How Israel's Home Front Command has mobilized hotels to fight coronavirus

Israel mobilizes hotels to fight coronavirus; the ‘Magazine’ went to one to see how this unique approach is giving people a chance to socialize while living with the contagion.

THE YA’ARIM Hotel in Ma’aleh HaHamisha has been transformed into a place of recovery for those with mild symptoms who are healthy, catering to haredi guests who have been tested (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
THE YA’ARIM Hotel in Ma’aleh HaHamisha has been transformed into a place of recovery for those with mild symptoms who are healthy, catering to haredi guests who have been tested
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Brig.-Gen. Yoram Laredo served 32 years in the army. He thought he had finished his career seven months ago and was moving on to new things. Then he got a call to return. The Home Front command, where he had served as head of the Search and Rescue Brigade and other units for a decade, was calling him back to service in the war against coronavirus.
Since early March 2020, Laredo and members of the Home Front command have been rushing to respond to the crisis that has broken like a tidal wave over Israel as thousands became sick with the virus and the country was put into lockdown. On March 17, the IDF opened the first of what is now more than a dozen hotels devoted to caring for those with coronavirus and those in quarantine. The unique operation was made possible through work of the Home Front, the Defense Ministry, Health Ministry, Israel police, local authorities and the hotels themselves. Several parts of the Dan Hotel chain have been used. The first was the Dan Panorama in Tel Aviv.
On April 6, I drove up through the winding roads in the hill country near Jerusalem to see one of the latest hotels set to open. The splendid sunny afternoon showcased the beauty of the Jerusalem foothills, but the day was clouded by the threat of the virus. Police checkpoints on Route 1 caused a massive traffic jam. Most towns looked deserted. Passing Abu Ghosh, site of several famous hummus shops, the jarring changes were clear. No hummus. No people out for a backpacking trip. No one hitchhiking.
THE YA’ARIM HOTEL in Ma’aleh HaHamisha is one of those very Israeli hotels, with an open floor plan and rooms overlooking the Jerusalem forest. It lacks the snazzy feeling of modern boutique hotels, but has the spa, pool and outdoor patios that make it feel part of the forest, even with its staid 1980s decorum.
Now the hotel has been transformed into a place of recovery for those with mild symptoms who are healthy. This hotel will cater specifically to haredi guests who have been tested.
The entrance to the Ya'arim Hotel in Ma’aleh HaHamisha (Photo Credit: Seth J. Frantzman)The entrance to the Ya'arim Hotel in Ma’aleh HaHamisha (Photo Credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Laredo greets us at the entrance. There are no handshakes, just an elbow bump. We have our protective masks on. At the lobby, the area is being transformed by carpenters so that plexiglass will separate the staff checking people in from the people who will arrive.
“The concept of this is the idea of taking hotels and putting people with coronavirus in them from crowded environments so they don’t spread the virus and they don’t create circles of infected, so you avoid the doubling of the numbers,” says Laredo. “The idea is to take healthy people [who have the virus] and put them in the hotel like this and by doing so you have three key advantages.” He enumerates them:
• It reduces their exposure to others at home in crowded apartments.
• It keeps them from infecting others in their community.
• It gives them a place to socialize. The socializing is key because otherwise they would be alone in a quarantine somewhere or in a hospital by themselves.
A muscular man with a broad smile, Laredo is proud of the work his soldiers are doing. As Laredo is talking, the carpenters begin to saw long pieces of wood to frame their plexiglass around the lobby. So we move down a hallway to a door that exits onto a nice patio with large plastic chairs. In the distance, the hills near Tzuba can be seen. These lands were once ringed by Crusader forts, including the Kastel and Aqua Bella, which served as a convalescent home during the Crusader era. Today this hotel will serve a similar purpose.
The Home Front command has divided the hotels into various zones for the staff, soldiers and people with coronavirus. They don’t like to call them patients because this is not a hospital. This is a place for people to be temporarily, for weeks or a month, away from the rest of society to prevent the spread of the virus. This is not a hospital and there is no hospital care taking place. Those admitted to the hotels sign a form that notes they will be in contact with their doctor and kupat holim, that if they do have worsening symptoms or need medical care they will call a doctor or ambulance.
“The people who come must be very healthy. There is no medical treatment; it’s a capsule. It is called the ‘yellow,’ the capsule of yellow space, and in the yellow space, all those who are infected can socialize and walk and talk and the others,” says Laredo. On the other side of the wall, where soldiers have set up a kind of command post, is the Green Zone. Soldiers will be there to help manage the hotel and area. Staff will be separated completely from the guests, but will bring food and that is about all.
To get to the Green Zone, I pass a metal barrier and some signs that have the Home Front unit insignia. A door leads to a small conference room with a bank of computers and oval-shaped table. About a dozen soldiers are going about their work, speaking on phones and updating files. Masks and gloves are available for everyone and a giant bottle of hand sanitizer, which we dollop liberally on our hands.
