Hong Kong Style Traveler Lockdown — Episode 2: The Anatomy of a Quarantine
How is quarantine?
Thank you, to all of you who have kindly asked.
Come with me, let’s tour the anatomy of my life in a Hong Kong government-designated quarantine hotel room. I’ll walk you through why I’m here, how I got here, what happens during quarantine — the standard procedures and how I am getting through the time — the non-standard procedures. Finally, you’ll walk away with a snapshot of my mind!
Hurry! My tour runs only one more day.
Thank you so much for joining and supporting today!
Why am I in quarantine?
All arrivals to Hong Kong, regardless of where they are coming from and whether they are vaccinated, must quarantine in a government-designated quarantine hotel, unless you are in one of the exempted categories, e.g. Nicole Kidman. Quarantine means staying in the room by yourself or with your travel partners during the entire period. Leaving the room, even going into the hallway, is a violation of Compulsory Quarantine Orders punishable by a $25,000 HKD (~$3200 USD) fine and 6 months in prison.
The amount of time one has to quarantine does depend on vaccination status and which country you come from before coming to Hong Kong.
In late June, I left for the US to be with my parents in the weeks before, during, and after my father’s hip replacement surgery. I extended my stay in North America twice. The first time to be with my parents longer. The second time for me time between family time and quarantine time.
About a week before I was scheduled to leave the US in late August, the government of Hong Kong “upgraded” the USA to a Group A country. All arrivals from Group A countries must quarantine for 21 days, vaccinated or not.
Prior to the upgrade, the USA was a Group B country. For arrivals from Group B countries, people who are fully vaccinated with government-approved vaccines get to quarantine for 14 days. People who are not fully vaccinated get to quarantine for 21 days.
There is a Group C — only one country right now — New Zealand. Fully vaccinated arrivals from New Zealand get to quarantine for 7 days. Non-fully vaccinated individuals arriving from New Zealand quarantine for 14 days.
You are considered a “Group A arrival” if you were in a Group A country within 21 days before leaving for boarding for Hong Kong.
Before returning to Hong Kong, I spent 23 days in Toronto, Canada, a Group B country. I get to quarantine for 14 days.
Where am I?
I am at the Ramada Grand View in North Point. It is one of the cheapest, at 530 (~68 USD) HKD per night, or 7420 HKD (~950 USD) for 14 nights of lodging and 3 meals delivered per day.
For government information, check the government’s list of designated quarantine hotels (DQH).
For experiential information, join an HK quarantine support group on Facebook, such as this one.
How did I get here?
The plane lands. All passengers follow the usual path out the gate and into the long, long hallways of conveyor belt sidewalks and occasional bathrooms. This part looks like arriving in Hong Kong any other year.
Then, there’s the split. After the long hallway, I’m directed down the left side of stairs with most arriving passengers. The right side is for passengers returning under the government’s Return2hk (for HK residents returning from Mainland and Macao without being subject to quarantine) or Come2hk schemes (for non-residents coming to HK from Macao or Guangdong Province).
From here on out, the maze is new from my 2020 in-bound processing and lockdown.
We pass through a station where we flash a staff member the QR code issued from our online Health Declaration.
To depart Toronto, I needed to show at the airport, in addition to the usual IDs (paper copies best):
1) Proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test result
2) Certification of the lab that conducted the test as ISO 15189
3) Proof of my two vaccination doses
4) Proof of my quarantine hotel booking
5) The QR code from completing the online Health Declaration Form with the Hong Kong Department of Health, which requires answering questions about all of the above.
After flashing our Health Declaration QR code to an approving patroller, we board a subway train to another terminal in the airport that’s repurposed to process arriving passengers for COVID status and quarantine orders. Upon alighting, you meet a sign with the 8-step road map from where you are now to reclaiming your luggage.
According to the sign, step 1 is to download the StayHomeSafe app — last year, this app was used for virtual surveillance when quarantine could be done in one’s own home. Since my arrival, I have not been instructed to download or use it — perhaps CCTV in the hotel hallways is enough.
Steps 2 & 3 — your Health Declaration is checked, you’re given a number, and one-by-one, directed to a booth where a health worker swabs your nose for a COVID-19 PCR test.
Step 4 — at another station, an officer dials the phone number you’ve provided in your Health Declaration and sees that you can receive the call with a phone on you.
Step 5 — talk with another officer to receive your Compulsory Quarantine Order. This you will need repeatedly between now and getting to the hotel, and then for two COVID tests during the one week after quarantine.
