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Over 1500 Oakland Hotel Rooms Sit Empty as COVID-19 Pandemic Spreads

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The Courtyard by Marriott Hotel in Downtown Oakland is one of the many hotels in Oakland which has seen a decrease in business since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The hotel has shut down its third, forth and fifth floors. Rooms on the second floor remain open. Photo by Zack Haber.

 After calling to inquire at 30 different Oakland hotels and motels, The Oakland Post has identified approximately 1,625 rooms that sat vacant on April 5 and 6. Unhoused residents, housing activists, and some local politicians have called for these rooms to be used to shelter those currently living on the streets to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“We should be using hotel rooms rather than big shared spaces in order to prevent the spread of disease,” said Oakland’s City Council President Rebecca Kaplan.

Seven of the 30 hotels the Oakland Post contacted refused to say how many rooms were empty, and two hotels never answered the phone after multiple calls.

While the state of California has helped secure 393 rooms in two Oakland hotels for the purpose of sheltering unhoused residents during the pandemic, the vast majority of these rooms still sit empty as the county of Alameda, which controls access to these rooms, won’t admit those who have not tested positive for the virus, shown COVID-19 symptoms, or been knowingly exposed to COVID-19.

In addition to those living on the streets, unhoused residents and their advocates worry about the crowded conditions within Bay Area shelters that make it impossible to follow six feet social distancing recommendations, especially as 70 unhoused residents in shelters in San Francisco have recently tested positive for the virus.

 Kaplan says she’s encouraged Governor Gavin Newsom and county leaders to make use of empty rooms.

“We should be using hotel rooms already, immediately, and not wait until people are sick,” said Kaplan.

Those who have studied COVID-19 insist that while the virus is fatal for some, others who have the virus and can transmit it to others show no symptoms.

 “We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms and that even those who eventually develop symptoms can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms,” says a recent recommendation on the Center of Disease Control’s (CDC) website, which lists eight studies to support its claim.

Iceland, which has tested about 5% of its population for COVID-19, has reported that 50% of those who’ve tested positive say they felt no symptoms.

In order for more of the 393 currently available Oakland hotel rooms to be filled, the county of Alameda would have to ease its requirements for who’s allowed to live in them.

Governor Newsom has the power to open the 1,625 rooms that The Oakland Post has identified as currently sitting empty — to unhoused residents. He also has the power to open over 4,000 rooms to unhoused residents, some of which are vacant and some of which are occupied, that the county of Alameda has identified throughout the East Bay.

Newsom declared a state of emergency on March 4. Chapter 7 and article 3 of California’s Emergency Services Act allows him to “commandeer or utilize any private property or personnel deemed by him necessary.”

While the article also requires that the state “pay the reasonable value” of utilized private property, it does not define what “reasonable value” means.

It is unclear what the reasonable value would be to use a room in the Ramada INN  which reported that all 64 of its rooms were empty on April 6, to help in a public health emergency. Nor is it clear what the reasonable value would be for the state to use one of the over 120 rooms that sit empty at Courtyard by Marriott, in downtown Oakland, who’s reported that it has closed its 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors and is only currently renting out rooms on its 2nd floor.

California and Alameda County are currently sharing the cost of 186$ per day to rent rooms the 393 rooms at The Radisson and The Comfort INN and Suites, but that price matches the most expensive highest quality room at The Radisson. The county and the state are overpaying for standard rooms, which make up the vast majority of rooms they’re leasing and typically cost $85–$160 per day.

The City of Oakland’s communications team says “we are currently exploring opening one or more additional hotel to respond to COVID-19, with an emphasis on hotels that could be acquired and permanently used as homeless programs in the future,” but did not offer a timeframe for acquiring them.

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