Hong Kong’s Three Week Quarantine Frustrates Travelers


HONG KONG – Before flying to Hong Kong for a new job last month, Tanja Cunz made sure she had met all of the government’s strict entry requirements. Ms. Cunz, a 34-year-old museum curator from Switzerland, took a coronavirus test, paid for two weeks of quarantine in a government-designated hotel and steeled herself without fresh air for half a month.

When their plane landed in Hong Kong on Christmas morning, an announcement came over the loudspeaker: The government will be overnight had extended the quarantine period from two weeks to three and was effective immediately. Passengers would have to secure a third week in their hotel before they could leave the airport.

Mrs. Cunz was stunned. Not only would she have to pay an additional week of quarantine, but she would also have to postpone her start of work by a week, which also means a loss of salary.

“All of your plans are just falling apart,” said Ms. Cunz on a phone call from her hotel room, where she can see her future office in Victoria Harbor.

Rich and poor travelers, hotels and airlines have struggled to adapt since Hong Kong abruptly rolled out its three-week quarantine policy. At a time when global travel has been disrupted in multiple ways, Hong Kong’s politics is characterized by its length and the confusion that comes with it.

Some travelers who had already booked two-week hotel spaces said they tried to secure an extension only to cancel the entire reservation. Others have tried to cancel their trips only to find that their hotel reservations were non-refundable.

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

The government acknowledged the chaos and announced last week that it was “very concerned” about reports of hotel price cuts. Still, politicians have defended it 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 regime.

Travelers around the world are faced with a patchwork of rules everywhere these days – a patchwork quilt that has been further disrupted by the government race to keep the new variant out. Mainland China requires a two-week quarantine in a government-designated facility, followed by a variable number of days in detention. The United States and some European countries recently reduced the recommended quarantine period from 14 days to 10 days.

Some scientists have questioned the extension in Hong Kong as it is widely believed that the virus has an incubation period of 14 days. Studies have estimated that between 1 and 10 percent of coronavirus patients can have longer incubation times. The Hong Kong government admitted that such cases were “very exceptional,” but said that precautionary measures were necessary.

Hannah Clapham, professor of public health at the National University of Singapore, said that while a three-week quarantine “might slightly decrease the number of infectious people entering a population,” the government is trading that small potential gain against the large one Price should weigh the policy.

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 are doing too much.”

While Ms. Cunz was caught off guard, those with more time to rethink their plans have found problems of their own.

Peter Lam, who works in the logistics sector in Ireland, decided to cancel his return to Hong Kong to visit his family. He couldn’t afford an extra week. He also feared that it would suddenly take the government an entire month, the entire planned trip.

However, when he contacted his hotel, he was informed that the reservation was non-refundable. 33-year-old Lam filed a complaint with the Hong Kong Consumer Council, Hong Kong Tourism Board and his credit card company. After three days, the hotel said it would do Mr. Lam a special favor and give him a refund, he said.

Others had the opposite problem. Edwin Edwin, a counselor returning to Hong Kong after visiting a family in the Netherlands, asked his quarantine hotel if he could reserve another seven days. A few hours later he received an email stating that the hotel was full for this third week so his entire reservation had been canceled.

He spent half a day desperately making contact with other hotels. The only one he could find was double the price.

In the end, Mr. Edwin traveled to Taiwan, where he also lives, and quarantines there for two weeks if necessary. He will eventually return to Hong Kong from there. Arrivals from Taiwan are allowed to be quarantined at home.

“The entire trip should take a month, including quarantine,” he said. “If you add it all up, it will of course take a lot longer.”

Others have no choice. Politics has taken a toll on foreign domestic workers who live and work in their employers’ homes and perform duties such as cleaning and childcare.

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

A worker was asked by her employer not to return to the Philippines this year, Ms. Sernande said, in order to avoid paying for her quarantine upon her return. (The government started making employers pay for domestic workers’ quarantine last month.) Others are stuck in the Philippines without pay because their employers postponed their contract start dates until Hong Kong quarantine requirements wear off.

“She doesn’t have a job in the Philippines,” said Ms. Sernande of one of these workers. “She’s just waiting.”

Politics has even brought headaches for the hotel industry. Arrivals at Hong Kong Airport have fallen from an average of 1,300 a day in November to a few hundred days since Christmas. According to Yiu Si-Wing, a lawmaker representing the tourism sector, the occupancy rate for many hotels is between 30 and 40 percent.

Some of the 36 government-designated quarantine hotels have asked to withdraw from the program, Yiu said. Hotels that receive guests for quarantine cannot accept other guests, e.g. B. Long-term residents or Hong Kong residents looking to stay.

Cheaper hotels filled up quickly, but hotels that charge $ 65 or more a night are struggling, Mr. Yiu said. The government has promised to pay a subsidy to hotels if they are not 50 percent full. This will likely apply to the majority of hotels above this price threshold, Yiu said.

Despite their complaints, no hotels actually moved to leave the program, said Mr. Yiu.

“From an income perspective, they can’t not do it,” he said.

The uniqueness of Hong Kong politics is clear to Louen Tang, a 38-year-old Hong Kong resident. Mr. Tang’s work in the logistics industry required travel even during the pandemic. He has already quarantined three times.

Even so, he wasn’t prepared to spend an extra week in an affordable hotel like he had to do after returning from London last month. But none of the hotels in its price range had availability. Desperate, Mr. Tang kept giving reminders to call a government hotline every hour until an official told him he could end his quarantine at a recreational facility near a landscaped park that was being converted into a quarantine center.

“I travel a lot. I understand how different countries deal with these regulations,” said Tang. “There’s nothing like Hong Kong.”