Steps 6 & 7 — collect an index card on a lanyard — the color combination of the card and lanyard specific to your arriving flight — a staff member writes your assigned seat on the card. Collect snacks — a white bread sandwich, some sandwich crackers or chips (or crisps for UK English), and a bottle of distilled water — and go wait at your assigned seat among an array of white tables and chairs in what used to be a boarding gate
I sit at my seat, Q8 in section G202 — in pre-pandemic days, this was boarding gate 202.
Within two hours, those who test negative are released to another leg of normal pre-pandemic arrival procedures — immigration and baggage claim.
By the time you arrive at baggage claim, you just need to collect your luggage from the line-up.
Now the procedures become abnormal again as you pass through customs and into the vast dim unpopulated arrival hall. A staff member directs passengers to another queue and series of counters, where they then get distributed into lines for shuttle bus routes specific to the quarantine hotels.
When your bus arrives, push your luggage out and give it to the gowned staff who will spray it with a white disinfectant cloud as you take your carry-ons and sit in your own row.
Ramada Grand View is the last hotel on our circuit. Upon arrival, we are channeled into a side door to check-in with a man behind a singular counter in a corner with a flimsy clear plastic wall surrounding him.
After the man reviews my documents and presents me with a packet of the standard rules and procedures — in Chinese, English, Filipino, and Bahasa — I’m directed into an elevator alone. I walk onto my floor and follow signs to my room along a carpeted hallway with beige yellow wallpaper lit more yellow by hall lights that wear translucent plastic bags.
In I go, to my new home with the key I am told can be used only once.
What happens during quarantine — the standard procedures
What’s provided on check-in
The hotel gives you one 700 mL bottle of distilled water per night of quarantine. Though I will quarantine 14 days, I have 21 bottles of water. I will use some of these as bookends. I will pile other full bottles into backpacks for weight training (see “How I handle quarantine”)
Inside the closet, there is a bag full of perhaps a dozen each of small bottles of shampoo, small bottles of bath foam, bars of soap, toothbrush + toothpaste packets, and shower caps. In another bag, you can find two extra sets of bedsheets and pillowcases. Eight rolls of toilet paper and eight pairs of disposable hotel slippers stand by in cellophane.
Three meals come daily. Breakfast between 8:00 and 9:30 am, lunch between 12:00 and 1:30 pm, and dinner between 5:00 and 6:30 pm. There are two options for every meal, a non-vegetarian and a vegetarian option. One must order vegetarian meals by noon at least two days in advance.
When meals arrive, the deliverer knocks on the door or rings the doorbell. I wait at least a few seconds, then put on my mask, open the door, grab the bag off of the stool with your room number written on it and bring it inside.
The packet includes a menu of meals from September 15 through October 31 in English and Chinese and an a la carte menu.
The hotel provides neither tea nor coffee.
The refrigerator runs. Cooking is prohibited.
Garbage pick-up happens twice a day, according to the packet, at 9:00 hrs and 15:00 hrs. You put your garbage, tied up tightly in plastic bags, on the floor outside of your door half an hour before these pick-up times. Do not put garbage at the door outside those times; the hotel may charge an extra garbage collection fee.
The same goes for used towels and linens — put them in a plastic bag tied shut outside your door. Call reception for delivery of more, which will be placed on your stool outside the door.
Between 7 am and midnight, the hotel accepts deliveries from friends and family and from outside vendors ordered by you. Those things get dropped off with the hotel staff, who then deliver them to your door like they do anything else.
You cannot have anything delivered out of your room to anyone.
You must measure and record your temperature twice a day in the government-issued booklet, using the airport-issued thermometer.
Testing: the Plan
Over 14 days in quarantine, I will take 4 COVID tests in total. During the week after quarantine, I’ll take two more tests at government- run community centers. Including the test I took prior to boarding for Hong Kong, that’s 8 tests in a month, 7 of them paid by the Hong Kong government.
All tests are PCR tests (this researcher is happy to talk with you more about what this means if you ask).
All COVID tests taken during quarantine are administered by the Hong Kong biotech company, Prenetics.
(Just last month, leadership of Prenetics agreed to a merger with a US special acquisition company, led by entrepreneur and CEO of real estate empire New World Development Adrian Cheng. If finalized, the enterprise will be valued at over 1 billion USD in equity and Prenetics will become the first ever Hong Kong unicorn to be listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange.)
The sample for the first test is taken on day 3 using a kit in the check-in packet. For this test, they ask for “deep throat saliva” — dig deep in your throat as if getting ready to hock-a-loogie (Wikipedia, scientific source) , then do it — spitting into the tube. Follow the instructions on the packet to sterilize the outside of the tube and leave the packet on the stool outside your door for collection before 9:30 am that day. You will get your result by text message.
The second, third, and fourth tests — on quarantine days 5, 9, and 12 — are administered point-blank by staff from Prenetics.
