A full run down of my 14-day quarantine period
I recently travelled back to Canada after spending a few months with my family in France (which is where I'm from). I had gone home over winter to spend some time with my loved ones after a difficult year (to say the least). I was supposed to travel back to Toronto in February, but due to COVID-19 and ever-changing restrictions, I had multiple flights cancelled. In addition, for other personal reasons I decided to extend my stay in France to be with my family.
Finally, at the end of March I managed to travel back to Toronto. Between me leaving in 2020 and my return to Canada, the federal government introduced its much-discussed hotel quarantine system.
I know that many people are curious about Canada's current quarantine system. I get questions about it from friends and family all the time! I thought it would be useful to share my experience to demystify the process. Please keep in mind that this is my own (subjective) experience and that every traveller's experience is completely different.
The federal government introduced these new stringent measures in February and recently announced that they will continue until May 21. The measures have been controversial to say the least, with a number of horror stories emerging from some travellers who have struggled with the (extortionate) hotel prices, lack of food and water in some hotels and, most concerning, alleged sexual assault.
The hotel conditions haven't been the only controversial aspect of the new measures. A number of advocacy groups are calling the measures "unfair", especially towards less affluent Canadian citizens and residents. The federal government put into place this measure to dissuade people from going on vacation - which is entirely fair. But as it currently stands, it fails to make a distinction between frivolous travel and legitimate travel (such as being able to travel to see family to care for sick relatives, for example).
Arriving at the airport
In any case, my trip from France to Canada went relatively smoothly. I had a lot of paperwork to do (both on the French and Canadian side). I did my COVID-19 test less than 72 hours before the trip (which is mandatory to be able to board the flight). Wore my mask religiously (and changed it when necessary), socially distanced as well as I could and was washing my hands and using anti-bacterial hand gel when possible
Before arriving in Canada, all travellers need to create an ArriveCAN account and provide details about their travel plans (this can be done via the phone app or online). This includes details about your flight, your quarantine hotel and your plans for self-isolating after the hotel.
Alongside other regular border check formalities, once you arrive in the country you are questioned by a border check agent about your quarantine plans (to ensure that they are adequate and comply with current guidelines) and are asked to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test and your hotel booking.
This experience will vary for a lot of people I think, the border agent I spoke to was polite and efficient (this is Canada after all) and after a few minutes I was free to go and collect my suitcase.
Once that was done, I was directed to the arrivals exit. I was then told to go and get my COVID-19 test. This is done by Switch Health. You can register online before travelling to create your Switch Health account. I did this and I would highly recommend because it does reduce some waiting time.
There are people stationed along the way at every step of the process. Either they will come and tell you what to do, or you can go and ask. It had been a month since the start of the testing and hotel quarantine measures by the time I travelled, so I assume that any kinks in the system had been ironed out (to a certain extent).
Before queuing up to get your COVID-19 test, you have to check in with someone from Switch Health, who completes your registration and hands you a little plastic bag with your ID and swab kit that will be used to do your test.
You then get in line for your actual test. This was probably the longest part of the process, I was in line for around 20 minutes. Not so bad, but when you've been travelling for over 12 hours it was a tad frustrating. I definitely feel for those families in the queue who were travelling with very tired little kids. Plus, to be honest, though everyone was wearing a mask, people weren’t really physically distancing in the queue.
There were around 10ish cubicles, where each person was getting a test. Staff administering the test is in full PPE. It took a couple of minutes (they make you blow your nose, then take a sample from each nostril - not my most glamorous moment). Once that's done, you then line up to get your at-home COVID-19 kit to be self-administered on day 10 of quarantine.
But it's not over! When all that is done, it's now time to make it over to your quarantine hotel. This is the part I was most nervous about. A friendly member of staff at the airport gave me directions on how to reach the hotel and I was off (at this point, I just wanted to lie down).
I picked the Alt Hotel (there are over 20 options in Toronto at the time of writing). It's one of the more expensive options in Toronto I believe - I paid around $1,200 - but it had great reviews and it didn't seem to be embroiled in any of the controversies I'd read about.
A note on the price: Though Trudeau initially announced that the measures would cost each traveller around $2000 (if not more), in Toronto at least prices seem to be between $1,100 and $1,300. The pricing is supposed to include - for 3 nights - the room, COVID-19 tests, food, transport and "security" (I still don’t know what that means).
I booked my hotel online and selected GAA pricing. Online booking was made available a little after the initial launch of the hotel quarantine system, after an avalanche of complaints about the phone booking system (which seemed ridiculously archaic to start with).
But back to the hotel! Obviously, everyone's experience is different, but I was very impressed with how things were run at the hotel. Staff were super efficient and friendly when I arrived, and got all my paperwork and onboarding done in a few minutes. I was provided a menu where I could select my lunch and dinner options for the next few days (breakfast was continental - same for everyone). They had a lot of different options for different dietary restrictions (I'm vegetarian and there were multiple options to choose from).
Staff wore masks and there were plexi barriers everywhere so it seems as if they were relatively well protected (as someone who works for a workplace health and safety mag, these are things you look out for!).
