It’s February. It’s been over a year since I first saw masks on the faces of Hong Kongers, mere days after news of a strange new virus had appeared close by. At the time, I was amazed at the super-elastic mobilization, the decisiveness of a city of people who knew this all too well.
As restrictions were slammed on the city, we were encouraged not to leave Hong Kong. And no wonder, because traveling back to Hong Kong during COVID-19 now requires hours of research and bundles of money.
It’s now 2021, and 2020 is behind us – a year filled with grief and disruption uncertainty, and at saturated with both measured optimism and crushing despair.
I have been on more video appointments than I can count. “Zoom fatigue” is now a thing. I wondered if Zoom therapy would be just as effective as in-person therapy. I missed my paper cup of water and the black leather couch, and the free stress balls in blue and red and green by the front desk. I double masked and wore gloves every time I did the weekly grocery shop. I was obsessive about wiping down the shopping carts before I used them. I washed my hands with my gloves on as soon as I got home, discarded them, and then washed my hands again, sanitizing the doorbells I’d touched. I was at once grateful and terrified to be home and (ostensibly) healthy.
I wrote a post on traveling back to the US here. This post, although in spirit is about the same content (traveling from x to y during a pandemic), is so utterly different that I don’t know whether to laugh or to sob.
Requirements for Traveling to Hong Kong, and How I Messed Those Up
I already knew that Hong Kong had stringent requirements for passengers coming in. The city currently isn’t open for tourism. There exist tiers of requirements for each type of passenger – the most defining feature being the country/countries that you are traveling from.
Here’s a snapshot of what the Hong Kong government requires prior to your departure if you’re coming from a “very high-risk” place – ahem, the United States, which is, as of now, one of the hardest COVID-hit countries in the world.
- You must present a negative result for COVID-19 conducted within 72 hours of your departure flight to Hong Kong.
- You also need to present documentary proof that the lab or healthcare institution where you were tested is certified by the appropriate government body.
- Lastly, you would need to present a confirmation of a room reservation in a designated “quarantine hotel” for 21 nights starting on the day of your arrival.
At this time, Hong Kong had designated 36 existing hotels as “quarantine hotels” – strictly for inbound travelers to Hong Kong. This means that the during this time, the hotel can only serve returnees from Hong Kong and no other customers, and inbound travelers can’t stay at any other hotels or their homes for the quarantine period (that’s TWENTY-ONE days, making Hong Kong’s quarantine period the longest in the world.
Undergoing a compulsory 21-day quarantine comes with its own set of problems, not least of which is the amount of money spent.
Before I took the figurative plunge and gave my credit card details to the hotel for my reservation, I thought about the time I painstakingly traded a gorgeous AirBnb in Wellington, New Zealand for one that was slightly less gorgeous, because it would save me 20 USD. I wondered if the very full and very animated discussion I had with myself was just wasted time, because here I was, spending nearly 2000 USD on a hotel, and I wasn’t even going to get to see any hot pools or glow worms or hobbit holes for my trouble.
The cheapest hotel on this list is 400 HKD a night at Ramada and 51000 HKD for a splashed out entertainment suite at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental. I’m sure the free amenities cost more than my entire skincare kit at home.
Straightforward enough, right? Not exactly a walk in the park, but it wasn’t, like, impossible. I booked a mid-priced hotel and scheduled a test three days prior to my departure from Boston.
Except, of course, due to some sometimes-charming-but-mostly-not absentminded personality traits, I made some truly spectacular mistakes. Those mistakes, in conjunction with factors outside of my control (which rested entirely on COVID-19-era travel), postponed my arrival in Hong Kong to nearly four full days later and 600 USD, give or take, poorer.
