As the uniformed security guard ushered me to my room on the 10th floor of a sterile concrete tower block near Toronto Pearson International Airport, I couldn’t help feeling as if I was beginning a prison sentence at a Canadian Alcatraz — albeit one with abstract art and designer shampoo.
Overcome with gratitude that the officer hadn’t slapped handcuffs on my wrists, my momentary sense of relief was suddenly interrupted when a silver-haired man jumped the queue, and joined us on the elevator, his mask placed perilously under his nose. Was he sneezing or was I hallucinating?
I winced. I had had at least a half-dozen negative coronavirus tests during a month in Europe, where I had traveled to London in May to help The Times cover the fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza. What a cruel irony it would be, I thought to myself, if I contracted the coronavirus in the elevator of a quarantine hotel back home.
In line with government rules, I had prebooked and prepaid a three-day stay at the DoubleTree by Hilton Toronto Airport at a nonrefundable cost of 1,054.74 Canadian dollars, which included three meals (more upmarket quarantine hotels can cost closer to 2,000 Canadian dollars for three days).
I would be liberated if the test I took after I landed came back negative, allowing me to book my connecting flight to my home in Montreal, where I would spend the remainder of a 14-day quarantine.
While I waited for the results, I would have to get used to my new home: A spacious room with a king-size bed, a chaise longue, a dodgy curtain that didn’t close properly and one of those desolate views that bring to mind a Dystopian science fiction film. (The hotel manager did not respond to calls seeking comment.)
Traveling during a pandemic is not for the fainthearted. After arriving at Toronto’s airport, I waited an hour to get through passport control, followed by another hour in line to take the required coronavirus test, amid throngs from Germany, Britain and elsewhere. The Canadian government’s website explaining travel rules warned that violating any entry instructions could result in a fine of up to $750,000, up to six months in prison — or both.
My stress was somewhat alleviated when a young and earnest customs agent greeted me with “Welcome back to Canada,” inspiring a flutter of patriotism as he reviewed my stack of documents, including the negative P.C.R. test I took in London two days before at a cost of $262.
As I arrived in the hotel lobby to check in, a line of exhausted travelers fulminated about their enforced sequestering, variously calling it a money-grab by the Canadian government and a scam.
“This feels like prison,” said Reza Mokhlessi, 25, a student from Iran, whose arrival to Canada to start university studies in Toronto began in a quarantine hotel. “It’s expensive and the food is bad,” he added.
Buffeted by jet lag and bereft of the energy to scale down the Hilton’s facade undetected from the 10th floor, I resolved that I would use my forced incarceration to read. In my room, I was greeted by a note, peppered by foreboding capital letters, that warned me to “kindly stay in your room AT ALL TIMES.” A woman at reception had explained that guests could go outside for fresh air.
“If you need to leave your room FOR ANY REASON,” the note continued, “PLEASE CALL THE FRONT DESK BY DIALING ‘0’ ON YOUR ROOM PHONE AND ASK TO BE ESCORTED TO THE LOBBY.” But most of the times I called ‘0,’ there was no answer, adding to a Hitchcockian feeling of being trapped.
A loud knock on the door heralded that dinner had arrived. Outside my room was a paper grocery bag. In it was a cold steak, cold carrots and a cold baked potato. Temperature aside, it was not unpleasing. But forget about washing it down with a glass of full-bodied Bordeaux; bar service wasn’t available.
If my stay felt unpleasant, that may be precisely what the Canadian government wanted. After all, the hotel quarantine requirement deters Canadians from traveling during a pandemic. The government argues that tough border restrictions have helped keep the coronavirus at bay. Moreover, a recent poll by the Angus Reid Institute showed that nearly 60 percent of Canadians considered the hotel quarantine requirement a necessary measure.
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has come under strong criticism for the hotels, which some civil rights advocates say impinge the constitutional right to liberty.
There are four legal challenges against the hotels at the Federal Court of Canada in Ottawa. “This is not what we do in Canada, we do not detain law-abiding citizens en masse,” Sayeh Hassan, a lawyer for several plaintiffs, told the court this month.
A federal advisory panel advising the government also recently recommended scrapping the hotels since, among other reasons, some travelers were opting to pay a 3,000 Canadian-dollar fine (recently raised to 5,000 dollars) rather than having to stay in one. Still others were flying to the United States and then driving or walking into Canada, since those arriving by land aren’t required to stay in a hotel.
Nevertheless, constitutional experts told me that the government has broad scope to police the borders, especially in the name of public health. Mr. Trudeau himself recently spent one night in a three-star quarantine hotel in Ottawa after returning from the Group of 7 summit in England, perhaps seeking to burnish his image as a man of the people.
After a decent night’s sleep, I woke up early and checked my email at around 7 a.m. Less than 12 hours after I had checked in, my coronavirus test had come back negative. I was free!
Before leaving, I excitedly fetched breakfast in the newly arrived paper bag outside my door. Greeting me were three sad-looking hard-boiled eggs, cold and soggy toast, oatmeal that tasted like gruel, an apple and apple juice.
Now I’m back in Montreal, where I have to check in daily online on a government website. My homecoming was a bit jarring as the friend charged with tending my garden while I was away committed plant murder. Being stuck in my apartment can also feel claustrophobic.
But I can’t complain. I am home.
As the discovery of mass graves of Indigenous children in Kamloops, British Columbia, continues to reverberate across Canada, my colleague Max Fisher reflects on how Indigenous leaders from the area have mobilized to battle colonial eradication.
Want to go see Bruce Springsteen on stage on June 26 in the first show to return to Broadway? Don’t bother if you received the AstraZeneca vaccine, since only those inoculated with vaccines authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will be allowed in.
Canada’s health products regulator has rejected the country’s first and only shipment of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid vaccine because of contamination issues at the U.S. plant that produced it.
Enjoy this Canadian-inspired Crossword puzzle by the Vancouverite Stephen McCarthy, a Ph.D. student in Stockholm, Sweden, studying transportation modeling, playing Ultimate Frisbee and singing in Stockholm’s Gay Choir.
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