Hong Kong's quarantine nightmare: Three weeks in a hotel, if you can find one

Travellers have tried to scrap their trips, then discovered that their hotel reservations could not be refunded. PHOTO: NYTIMES

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - Before boarding her flight to Hong Kong for a new job last month, 34-year-old Swiss museum curator Tanja Cunz made sure she had met all of the government's stringent entry requirements. Cunz took a coronavirus test, paid for two weeks of quarantine at a government-designated hotel and steeled herself for half a month without fresh air.

But as her plane touched down in Hong Kong on Christmas morning, an announcement came over the loudspeaker: The government overnight had extended the quarantine period from two weeks to three, effective immediately. The passengers would have to secure a third week at their hotel before they could leave the airport.

Cunz was stunned. Not only would she have to pay for an extra week of quarantine but she would also have to postpone her start date at work by one week, meaning a loss of salary too.

"All your plans, they just fall apart," Cunz said in a phone call from her hotel room, from which she can see her future office across Victoria Harbour.

Travellers rich and poor, hotels and airlines alike have scrambled to adjust since Hong Kong abruptly introduced its three-week quarantine policy. At a time when global travel has been disrupted in myriad ways, Hong Kong's policy stands out for its length and the confusion it has unleashed.

Some travellers who had already booked two-week hotel slots said they had tried to secure an extension, only to have the entire reservation cancelled. Others have tried to scrap their trips, then discovered that their hotel reservations could not be refunded.

Some domestic workers, the largely low-income women from the Philippines and Indonesia who make up about 5% of Hong Kong's population, may be out of work indefinitely because their employers do not want to pay for a 21-night stay.

The government has acknowledged the chaos, announcing last week that it was "very concerned" by reports of price gouging by hotels. Still, it has defended the policy as necessary to prevent the spread of a highly contagious variant of the virus. Hong Kong has largely managed to avoid the kind of mass outbreaks that have crippled most of the rest of the world, aided in part by its strict quarantine regimen.

Global travellers these days face a patchwork of rules wherever they go - a patchwork that has been scrambled further by governments' race to try to keep out the new variant. Mainland China requires two weeks of quarantine at a government-designated facility and then a variable number of days of home confinement afterwards. The US and some European countries, on the other hand, recently reduced the recommended quarantine time from 14 days to 10.

Some scientists have questioned the Hong Kong extension because the virus is widely considered to have a 14-day incubation period. Studies have estimated that 1% to 10% of coronavirus patients may have incubation periods longer than that. The Hong Kong government acknowledged that such cases were "very exceptional" but said that the precautions were necessary.

Hannah Clapham, a public health professor at the National University of Singapore, said that while a three-week quarantine would "perhaps slightly reduce the number of infectious individuals entering a population," the government should weigh that small potential gain against the policy's steep price.

The 21-day rule was "just to play it safe," said Jin Dongyan, a molecular virologist at the University of Hong Kong. Still, he added, "I think they're doing too much." While Cunz was caught unprepared, those with more time to reconsider their plans have found problems of their own.

Peter Lam, a logistics industry employee in Ireland, decided to cancel his return to Hong Kong to visit family. He could not afford an extra week. He also worried that the government would suddenly require a full month, the entirety of his planned trip.

But when he contacted his hotel, it told him the reservation was nonrefundable. Lam, 33, filed a complaint with Hong Kong's Consumer Council, the Hong Kong Tourism Board and his credit card company. After three days, the hotel said it would do Lam a special favour and give him a refund, he said.

Others have had the opposite problem. Edwin Edwin, a consultant who was returning to Hong Kong after visiting family in the Netherlands, asked his quarantine hotel if he could reserve seven more days. A few hours later, he received an email: The hotel was full for that third week, so his entire reservation had been cancelled.

He spent half a day desperately contacting other hotels. The only one he could find was twice the price.

In the end, Edwin travelled to Taiwan, where he is also a resident, and is quarantining there for two weeks as required. He will eventually return to Hong Kong from there. Arrivals from Taiwan are allowed to quarantine at home.

"The total trip was supposed to be a month, including quarantine," he said. "Adding this all up, of course, it's going to be a lot longer."Others have no choice. The policy has taken a toll on foreign domestic workers, who live and work in their employers' homes, performing tasks such as cleaning and child care.

Such workers already endure low wages and discrimination, but the quarantine rules have exacerbated some of those issues, according to Jec Sernande, the secretary of the Hong Kong Federation of Asian Domestic Workers Unions.

One worker was asked by her employer not to return to the Philippines this year, Sernande said, to avoid paying for her quarantine after she returned. (The government began requiring employers to pay for quarantine for domestic workers last month.) Others are stuck in the Philippines without pay because their employers have postponed their contract start dates until the quarantine requirements in Hong Kong ease.

"She doesn't have any work in the Philippines," Sernande said of one of those workers. "She's just waiting."

Even for the hotel industry, the policy has brought headaches. Arrivals at Hong Kong's airport have plummeted from an average of 1,300 each day in November to a few hundred most days since Christmas. Occupancy rates for many hotels hover around 30 per cent to 40 per cent, according to Yiu Si-Wing, a lawmaker who represents the tourism sector.

Some of the government's 36 designated quarantine hotels have enquired about withdrawing from the programme, Yiu said. Hotels that receive guests for quarantine cannot take other guests, such as long-term residents or Hong Kongers looking for a staycation.

Cheaper hotels have filled up quickly, but hotels that charge $65 or more a night have struggled, Yiu said. The government has promised to pay hotels a subsidy if they do not reach 50% occupancy. That will probably apply to a majority of hotels above that price threshold, Yiu said.

Still, despite their complaints, no hotels have actually moved to leave the programme, Yiu said.

"From an income perspective, they can't not do it," he said.

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