- The first problem was the time at which I took my COVID sample. I took the test almost exactly 72 hours prior to my departure from Boston. It was only the day after when I, in horror, squinted at a bullet on the Hong Kong coronavirus government page and realized that the sample had to be taken 72 hours before the departure of my flight to Hong Kong. That meant my departure from Tokyo. This cost me: 1) my dignity by pleading with a clinic to take a last minute walk-in rapid COVID test IMMEDIATELY PLEASE BECAUSE I AM TRAVELING TOMORROW I AM TRULY SO SORRY BUT PLEASE?? 2) A cool 150 USD for a new test (I’d already paid 150 for the first one). I wish I could fling the fault of this mishap on an airline or on the front desk receptionist at the clinic or a false government page. ANYTHING. But I can’t. I was just careless, and it hurt.
- The second problem occurred after I’d already gotten to the airport. I was informed, calmly and politely, by an airline employee that the second leg of my flight – Tokyo to Hong Kong, had been cancelled. After I’d finished spluttering in panic, I rushed another terminal to book another ticket that would get me as close as possible to my original arrival time in Hong Kong as possible. I only hope you never find yourself at an airplane check-in counter, desperately searching for a flight that isn’t three flights totaling nearly 24 hours of flight time – which of course ended up being the “best” flight, sweating under two masks and a pair of fogged-up glasses, calculating the time you’d taken a COVID sample in Boston, and feverishly confirming if the test would still be valid by the time you boarded your flight from LA to Hong Kong a day and a half later. I called my dad and asked him to come and get me, as I wouldn’t be flying until the following day. This cost me: 1) An extra 1-2 days of delays and flight time; 2) Rebooking my hotel for a day later.
- That wasn’t the end of my problems. I made it so close. I really did. I was at the gate, for crying out loud. Nothing was going to stop me.Except that, of course, something did.As I waited with bated breath for the attendant checking all my documentation to give me the green light to board the flight, she furrowed her brow and pointed to the name on my COVID test.“Can you call the clinic and get them to reissue you a test result with your full middle name please? It has to be your full name. No initial.”I couldn’t believe it. It was midnight at the clinic in Boston. I called, but I knew it was a lost cause. I whispered a please to her. I almost cried, but got the feeling that tears would discomfit her even more than my “please” had.And that was how I found myself at the Hilton LAX, seething at myself yet again, waiting for the results of my third COVID test in less than a week. I cursed having a middle name. I promised myself not to check my checking account balance. I ate really good tacos in an attempt at self-care.What it cost: 1) even MORE time, 2) having to rebook the dates for my hotel yet again, 3) 200 USD in another COVID test. I checked and rechecked and tripled checked the name. And checked it again.
Disembarking in Hong Kong During COVID-19
Because I am here, in this hotel munching on gummy bears, on Day 10 of my quarantine period, I did get on that flight. I got on that flight, sat in seat 72A (the reason I know this is because it was double emphasized to me that I could not switch my seat on the plane for contact-tracing purposes). I took the liberty, instead, of sprawling myself and my belongings across three seats, a luxury that I had only experienced one other time – on my flights from Hong Kong to Boston.
For the entire duration of the flight, I thought about my documents. I braced myself for yet another disaster. I imagined someone taking a cursory glance at my documents, shaking their head, pointing to the lowercase letters in my name or the CLIA number of the clinic or the fine print of the hotel confirmation, and sending me on a flight straight back to Boston.
None of that happened. What came after disembarking the flight was a series of smooth and sterile procession of steps – ruthless and yet calming in its efficiency.
The Health Declaration Form and the Stay Home Safe App
Upon landing, I filled out an online health declaration form on my phone. The form took about 3 minutes to fill out and requested information on recent travel history, my flight number, my nationality, and the hotel that I had booked.
After filling out this form, the page spits out a QR code for you – a unique identifier, just for you.
Then, after filing silently through a maze of roped off lines (with no people in them!), I was supervised as I downloaded Hong Kong’s Stay Home Safe app.
It looks like this.
The Hong Kong Quarantine Order
By the time I left the terminal and traveled to the main body of the airport, I wondered how many more times I would have to show them my QR code. It was a lot of times.
At a long panel of tables, a woman asked me for my number. She called the number, waited dutifully to see that my phone actually rung. Nodding satisfactorily, she sent me on my way with a badge around my neck with the QR code.
