 53, a vocal teacher at the American Music and Drama Academy, a conservatory at Lincoln Center, said he’d checked himself in after learning his son-in-law had tested positive for the virus. He arrived Tuesday and still hadn’t received his COVID test result by Friday.
Nevertheless, he was happy to be there.
“Believe me, I wouldn’t stay in a hotel with a door that doesn’t lock,” he said. “At first I thought, ‘I’m not sure about this,’ but now I’m grateful for it.”
A security guard emerged to shoo away a reporter, telling Vest, “You can’t speak to the press.” The guard didn’t answer when a reporter asked her who she worked for.
After 14 days since she returned to New York following her Palmetto State visit and 10 days of looking at the locked glass door to the patio at the LaGuardia Plaza Hotel, English is still not sure when she can leave. She said she’s been given conflicting information.
“I’m here,” she said. “I’m trying to maintain a normal sense of self. When your autonomy is so limited, when you can’t even get a breath of fresh air when you need it — it’s stressful. It’s isolating.
“Yes, I’m talking to my family but it’s hard. And not having a date when I can leave here?”