Neal St. Anthony
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Nyreshia Davis and Lindsey Lundgren are hospitable warriors in the pandemic-reeling hospitality industry.

Davis, head of housekeeping, and Lundgren, a front-office manager, volunteered for a skeleton crew of 16 workers to keep the InterContinental Hotel open at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The hotel furloughed 113 workers following the plunge in air travel as the coronavirus spread around the country. The hotel’s occupancy dropped to around 10%.

“Nobody does what they do as well as they do,” said Serah Morrissey, human resources director for Graves Hospitality, the Minneapolis-based co-owner of the hotel. “They are selfless.”

The guests are airline crews, traveling health care workers, first responders and mourners visiting families.

“I see you bite your tongue when barked at by people who are tired,” Morrissey wrote gratefully to front-line workers recently. “I see you walk into dirty guest rooms, knowing the most meaningful thing you can do for others is clean and sanitize … as grueling as the work may be. Behind your masks and gloves. I know you are scared sometimes.

“I see you holding gloved hands with a guest who couldn’t be with an elderly parent dying of the virus.”

David and Lundgren didn’t have to work. They could have taken unemployment compensation and made another $600 each week in federal stimulus funds for up to 12 weeks; more than their pay. Graves Hospitality quickly made up the difference.

“I didn’t want to just go home and get bored, day after day,” said Davis, who has gone from managing the housekeeping staff to cleaning rooms herself.

“I start at 6 a.m.,” she explained. “We take extra time. We change sheets, we clean, we analyze and we sanitize. And then we sanitize again. My goal is to make sure everything is done properly.”

Morrissey encouraged the workers to stay in the luxury hotel themselves, but Davis and Lundgren declined.

“I’m home-schooling my [grade-school] daughter,” said Davis, who gets help from her mother.

At first, Davis and Lundgren were nervous about catching the virus.

“We wash our hands regularly, wear masks and keep our distance,” Lundgren said. “We’re protective of each other.”

In addition to checking in guests, the front-desk staff helps drive the shuttle, serve drinks and heat meals prepared by a chef who works from a kitchen in a restaurant that’s closed. Focusing on work today helps them abate worry about the future.

Marc Fabert, general manager of the Airport Hilton Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, is in a similar situation.

“We’re running around 10% occupancy,” he said. “Rates are whatever you can get. All are less than $100 a night.”

He said Airport Hilton furloughed 110 employees. It is now run by five managers and a handful of hourly paid workers.

“Business has picked up a little. There’s a little bit of leisure travel,” Fabert said. “Some of it is people who are just getting antsy and want out of the house for a night or two. I think we will start to see a slight pickup in leisure travel. It’s going to take awhile for the airline industry to come back.”

Jim Graves, founder of Graves Hospitality and a 40-year developer and hotelier, has survived recessions — but nothing like this. He and airport hotel co-owner, Intercontinental Real Estate of Boston, could save money shuttering the hotel.

“We keep it open for continuity and travelers, such as aircrews … including health care providers and first responders and anyone who needs a place to stay,” Graves said. “ I think we will survive this, but we will be tattered.”

The InterContinental, which opened in 2018 and cost $90 million to build, is a shining monument to a tattered trade.

Hospitality Minnesota said up to half its 2,000-member restaurants, hotels, resorts and craft brewers could close this summer without more government assistance. The trade group said the industry employs about 300,000 Minnesotans, or 10% of the state workforce, and generated 18% of state sales taxes last year.

Liz Rammer, chief executive of Hospitality Minnesota, said the Small Business Administration’s forgivable-loan program, aimed at maintaining payrolls, didn’t work because hotels and restaurants have been mostly dormant since March. And a low-interest SBA disaster-loan pool drained too fast. The industry wants the SBA to extend forgivable Payroll Protection Plan loans past June and relax forgiveness provisions.

The trade group is asking the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to increase the state’s zero-interest emergency-loan pool from $30 million to $120 million. It wants the per-business maximum loan to be raised to $75,000 from $30,000.

The state agency is studying these requests. It must avoid the loopholes that put some large businesses ahead of small ones in the first round of the SBA’s emergency-loan program.

Further state and local assistance should be flexible, focused on small businesses owned by individuals who demonstrate need. Zero-percent loans with up to five-year repayment of 50% of the principal might be a starting point.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.