SINGAPORE - Biologist Marcus Chua turned 36 on Thursday (March 26) but the birthday was a bittersweet occasion despite his swanky surroundings in a plush hotel in the Marina Bay area with sweeping views of Singapore's famous city skyline.
It might all look five-star at first glance but the new reality for the many people like Mr Chua complying with 14-day stay-home notices is far from fancy.
Room service at the Swissotel the Stamford for some might be a fancy dinner on a silver tray but he makes do with a meal hung on his door in a disposable plastic box. Exercise? Walk around the room.
Mr Chua's "birthday staycay" began when he flew back from the United States on Thursday night (March 26), prepared to serve the stay-home period in a hotel instead of in his own home.
"Even though it was a pity that I could not see my family after arriving in Singapore, it's actually my preferred option to stay elsewhere so there is less chance of me transmitting the virus to others if I had been infected," said Mr Chua, a PhD student at George Mason University in Washington DC.
The Ministry of Health ruled on Tuesday (March 24) that all Singaporeans returning from Britain and the US from 11.59pm on Wednesday will have to serve their 14-day stay-home notices in dedicated facilities instead of their own homes.
This was because those coming in from both these countries account for the largest share of imported cases by far. About 1,200 people a day have been returning from these two countries.
Returnees will have their own room and bathroom and all meals provided so that they avoid physical contact with other individuals, the MOH said.
Mr Chua, who was put in a room with a balcony that offered a panoramic view of the Marina Bay skyline, said on Twitter: "It's a brilliant move to support the hospitality industry and keep the pandemic at bay."
He added that travellers have special laundry bags to prevent contamination and are notified that spot checks would be done via call or text messages.
Those who flout the notice may also be liable to penalties such as being required to bear the full cost of the hotel stay, noted a Singapore Tourism Board circular given to returning passengers.
Mr Chua, a mammal scientist at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, told The Straits Times that he had initially considered staying put in the US to finish the semester but the escalating crisis there and repeated reminders from NUS and the Singapore Embassy to come home prompted him to change his mind.
He booked a flight to return to Singapore on April 1 but this had to be brought forward after Etihad Airways cancelled the flight.
Some of his colleagues at NUS had collated data on previous flights between Washington and San Francisco - where the next home-bound Singapore Airlines flight would depart from - and analysed them to find a route that had the least likelihood of being cancelled.
Thankfully, the Alaska Airlines flight departed on time and Mr Chua found himself in San Francisco with about a day to spare.
He said: "There was a huge sense of comfort when I boarded the Singapore Airlines flight. Not only did it remind me of home, it was also comforting to see cabin crew taking precautions by donning surgical masks."
It was also a full-service flight, with cabin crew offering extra snacks to passengers to take to their hotels upon arrival, said Mr Chua.
Passengers were also placed at least a seat apart from one another.
When they arrived at Changi Airport, passengers were served stay-home notices by Immigration and Checkpoints Authority officers and bussed to the hotel in groups of 15 in 40-seater coaches.
"Perfect for maintaining social distancing," Mr Chua quipped, adding: "I couldn't be more impressed and proud of Singapore's response to Covid-19."
While he is looking forward to going for a swim and catching up with family and friends after serving his stay-home notice, Mr Chua said he has no lack of things to do in his room.
He plans to catch up on his lectures, which are being broadcast online, complete his assignments and write research proposals.
"When all that is done, there's video streaming and two books to read," he said.
"And I have my binoculars, so there's also bird-watching. I heard junglefowls and kingfishers this morning."