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The Cost of Visiting Family in the US from Hong Kong: How I Ended Up in a Government Quarantine Camp

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The Cost of Visiting Family in the US from Hong Kong: How I Ended Up in a Government Quarantine Camp

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Hong Kong (CNN) — When I first boarded a plane from Hong Kong to visit my family in the United States for the holidays, I knew my journey back to the city was not going to be easy. But I didn’t expect a new variant of coronavirus to appear and I would be sent to the city government’s quarantine camp as a result.
In October, I was set to undergo a mandatory 21-day quarantine in a hotel room upon my return to Hong Kong, one of the few places in the world still taking a zero-Covid approach. To that end, the city already had some of the strictest border control and quarantine measures in place in the world, even before Omicron emerged.
On November 26, five weeks before my flight home, the World Health Organization announced that it had designated the newly discovered strain first detected in South Africa as a variant of concern, named Omicron.
Omicron spread rapidly. As of mid-December, the variant has been detected in 77 countries and has become the most dominant strain in the United States. Fears over Omicron have prompted a new round of travel restrictions around the world, including in Hong Kong.
Three weeks before my departure from the United States, the Hong Kong government announced that it would impose the “strictest” quarantine measures on travelers arriving from the United States after a traveler (yes, only one) was tested positive for Omicron. This meant that I had to spend my first four days of quarantine in a government quarantine center instead of the hotel I had already booked.
Located away from the city center, the Hong Kong government’s quarantine camp at Penny’s Bay accommodates people who have been in close contact with confirmed cases of Covid-19 and those arriving from high-risk countries from which cases imported from Omicron were detected in Hong Kong.
Not knowing what to expect, I turned to the Hong Kong quarantine support group on Facebook. It is a massive, participatory platform with resources for Hong Kongers traveling abroad during the pandemic. In the group, there were many messages from people who had previously stayed at Penny’s Bay.

Veterans suggested tips like downloading my favorite Netflix shows and bringing items like a WiFi hotspot, extension cord, tons of food, slippers, and booze.

First day

I landed at Hong Kong International Airport on January 2.

After disembarkation, I had to present a QR code obtained after completing a health declaration form, verifying my phone number, obtaining a quarantine order and having my nose and throat removed.

Travelers wait for Covid-19 test results at Hong Kong International Airport.

Sophie Jeong/CNN

Then I was directed to an area where I waited three and a half hours for my test result before I could collect my luggage and board a van that took me and five other passengers to Penny’s Bay.

On our way, the van passed through the entrance to Hong Kong Disneyland, next to which the quarantine center is ironically located.

After driving through a series of green doors, the van passed rows of colorful two-story buildings that looked like stacked shipping containers before dropping us off at reception. Staff wearing disposable blue caps and gowns, face shields, masks and gloves – which are called the “Blue Meanies” by some inmates – assigned me to a unit.

The “Blue Meanies” at the front desk were all friendly and nice (too bad for the nickname), but they also reminded me that if I violated the quarantine order, I would face the maximum prison sentence. six months and a fine of HKD$25,000 (approximately $3,200).
The Cost of Visiting Family in the US from Hong Kong: How I Ended Up in a Government Quarantine Camp

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Workers dressed in full protective gear sit behind a reception desk in Penny’s Bay.

Sophie Jeong/CNN

Life in a government quarantine camp

My room at camp reminded me of my old college dorm. It came with two single beds with thin mattresses, a hard terry pillow and a duvet, two small tables with a small television, an electric kettle, a hair dryer, two plastic folding chairs, a cloth closet, a bedside table, an air conditioner and a water heater.

I was allowed to open my window to collect food and other necessities that had been delivered, or simply to get some fresh air. Three meals were provided daily in plastic bags (morning, afternoon and evening) and were left on a tray outside my window for me to collect. Through that same window, staff members swabbed my nose and throat as part of daily Covid-19 testing requirements.

The camp has a total capacity of 3,416 units, according to data from the Hong Kong Health Protection Center (CHP). There were a total of 16 rooms in each building, eight rooms on each floor.