My room was clean and spacious and I was very comfortable. Meals were delivered around 8am, 12pm and 6pm. They were placed in a bag in front of the door (someone knocked each time to alert you, I usually waited a few minutes to ensure that they were gone so we wouldn't have to interact). I was provided bottled water with each meal, and there was coffee, tea, etc. in the room. Once you were done with the meal you simply put the trash in the plastic bag, closed it and left it outside the door. I did not really interact with other guests or hotel staff unless necessary.
Honestly, I wish I had something more juicy to say but it was all pretty smooth! For my personal health and safety, I'm glad it went that way.
While quarantining in the hotel, you are also allowed to go outside for fresh air a couple of times a day (which, interestingly, you're not allowed to do once you start quarantining at home).
I got my negative COVID-19 test on the second day of quarantine (you get a text alert on your phone, and can then log in to your Switch Health account to check your results). I'm not sure what would happen if you got a positive result, I gather that you would have to contact Switch Health or government health authorities. I've heard that if you test positive, after your three day quarantine you are then sent to a government-run facility to quarantine to 14 days. What the modalities or the costs are for that, I don't know. If you cannot pay for the costs, apparently the government may foot the bill.
I’m sure you’ve heard about some people flouting hotel quarantine, according to a recent CTV News report, Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said that it had issued over 200 tickets to those refusing this step. As a reminder, the fine for refusing to comply with the hotel step is $3000.
Some travellers are also avoiding the hotel stop by crossing by land from the U.S., where different rules currently apply (though I’m not sure why).
Self-isolating at home
The quarantine period technically starts the first day of your arrival, so after spending three nights at the hotel you leave on day four of quarantine.
I was driven straight from the hotel to my home. No stops are allowed, everyone is the car has to wear masks and once you're inside you stay there for another 10 days. My at-home quarantine went relatively smoothly, I got a bit antsy during the last couple of days but it wasn’t horrible. I got groceries delivered to my home (contactless delivery, of course).
The other part to quarantining at home is that you have to be prepared to be contacted by email/phone and potentially even be visited by a public health officer to check to make sure that you are following quarantine rules. I received three calls (missed the first one, second and third ones were with very friendly officers). If you are following the rules and haven't lied about your living situation, it shouldn't be a problem. There are a number of guidelines about where you can and can’t quarantine.
I got a police visit on day 11, they just wanted to check if I was in my home (had to show ID, the whole interaction lasted less than a minute).
Plus, every day during the 14 day quarantine period, you have to check in with the ArriveCAN app. Every day around 11am I got an email and an app notification reminding me to check in. The app simply asks if you have any COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing).
Second COVID-19 test
On day 10 of quarantine, you have a second (well, third) test to look forward to!
When you get your test done at the airport, before you leave, they give you a little box with everything you need to self-administer an at-home COVID-19 test (it's all run by Switch Health).
The box contains instructions, a sticky label (to put your name and birth date on the tube), a swab, a test tube, a biohazard bag, an alcohol wipe and a shipping bag.
So on day 10, you open the box, log in to your Switch Health account and type in a nine digit number which you can find on the side of the test tube. This registers your kit and puts you in line to see a nurse who will help you properly self-administer the test (by video).
By the time I logged in, I had about 1400+ people ahead of me in the queue. On the wait screen it says that times vary between 10 minutes and two hours to wait for an online consultation. I logged in on a Sunday afternoon so I suppose that it's quite normal that there were so many people ahead of me (if you can, I'd recommend early mornings or later in the evening – the service runs from 6am to 9pm ET). I wouldn't do this if you're in a rush. I waited over seven hours to be connected with someone.
The woman I spoke to was super friendly and we were done in a couple of minutes. You then have to arrange to get the test picked up (it's wrapped in a number of layers - and then you have to use an alcohol wipe to clean to package).
Regardless of your test result, you have to finish your 14 day quarantine period. If your test is inconclusive or botched, you have to wait for another one and quarantine whilst waiting for the results. If your test is positive, you have to isolate for another 14 days from the time you get your positive test (but you don't have to check in with the app every day).
What they don’t tell you, however, is that your self-isolation period only ends after 14 days if you receive your negative test result by day 14. As long as you haven’t received your result, you are still in quarantine. I received my result on day 15 (it was, thankfully, negative) but I have heard stories about results being received on day 17 or even later.
It’s been a couple of weeks since the end of my quarantine period (I have since enjoyed being able to go outside for a walk!). I would say that my experience was relatively straight-forward and I had no real issues. There are aspects of the quarantine period that feel slightly intrusive, but I understand that that is the price to pay to ensure that the people around me are safe.
Nevertheless, I’m still a bit skeptical about the necessity of a hotel pit stop – it doesn’t make sense for most people. For example, if a group of people (a family, a couple, etc.) travelled together and live together, why make them stop off at a hotel? Surely it's safer to let them travel straight home to self-isolate and not put hotel workers at risk? Plus, there is no exception (as of yet) for people who have been fully vaccinated.
Furthermore, the pricing is unfair for a lot of travellers, and there needs to be a better distinction applied to those travelling for essential reasons, and those who have yet to understand that taking a vacation in the midst of a pandemic is a terrible idea.