This QR code appeared again in the form of a wristband punched indestructibly around my wrist (the wrong way around – argh!). I was (and still am) fascinated by this wristband. I wondered what would happen if I extended my wrist outside the perimeter of the room. I wondered if I would immediately receive a phone call. I wondered if someone would come and knock on my door. There’s a camera outside my hotel room, so….
I was pointed in the direction of a long panel of tables, set up uncannily like those at the DMV, and sat down at an empty booth. I was asked to show all of my documents, including my negative COVID test, and the hotel confirmation. The staff typed all of it up and printed out a new form for me – a “Compulsory Quarantine Order.” On it was my full name (middle name fully spelled!), my number, the name of my quarantine hotel. It basically ordered me to quarantine myself for the period specified, and that if I failed to, I might be liable to a fine of $25,000 HKD ($3,200 USD) and to imprisonment for 6 months.
I was then given a packet that told me how to, well, do the quarantine, with gems like “After using toilet, put the lid down before flushing,” reminders on how to properly wear a surgical mask, and a full blank table with a list of symptoms for me to help track my physical wellness during the time. Travel to Hong Kong during COVID-19 means not messing around.
At this point, I was forcefully reminded of the way I flounced into Boston at the Logan Airport nearly three months prior, where not a single soul asked me a question that wasn’t related to whether I was carrying fresh fruits and vegetables. And then of the hotel-check in staff who wore her mask below her nose. And then of the guy who approached me outside the taco shop in LA to ask a question, maskless.
Getting Tested for COVID-19 in the Hong Kong Airport
I was given a plastic baggie with a tube with a slip of paper and a number, and was told to proceed to a small encampment of white tents – all set up within the terminal. Each tent had its own attendant, encased in PPE, and a single white chair in the middle.
Mine was chatty. She smiled kindly as I struggled with carrying all of my luggage and bags, and after she’d taken both a saliva and a nasal swab sample, told me I’d done a “great job.”
I was given yet another slip of paper with a series of letters and numbers, asked to take a bottle of water, a sandwich, and a packet of Ritz crackers, and pointed in the direction of another section of the terminal, set up like a giant study hall.
All of the desks were facing one way. There was 1.5m between each desk. Each chair had a series of numbers on the back. I saw people snoring. On their laptops. Munching on sandwiches. And so, I went to the chair that had my number on it, sat down, and waited to be cleared to go (assuming the test result was negative).
Traveling to the Quarantine Hotel from the Hong Kong Airport
I did some work. I listened to an Arctic Monkeys album. The woman next to me had gone to sleep. Two and half hours later, I was approached by someone, who told me I was free to go.
I collected my baggage, which was waiting neatly in the baggage hall, and was handed several alcohol wipes by a wandering member of staff, who pointed to a sign saying that luggage should be disinfected before leaving.
On the ground floor of the terminal, I once again waited in line to show a staff member my Quarantine Order. Peering at the name of my hotel, she wrote the hotel’s name on several tags, indicating that they were meant to be attached to my luggage. She then pointed to several roped off lines, each line headed by a sign with 5-7 hotels listed on it. These were the shuttle buses that were meant to take passengers to their hotels.
If I was pleasantly surprised at the cold clean orderliness of the study hall, the disinfection of the luggage again sent me into shock. And by the time I got the following text message on the bus, I shook my head – completely and totally impressed.
After I watched the passengers slowly drop away from the bus, one by one, received by beings encased in plastic and masks and gloves, it was my turn. After the check-in I wandered up to my room and activated the StayAtHome app. It prompted me to walk around the room for 60 seconds. A couple hours later, I received a call.
“Hello, Ms. Wu. This is the Hong Kong government. Did you activate the app?” the voice on the other end said. After my assurance that I was indeed set up and fine, the line clicked. I was told that I would be tested for COVID on days 12 and days 19 of the quarantine, and if I tested negative, would be free to go on day 21.
I wanted to collapse on the fresh sheets immediately so, so, badly – the way that I’d done on hotel beds hundreds of times before. But I didn’t.
I wiped down the doorknobs and the surfaces of the desks and gingerly made my way to the bathroom for the shower.