This is the command post. When I eventually leave the hotel, the gate for the parking is closed and a man in a white doctor’s smock is turning cars away. He says this is now the Home Front’s hotel and queries those who need to enter if they are staff. The birds are chirping and the sun’s long rays are growing. The usual bustle of cars or people is nowhere to be seen; just one man is out walking his dog.
ISRAEL HAS come to this point with long experience in preparation for handling disasters. Laredo was at the tip of the spear of Israel’s aid efforts in the past, such as during the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. The more than 200 medical staff sent to Nepal that year helped open a hospital and provide care.
Laredo began his army career in Nahal as a soldier and deputy unit commander before coming to the Home Front in 2009. He was a district commander and then headed the search and rescue brigade which he helped create. He was also chief of staff of the Home Front Command since 2016 until leaving in September 2019.
The IDF announced it would seek to lodge coronavirus patients in hotels on March 17. The initiative came as Israel was entering lockdown and cases were growing. The idea was to start with one hotel in Tel Aviv and then one in Jerusalem. There were few guests in the hotels and the concept was to create a separate situation room within the facility and a floor for the patient-guests. Those who came would be sent via their clinics and doctors. The hotel would become a kind of sealed area. There would be no visitors to the coronavirus section, the “yellow” area. Treatment, testing and medical issues would go through the Health Ministry. The Home Front would deal with logistics. What began with 20 patients on March 19, soon became hundreds and topped 1,000 by early April.
The Defense Ministry sought to promote the idea as part of its massive and growing efforts to fight the virus. This included procurement of protective masks and other items from abroad and also supporting local initiatives to develop ventilators and create various hi-tech gadgets to fight the virus. The Directorate of Production and Procurement of the Ministry called for the use of additional hotels in mid-March. “This is a pre-tender, a public appeal intended for all hotels and suitable facilities that meet the requirements detailed in the application,” the Ministry said.
Laredo emphasizes the great lengths the Home Front went to in order to make sure that the soldiers and staff do not mingle with the guests. The idea is that once the people arrive, transported by an ambulance, they are checked in, receive a key and they then live in their bubble in the hotel with others. They can go outside, they can receive packages, but they cannot get delivery food. They get three meals a day and should keep the premises clean. There is no laundry service. No alcohol. No drugs or weapons allowed. The Ya’arim hotel will be kept at the highest levels of kashrut for the religious clientele and there will be prayer areas. This is part of the army’s attempt to help the people have a community feel. For the rest of the public, including the Arab minority, 12 other hotels will be used.
BRIG.-GEN. YORAM LAREDO, head of the Home Front’s hotels initiative and a former head of search and rescue, was called back to lead this uncommon endeavor  (Photo Credit: Seth J. Frantzman)BRIG.-GEN. YORAM LAREDO, head of the Home Front’s hotels initiative and a former head of search and rescue, was called back to lead this uncommon endeavor (Photo Credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Laredo lists the hotels that have been procured so far: one near Atlit and Kibbutz Lavi; another near Nir Etzion; the Kinar on the Sea of Galilee near Tiberias; the Dan Panorama in Tel Aviv; Dan Jerusalem; Prima Park; Prima Palace; Etz HaZeit in Jerusalem; the Jerusalem Gold Hotel; and the Harlington in Ashkelon.
“What that means is that we have hotels across the geography of Israel and for special populations such as Haredim.”
He says around 1,000 people were in the hotels in early April. There are some people who were in quarantine also in the hotels, separated from those with the virus, because they needed a place to be in quarantine not at home. They stay in their rooms and do not mix with others. The army personnel work in shifts and most expect to stay at the hotel for up to a month.
“For now we are always looking forward and trying to estimate how many will be needed to be moved from neighborhoods and we open more and more hotels. We have sufficient rooms and beds for maybe weeks or so,” says Laredo.
THE PROTOCOLS in place can now be expanded to more and more locations. Laredo says one of the unique things to see is the bonding between those who have now become part of this new brotherhood and sisterhood of coronavirus.
“You can see those who stayed there 28 days, there is emotional bonding among the sick. You need to see that when those who are healthy go home, those [who remain] are sad and waving from the balcony. There is a bonding.”
The hotels are for the healthy, but there are all age groups. The oldest so far is 87 and some are in their 60s and 70s. The residents must be healthy because the concept is just waiting to test negative for the virus. The process begins at the kupat holim with permission to go to one of the hotels. The guest is then connected to the Home Front command and taken by EMS. The residents understand the conditions they will remain under. No pets, no pizza delivery.
“We don’t want them to be frustrated.”
They will also get things like a way to measure their temperature or visits from a doctor. The health ministry and local clinics they are members of will coordinate additional Covid-19 tests from time to time. They need to test negative and meet certain conditions to leave. Laredo is clear to emphasize again, between phone calls from his officers and men, that these are guests and this is more a motel than a hotel.
What’s the difference? No room service.