Testing: the Experience
One day before their first visit, I am told by a phone call that they will come between 10:00 am and 11:00 am the next day. The next day, Day 5, they come at 11:40 am while I am meeting a high-net-worth individual for the first time.
“*BAM BAM bam*,” they knocked on the door. “COVID-19 testing!” they shouted. I apologized to the people in my meeting and agreed to reschedule, not before the doorbell rang twice more and I shouted back, “Wait a moment, I’m coming.”
At this point, you must appear at the door wearing a mask and carrying your hotel chair. You’ll open the door to find staff in blue gowns with what might be an air ventilator with a long tube pointing at you wearing a paper mesh version of a shower cap. You sit down, take off your mask only when instructed, and let them swab both nostrils followed by a cheek swab. Then they ask for your waste bin if you haven’t put it by the door already. They dispose of their gloves and swab wrappers into your waste bin.
“Your waste goes in my bin?” I asked.
“Yes, what’s on these gloves is yours,” one of them said. “Later you will put this rubbish outside,” meaning I will put the trash outside my room for collection.
“Please pick that up,” said the staff who had just missed the bin and accidentally threw their gloves onto my carpet.
I stand there looking at the gloves doing nothing. They put on another glove to pick up their gloves and put them into the bin.
Later, I find pictographs in the check-in packet instructing us to prepare our own waste bin for glove disposal.
The second time they come, on Day 9, I receive no notice about when they will come. They knock during my therapy session. My therapist kindly stops the clock for the 4 minutes needed to do the test.
On Day 12, I simply apologize in advance to anyone I meet online that morning in case we do get interrupted. Indeed, testing happens during my meeting with an accomplished multi-national entrepreneur and chief management officer, who kindly awaits my return.
If my fourth COVID test in quarantine comes back negative, I will be allowed to check out at midnight following Day 14 and must do so before 10 am on Day 15. Since I’ve evolved into a sleep at 10 pm up at 5 am morning bird, I plan to leave on Day 15.
One must make an appointment with the hotel to check out. You are not permitted to leave without saying goodbye properly.
How do I handle quarantine: the non-standard procedures
I live as if I live here. I do, for these two weeks.
Setting up a space to live
After sleeping off the almost 48-hour door-to-door trip to get here, I take out everything I think I’ll use these few weeks. I fold the clothes and put them away in drawers or hang them up in the closet. I cluster together the toiletries I will use more often on the bathroom shelf. I put stationary, medicine, vitamins, useful odds and ends into drawers and group them together so I can find them easily.
I do not unpack shoes, sunglasses, or sunscreen.
I push my two beds together to make a sleeping space with the two beds pushed together on the wall farthest from the window and a waking space near the 1.5-meter high window of my 21st-floor room facing Lion Rock.
Upon pushing the beds together, “hello” says a torn wrapper for a salty egg pasty, a pistachio shell, and a toothpick covered in dust.
I send messages to the WhatsApp number provided in the check-in packet.
In the evening, a vacuum cleaner arrives and I may borrow it for one hour.
They also provide me with a bottle of disinfectant in a reused water bottle. A friend kindly brings me an empty spray bottle, so I can spray disinfectant on my carpet.
I use the window ledge as a place to see the day go by, enjoy the sun, watch life happening below in the daytime and through the lit windows of adjacent apartments in the nighttime. Here is the place to “sunbathe”, to have a meal with a view, to read, sew buttons onto a shirt, sing happy birthday to someone, journal, or just lay around.
I modify my workspace daily, some days hourly. There is a desk + chair setup. Sometimes, this chair+monitor+keyboard height combination does not feel right for me; sometimes just sitting in a chair doesn’t feel right for me. I rearrange my workspace in any way I can think of to keep my body from being bored and my mind from languishing.
Special thanks to the friend who brings me my keyboard and an HDMI cable from my apartment.
I live as I would like to when I have the option to out, roam about town, see people in 3D. Each day, I make my bed, exercise, take showers, get dressed, wear earrings, and wash some clothes by hand. I change the bed linens once a week.
I vary the substance, location, and pace of my work, exercise, reading, and recreation. Don’t be afraid to search YouTube for any type of exercise you can think of. Here are some of my picks:
Core Workouts for Climbers by Climbing Nomads
Yes, Robot Dance Class for kids.
I ask family and friends what the outside world is like and they tell me. I schedule workdays and I schedule off days. I do what I can to keep the days and the hours from blurring together.
The hotel’s meal schedule gives my day structure. The meals are delivered somewhere between lukewarm and hot and in the absence of a microwave (I hear I could ask for one but I don’t want to store it in my room), they’re not getting any warmer. With dinner delivered by 6 pm, my evenings are wide open.
