As the uniformed security guard led me to my room on the 10th floor of a sterile concrete tower near Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, I couldn’t help but feel like I was starting jail time in a Canadian Alcatraz – even with abstract art and designer shampoo.
Overwhelmed with gratitude that the officer did not put the handcuffs on my wrists, my momentary sense of relief was suddenly interrupted when a silver haired man skipped the line and joined us in the elevator, his mask placed dangerously under his nose. Was he sneezing or hallucinating?
I winced. I had had at least half a dozen negative coronavirus tests for 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 at home.
As per government rules, I had pre-booked and prepaid a three-day stay at DoubleTree by Hilton Toronto Airport at a non-refundable cost of C $ 1,054.74, which included three meals (more upscale quarantine hotels can cost more than 2,000 Canadian dollars for three days).
I would be released if the test I did after landing 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 waiting for the results, I would have to get used to my new home: a spacious bedroom with a king bed, a lounge chair, a shady curtain that didn’t close properly, and one of those sorry views that lead one to think of a dystopian science fiction film. (The hotel manager did not respond to calls for comment.)
Traveling during a pandemic is not for the faint hearted. After arriving at Toronto airport, I waited an hour to go through passport control, followed by another hour in line to take the required coronavirus test, amid a crowd from Germany, to Great Britain and elsewhere. The Canadian government’s website explaining the travel rules warned that violating entry instructions could result in a fine of up to $ 750,000, up to six months in prison – or both.
My stress was eased somewhat when a young and serious customs officer greeted me with a “Welcome to Canada”, inspiring a surge of patriotism as he examined my stack of documents, including the negative PCR test that I received. I had spent in London two days previously at a price. of $ 262.
As I pulled into the hotel lobby to check in, a line of exhausted travelers stormed over their forcible confinement, calling it a seizure of money by the Canadian government and a scam.
“It looks like jail,” said Reza Mokhlessi, 25, an Iranian student whose arrival in Canada to begin university studies in Toronto began in a quarantine hotel. âIt’s expensive and the food is bad,â he added.
Jostled by jet lag and deprived of energy to shrink the frontage of the Hilton undetected from the 10th floor, I decided to use my forced incarceration to read. In my room, I was greeted with a note, dotted with threatening capital letters, warning me to “please stay in your room AT ALL TIMES”. A woman at the front desk had explained that guests could go outside for some fresh air.
“If you have to leave your room FOR ANY REASON,” the note continued, “PLEASE CALL THE RECEPTION BY DIALING ‘0’ ON YOUR ROOM PHONE AND ASK TO BE ESCORTED TO THE HALL.” But most of the time I called “0”, there was no answer, adding to a Hitchcockian feeling of being trapped.
A loud knock on the door announced that dinner had arrived. Outside my room was a paper grocery bag. Had a cold steak, cold carrots, and a cold baked potato. Temperature aside, it was not unpleasant. But forget to wash it down with a full-bodied Bordeaux glass; bar service was not available.
If my stay was unpleasant, perhaps that is precisely what the Canadian government wanted. After all, the quarantine requirement in hotels deters Canadians from traveling during a pandemic. The government argues that strict border restrictions have helped keep the coronavirus at bay. Additionally, a recent Angus Reid Institute poll showed that nearly 60% of Canadians viewed the hotel quarantine requirement as a necessary measure.
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has come under heavy criticism for the hotels, which some civil rights activists say infringe the constitutional right to liberty.
There are four legal challenges against the hotels in the Federal Court of Canada in Ottawa. “That’s not what we do in Canada, we don’t detain law-abiding citizens en masse,” Sayeh Hassan, an attorney for several plaintiffs, told court this month.
A federal advisory committee advising the government also recently recommended eliminating hotels since, among other reasons, some travelers opted for a fine of C $ 3,000 (recently increased to $ 5,000) rather than having to stay in one. Still others flew to the United States and then drove or walked to Canada, since those arriving by land are not required to stay in a hotel.
Nonetheless, constitutional experts have told me that the government has wide latitude to control borders, especially in the name of public health. Mr Trudeau himself recently spent a night at a three-star quarantine hotel in Ottawa after returning from the Group of 7 summit in England, perhaps seeking to revamp his image as a commoner.
After a good night’s sleep, I woke up early and checked my emails around 7am. Less than 12 hours after my registration, my coronavirus test came back negative. I was free!
Before leaving, I enthusiastically fetched breakfast from the newly arrived paper bag outside my door. Three sad-looking hard-boiled eggs greeted me, cold soggy toast, porridge-tasting oatmeal, an apple and apple juice.
Now I’m back in Montreal, where I have to check in online on a government website daily. My return home was a bit shocking because the friend in charge of looking after my garden while I was away committed a plant murder. Being stuck in my apartment can also be claustrophobic.
But I can’t complain. I’m at home.
As the discovery of mass graves of Indigenous children in Kamloops, B.C. continues to reverberate across Canada, my colleague Max Fisher reflects on how Indigenous leaders in the region have mobilized to fight the colonial eradication.
Fancy going to see Bruce Springsteen on stage on June 26 in the first Broadway comeback show? Do not be concerned if you have received the AstraZeneca vaccine, as only those inoculated with vaccines authorized by the United States Food and Drug Administration will be allowed entry.
Canada’s health products regulator has rejected the country’s first and only shipment of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid vaccine due to contamination concerns at the U.S. factory that produced it.
Enjoy this Canadian-inspired crossword puzzle by Vancouverite Stephen McCarthy, a Ph.D. student in Stockholm, Sweden, studying transport modeling, playing the Ultimate Frisbee and singing in the Stockholm Gay Choir.
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