As of 9 a.m. local time on January 4, when I was on my third day there, nearly 1,300 people occupied 995 units in the camp, according to the CHP.

The Cost of Visiting Family in the US from Hong Kong: How I Ended Up in a Government Quarantine Camp

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My room at quarantine camp reminded me of my old college dorm.

Sophie Jeong/CNN

When I arrived, I was given a menu with four meal options: Chinese, Western, Vegetarian, and Soft Food. I chose Chinese for most of my meals, but the instructions on the menu warned that I would not start receiving my chosen meals until two days after submitting my selections. To my surprise, however, the selections started rolling in almost immediately.

That said, they were like bland airplane meals, and I was stuck with them because food delivery companies like Deliveroo or Foodpanda don’t serve the camp. The staff also delivered bottled water, trash bags, and fruit to my room. In case I needed more camp provided items like instant noodles or towels, I was given a quarantine center hotline number to call and a number to text on WhatsApp , but these items took a long time to be delivered.

The Cost of Visiting Family in the US from Hong Kong: How I Ended Up in a Government Quarantine Camp

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A staff member delivers meals in plastic bags to people quarantined at the camp.

Sophie Jeong/CNN

It was possible to have objects dropped off by family or friends, but it was not easy. In order to obtain care packages, the delivery person had to request approval either 24 hours in advance with a complete list and photos of the items, or fill out a form upon arrival. Items like alcohol and cigarettes were prohibited.

The room also got quite noisy as staff delivered meals and other essentials to my neighbours, workers wheeled carts and dumpsters outside, trucks drove past buildings and planes flew overhead.

My mattress was very thin, so I put the other bed’s on it. They were covered in plastic wrap and made noise every time I moved. My feet also touched the bed frame when I slept – and given that I’m only 165 centimeters (5ft 5in) I can’t imagine what it was like for taller people.

The Cost of Visiting Family in the US from Hong Kong: How I Ended Up in a Government Quarantine Camp

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The mattresses provided at the camp were very thin and covered with plastic wrap.

Sophie Jeong/CNN

On my last day there, health workers came in the morning to test me for Covid. After being swabbed, I had to wait in the room until the health department informed the camp that I was allowed to be transferred to the hotel I had booked. Then I had to wait again until a worker passed by to tell me I could get out of my room, check in, and line up for my assigned van. The staff helped me load my luggage into the van, which took me to my hotel for another 17 days of quarantine.

But overall, other than having to eat monotonous airplane meals, sleeping on an uncomfortable bed, and worrying about one of my daily Covid-19 tests coming back positive, my stay at Penny’s Bay didn’t been as bad as expected. Admittedly, I only stayed there for four days, unlike close contacts of Covid cases who have to spend 14 days (previously 21) at the camp.

Final Thoughts

Such strict measures seemed like a worthwhile cost of living in a Covid-free city with no locally transmitted coronavirus cases for nearly three months. This streak erupted in late December when authorities confirmed two locally transmitted cases of the Omicron variant linked to a Cathay Pacific crew member.
The individual was one of four Cathay employees who broke a three-day home isolation rule imposed on crews returning from overseas flights, showing that even with strict Covid-19 containment policies, a loophole can lead to an epidemic, especially with the highly contagious variant of Omicron.

As crazy as it sounds, by some measures I felt lucky.

Just three days after I arrived, Hong Kong banned passenger flights from eight countries for two weeks, including the United States.

The entrance price was high. From the cost of my quarantine hotel and lost rent for my apartment, to excess baggage fees for bringing needed items into quarantine, these expenses quickly added up.

And it’s not just a question of money.

The time I lost being confined and the toll on my physical and mental health and on my social life are immeasurable. Plus, the price isn’t going to drop anytime soon, and I don’t know how many times I’ll be able to afford it.

The Cost of Visiting Family in the US from Hong Kong: How I Ended Up in a Government Quarantine Camp

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