My body clock adjusts to a schedule that reminds me of camping. I feel sleepy not long after sundown. I fade by 10:00 pm and am easily up in time for a 7:00 am HKT meeting with someone in the Americas. It’s going to take more conscious planning to make my multi-continental work-life work once I am out and about and say, facilitating a workshop somewhere in town until 10:00 pm and then finding my 45–75 minute commute home.
The food isn’t good, but it is better than the hospital food served to my dad during his recovery from hip surgery, and it temporarily relieves me of all the decisions that go into making my meals and cleaning up after them. It’s a terrible amount of disposable food packaging and cutlery, though, especially on the day when the fork is too crooked to stab anything.
The non-vegetarian meals may be balanced on macronutrients — carbohydrates, proteins, and fats — but they lack produce. I do not count the few slices of wilted cabbage and carrots atop the rice, sometimes cabbage and carrot-colored, sometimes brown.
A few days in, I decide to go vegetarian — those meals contain an enjoyable amount of produce. With every meal being a pile of braised vegetables atop a rice pile, it’s a trade-off of variety for more nutrition. The sauce on the vegetables seems to rotate every 4 days.
The Hong Kong government’s requirement for all arrivals to quarantine in a DQH took effect on November 13, 2020. Since then, an online ecosystem of support and information sharing has sprung to life.
On Facebook, there are Hong Kong quarantine support groups, such as this one, where people post their opinions and experiences in quarantine in different hotels as well as updates on airline bans, getting stuck in different places around the world, the latest HK government policies, etc.
Throughout the pandemic, the government has published the dates, flights, seat numbers, and case numbers of people who have arrived in Hong Kong and tested positive for COVID-19 either upon arrival or soon enough afterwards to be counted as an “imported case.”
My trip happened just in time. Toronto to Doha was no problem.
My connecting flight, QR818 Doha to Hong Kong on Qatar Airways, was banned during August 26th — September 9th for non-compliance. I flew after this flight resumed operating, and after my arrival, it is now banned again starting September 28th through October 11th after four passengers tested positive upon arrival on September 26th. This news circulated on the Hong Kong Quarantine Support Group on Facebook before we saw it in the local media.
Confinees of individual DQH’s have created WhatsApp communities of comrades in confinement. In the Ramada NP Q Group, people are introducing themselves, asking for tips on how to make it more bearable, conferring on whether they received the scheduled meal and if the Wi-Fi sufficiently supports their work calls, sometimes complaining, but mostly sharing support, ideas, photos, and comradery as they count down the days — most here for 21 days.
For many days, I relished the temporary absence of anyone expecting me to go out and meet them. This introvert loves meeting people, but she invests time and energy to get there. From where I live in Hong Kong, that usually means at least an hour each way by public transport amidst one of the world’s most densely populated cities where social distancing means wearing a mask all the time and not seating two or more unaffiliated parties at one table in a restaurant, a common practice pre-pandemic. You’re constantly surrounded by sounds, sights, advertisements, smells of others, the heat, cold, and humidity of others’ spaces — all constantly changing. It’s a sensory typhoon sometimes invigorating sometimes intimidating.
When I arrive in quarantine, my windows are locked shut. Days later, I call reception and ask about my windows not opening. Not permitted, says the person who answers the phone. That’s OK, I say to myself, coping. It’s over 32 degrees Celsius (~90 Fahrenheit) each day.
Sealed inside, it’s surreally silent to see dark clouds and rain splatters on the window with hardly any sound. Days later, with more insider knowledge, I call reception again. A different person answers and instructs me on how to obtain permission to borrow the key that opens the windows.
I complete the steps, and in the evening, the key to the window arrives on the stool outside my door.
By now, quarantine is almost over. I’ve accomplished a lot and have been treated really well by the support communities, staff, friends, and relatives who show up on my screen or deliver to my door.
Let’s see what the night air is like, I think. I unlock my windows and push them open.
Automatically and unexpectedly, hearing the squeak of trams on metal tracks and the baseline echo of diesel transport amidst the skyscraper funnels, I burst into tears.
Quarantine is an adaptation. Like all adaptations, you’ll learn about yourself — What can you live with? What is important to you and why? How can you create it? Who is important to you?
Thank you for joining this tour of the anatomy of a quarantine. I hope you have enjoyed it and the snapshot of my mind, and yours, we’re closing with.
Special thanks to those of you who supported this tour with messages, calls, deliveries, coaching me to write this, editing it and suggesting the word “anatomy” (Renae Crossing), and more!
Soon, I’ll say goodbye properly and travel by red taxi to readapt another place I call home.
I can’t wait to see some of you live in 3D.