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How Giants, local hotel formed own SF bubble last season

NBC Sports

The Giants watched closely last August as a couple of COVID-19 outbreaks threatened the MLB season, and in recent months they have seen similar situations with the NFL and now the NBA's attempt to get through a second season during a pandemic. 

This is all extremely difficult to pull off, with just the NBA's original restart closely resembling a smooth season. Those games took place in a bubble, a possibility MLB players strongly fought back against last summer. Ultimately, MLB made it through the season, and the Giants played 60 games with just one false positive test result. They were able to do so in part because they sort of did have their own bubble. 

When they returned to San Francisco for Spring Training 2.0, the Giants took over Hotel VIA, an upscale hotel located right across the street from Oracle Park. They occupied 80 rooms at first and at one point had 30 players staying at the hotel, and throughout the three months that players were back in San Francisco, there were never fewer than a dozen players or coaches making a daily walk to work across just four lanes of light traffic.

The ability to put so many players right across the street and limit their interactions with the outside world helped the Giants safely get through a season played during a pandemic. But the benefits were just as great for Hotel VIA, which shut down in March thinking that business would be back in just a few weeks. 

 

"That was a godsend to us," Barbara Perzigian, the hotel's general manager, said recently over the phone. "Once we had them here we were able to do the things that we needed to do to reopen the business and bring back a little staff. We were never able to bring back all of our staff, but we had a base to build from so that we could reopen."

Hotel VIA sits right across King Street, halfway between 2nd and 3rd, the two streets leading directly to the ballpark. It is a part of the city -- filled with restaurants, coffee shops and bars -- that currently looks somewhat abandoned. Restaurants have been closed to in-person dining for most of the last 10 months, and when the Giants returned last July for a second camp, just about the only people seen around Oracle Park were joggers taking advantage of the wide sidewalks that were far emptier than usual.

Hotel VIA was not shut down by the city because it counted as an essential business, but as the coronavirus spread in March, the decision became clear. 

"The cancellations were coming every day. We started out with more cancellations than reservations, and then after a while it was nothing but cancellations," Perzigian said. "March turned into April and turned into May, and frankly I don't know how we would have reopened had it not been for the Giants, because everything just stayed bad.

"It just went from bad to worse. In order to reopen a business you need some base to reopen, and that base wasn't there."

The boutique hotel is not affiliated with any major chains. It's an independent hotel that was built by two brothers from Ireland who had never put up a hotel before but wanted to create one that reflected a fast-growing neighborhood in SoMa. Management was never going to close for good, not after all the work that went into every aspect of designing the hotel, but last summer it was unclear when customers would be back. Hotels rely mostly on business travel, and that has almost entirely gone away for corporations and small businesses since last March. 

The Giants were one of the few regular customers who still had a need, and the partnership was an obvious one. They put extremely strict protocols in place last summer and needed a safe place where players and staffers could quarantine close to the ballpark. When players arrived last July, they went to the hotel, then walked across to the ballpark for initial COVID-19 testing, and then went back to their rooms to quarantine until results were back. 

The organization and the hotel had a previous relationship, with call-ups and family members regularly staying there for a few nights, along with former Giants who are brought back into town. Beyond that connection and the location, Hotel VIA offered a lot that made it a perfect fit. The building is nearly brand new and has an air filtration system that guarantees no room shares air with any other room, along with a 3,000 square foot rooftop deck that allowed players and coaches to get fresh air. Even before the Giants moved in, Hotel VIA was stocking up on PPE supplies and had brought experts from UCSF over to train the hotel staff on health, sanitization and rapid response guidelines. When the partnership was formed, the hotel was able to bring back about a quarter of its staff.

 

The Giants moved in in July and had the entire hotel to themselves, adjusting on the fly. 

"When MLB would send out revisions to the protocols, the ability to literally walk across the street or call Barbara and implement whatever those protocols were was a lifesaver," said Abe Silvestri, the Giants' director of team travel. "If you can alter the environment where they're going home at night and waking up, as well as at the ballpark, and then you've got a guy like L.J. Petra to enforce it all, it's the perfect concoction for a healthy team.

"We really wanted to enforce that guys not leave the hotel. That was a team recommendation at first and by the time it got to the end of the year it was an MLB mandate. You think about all the things these guys need and Barbara let us look at that entire hotel as if it was our own and said, 'Okay, what do you need to do?'"

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Some of the adjustments were small, like replacing glassware and porcelain coffee cups in rooms with paper cups when MLB changed its rules. Some were bigger asks. To make sure players didn't need to go out and walk around to find snacks, one room on each floor was converted to a mini-mart, a popular stop for players who were still hungry or thirsty as they returned from night games across the street. The front doors were locked to outsiders and takeout deliveries were accepted by hotel employees outside and then brought up to players' doors. 

Most of the changes were made to keep the environment clean, but there was one key adjustment to keep players entertained. Multiple Giants who stayed there over the summer said the hotel's IT staff came up and adjusted their flatscreens so they were more suited for the hours and hours of PlayStation that went on. 

That led to some funny moments once the Giants did move out at the end of September. On several occasions the front desk got a call that a guest's TV seemingly wasn't working, only to discover the guest was staying in the former room of a Giant who had used it primarily for gaming. 

Hotel VIA made the property exclusive to the Giants in July and then reopened to the public once the roster was cut down for opening day, as most of the players who remained were veterans who had found their own apartments or homes in the Bay Area. The remaining Giants were put on their own floors that weren't open to other guests and distancing was strictly enforced in shared spaces, and when MLB demanded that team's go back into quarantine if they were in playoff contention, the hotel once again became exclusive to the Giants for the final few days of the season. 

 

It was around that time that the hotel staff experienced one of the harder parts of the game. 

"It was sad the day that Panda came back here and had been (designated for assignment). There's a reason everybody loves Panda, right?" Perzigian said. "He's such a nice guy. He was here all the time and then all of a sudden he was gone. We were so sad."

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After the final weekend, players and staffers finally checked out for good. Some had been there for three months, others had come and gone depending on whether they were in San Francisco or on the alternate roster, along with MLB's rules about quarantining. None of them ever tested positive.

"When they weren't on the road, there's only two places where they were," Perzigian said of her summer guests. "If they're not getting sick over there (at Oracle Park), we can't have them getting sick over here. It was a lot of pressure, but it was good. It was nice to have them and it was a lot of fun."