Travel quarantines: Enduring the mundane, one day at a time

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In an undated image provided by Joy Jones, Joy Jones’s daughter Jackie draws on the hotel room window with dry-erase markers while quarantined at the Stamford Plaza Hotel in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo: NYTimes)
May Samali knew she had reached her limit when she saw a tentacle emerging from her hotel dinner in Sydney.اضافة اعلان

“I called downstairs and said, ‘I’m a vegan now, thank you!’” she said. “It was just so much fish. I’d gotten to the point where even thinking about it made me gag.”

Samali swore off the seemingly unlimited seafood while in the middle of a required quarantine in the Hotel Sofitel in Sydney in December and early January. An executive coach, she was repatriating back to Australia after her US work visa expired. In addition to having an excess of fish, Samali was confined to her room all day, forbidden from stepping outside, for two weeks.

Air travelers around the world are finding themselves in similar situations, enduring mandatory government quarantines in hotels as they travel to countries that are very serious about containing the coronavirus.

Their quarantine is not the cushy experience of shorter-term quarantines or “resort bubbles” found in some destinations such as Kauai and the British Virgin Islands, where you are able to roam relatively freely on a resort’s expansive grounds while waiting for a negative coronavirus test.

This is the more extreme yet typical experience of quarantine life. These mandatory quarantines involve confinement to your room, 24 hours a day, for up to two weeks (assuming you test negative, that is). And with some exceptions, you are footing the bill — quarantine in New South Wales, Australia, for example, costs about $2,300 (3,000 Australian dollars) for a two-week quarantine for one adult, and up to 5,000 Australian dollars for a family of four to quarantine for two weeks. In January, Britain announced a mandatory 10-day quarantine from high-risk areas with a similar cost of about $2,500 for one adult.

Travelers journeying to countries with mandatory hotel quarantines, which also include New Zealand, mainland China and Tunisia, generally must have compelling reasons to do so — visiting ailing family members, engaging in “essential” business travel or carrying out permanent relocation.

Travel quarantine might seem manageable, even familiar, for those who have been living in places with shelter-in-place orders and working from home. Pete Lee, a San Francisco-based filmmaker, wasn’t concerned about the quarantine when he flew to Taiwan for work and to visit family.

“I was a little bit cocky when I first heard about the requirement,” Lee said during his eighth day at the Roaders Hotel in Taipei, Taiwan. “I was inside my San Francisco apartment for 22 out of 24 hours a day! But it’s a surprisingly intense experience. Those two hours make a big difference.”

Destination: Unknown

Much of quarantine life is determined by your hotel. And depending on where you are traveling, you may get to choose your quarantine hotel, or you may be assigned upon arrival. Lee was able to choose and book his quarantine hotel from a list compiled by the Taiwanese government, complete with information about location, cost, room size and the presence (or lack thereof) of windows. He also footed the bill.

Similarly, Ouiem Chettaoui, a public-policy specialist who splits her time between Washington, D.C., and Tunisia, was able to choose a hotel for her weeklong quarantine when returning to Tunis with her husband in September; she based her selection, the Medina Belisaire & Thalasso, on price and proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. “We couldn’t see it, but we could hear it. ... At least, we told ourselves we could!” she said.

Brett Barna, an investment manager who relocated to Shanghai with his fiancée in November, could select a district in the city but not the hotel itself. In an attempt to improve their odds, Barna chose the upscale Huangpu district where, he hoped, the hotels would be higher quality.

“There were four possible hotels in the district, three of which were nice enough. And then there was the budget option, the Home Inn,” he said. Barna and his fiancée, to their dismay, ended up paying for quarantine in that option, which had peeling wallpaper and bleach stains on the floor thanks to aggressive cleaning protocols.

In Australia and New Zealand, there’s no choice in the matter — upon landing, your entire flight is bused to a quarantine hotel with capacity. In most instances, travelers do not know where they are going until the bus pulls up at the hotel itself.

Joy Jones, a coach and educator based in San Francisco, traveled to New Zealand with her husband, a New Zealand citizen, and two young daughters in January. She learned before their departure that they would have no say where in the country they would be quarantined.

“That was probably the hardest part,” she said. “I could put together a bag of activities for my older daughter and plan on doing laundry in the sink. But not having an answer to where we’d be — after more than 21 hours of flying, with masks — would we have to get another flight? A three-hour bus ride?” They didn’t. Jones and her family were taken to Stamford Plaza in Auckland, just 25 minutes from the airport.

Pim Techamuanvivit and her New Zealander husband, however, were not so lucky. After arriving in Auckland from San Francisco, they were promptly directed to board a flight to Christchurch and taken to the Novotel Christchurch Airport hotel. “At that point, we just really, really wanted to get to the hotel!” said Techamuanvivit, chef-owner of Nari and Kin Khao restaurants in San Francisco and executive chef of Nahm in Bangkok.

Relief at arriving — finally — might be the initial reaction, but it doesn’t take long for reality to set in. The hotel room is all that you’ll see for a not-insignificant period of time.

As Adrian Wallace, a technology project manager who was quarantined at the Sydney Hilton in August after visiting his ailing father in Britain, put it: “That moment when the door slams ... it’s reminiscent of the opening scene of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’!” Wallace said, referring to the 1994 prison movie with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.

Passing the time

The challenge is managing the tedium. Working remotely helped pass the time for a number of the travelers, including Tait Sye, a senior director at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who traveled to Taipei from Washington, D.C., in November. Sye attempted to maintain East Coast hours for the majority of his quarantine at the Hanns House Hotel, working from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Wallace ran a half-marathon around his Sydney hotel room (he was unable to adjust the in-room air conditioner and got very sweaty). Barna and his fiancée in Shanghai had date nights on Zoom, since official policy required them to quarantine in separate rooms. A major highlight of their days came when a hotel employee, clad in full, hazmat-style personal protective equipment, knocked on the door and pointed an infrared thermometer at their heads. They were not allowed outside.

Three meals a day

Meals become very important in quarantine life, to mark the passing of the time and as regular occurrences to break up the monotony of the day. Food quality, though, varies widely, as Sye learned in Taipei, where meals were ordered from nearby restaurants.

He recounted the highs of a Michelin-starred meal from Kam’s Roast Goose and the thoughtfulness of a Thanksgiving dinner decorated with a paper turkey to the low of an absolutely terrible pizza (at least it was accompanied by a beer).

For Techamuanvivit, who documented her quarantine in Christchurch on Twitter, ordering food and grocery delivery was a lifesaver. “I’m a chef. I suppose I am, shall we say, a snob!” she said. “As a restaurateur, I don’t have much love for UberEats. But ordering Indian takeaway proved to be important.” (Others who had delivery options available similarly cited them as game changing.)

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