On February 22, Canada implemented new measures requiring international air travellers to undergo a mandatory three-day hotel quarantine around one of four designated airports: Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, or Montreal.
Based on travellers’ experiences thus far, I think it’s fair to say that the program has gotten off to a disastrous start, with anecdotes of travellers not being able to book their rooms, facing food shortages at the quarantine hotel, and encountering highly ineffective quarantine practices – all while being ruthlessly gouged on the price of the three-day quarantine hotel itself.
At this point, one must at least ask the question: how can the government stand by its shambolic execution of the hotel quarantine program, and what exactly is the right course of action for travellers returning to Canada?
One Logistical Failure After Another
Most Canadians understand and respect the strictness of the hotel quarantine program, and have been doing their utmost to follow the rules. Unfortunately, they’ve only encountered a series of operational failures every step of the way.
Here are just a few of the difficulties you might face if you’re returning to Canada by air these days, all of which should’ve been foreseen and mitigated by a federal government that actually has its act together.
Inability to Book a Quarantine Hotel
Many travellers have reported having to wait on hold upon calling the designated phone number for booking a quarantine hotel, racking up expensive phone bills for overseas calls, only to be eventually disconnected after several hours without reaching anyone.
@JustinTrudeau @Canada @fordnation @CanBorder @GovCanHealth super fun day attempting to book quarantine hotel for 24th that I spent 15 hours trying with zero results! Love being disconnected repeatedly! Can’t wait to do it all over again in the morning! #sarcasm #Canada #bigfail pic.twitter.com/9z8MfEwQOn
— Sandy Lynch (@SandyMargarita) February 23, 2021
If you aren’t able to pre-book a quarantine hotel, then some travellers have reported that they were given the opportunity to book a hotel after landing in Canada but before entering the country at the same prices.
But that might be easier said than done, because of…
Airlines Denying Boarding
The government has clarified that airlines should not be denying boarding to passengers who have a right to enter Canada (and can present a negative COVID-19 test within the past 72 hours), but do not have a confirmed quarantine hotel booking.
Airlines’ obligations are limited to reminding passengers that they may face fines if they don’t hold a hotel reservation.
They are not required to verify passengers’ hotel bookings, nor to deny boarding to passengers who don’t hold a reservation (say, because they spent hours unsuccessfully trying to call the phone number).
That hasn’t stopped some airlines from taking matters into their own hands, as a group of Canadian travellers in Zimbabwe experienced when they were denied boarding by Ethiopian Airlines.
Just like the rollout of the new rules requiring a COVID-19 test prior to boarding, Canada’s government has failed to communicate effectively with the airlines serving the country in rolling out this new measure.
Ineffective Quarantine Practices
When travellers arrive at one of the four airports and show that they’ve booked a quarantine hotel, they’re invited to… head into the arrivals area and take either private or public transportation (including taxis, Ubers, or hotel shuttle buses) to the hotel.
Then, they complete their check-in… while mingling in the same indoor space as other regular guests who haven’t been travelling.
What kind of quarantine measure is that?!
@CBCAlerts not all going well with new 3day quarantine hotels in Canada il prepared no food or water available at hotel have go to lobby with 30 other people this not quarantine crazy at Sheraton at terminal 3 boondoggle pic.twitter.com/H4XQ1RyjrP
— Ray Truesdale (@RaySuperurass) February 26, 2021
In other countries, international travellers are kept in their bubbles until the quarantine period is over. There are dedicated buses to bring them from the airport to the hotel. And the hotel is designated as a quarantine location and is closed-off to external bookings.
One has to question why Canada isn’t taking even a fraction of these measures seriously.
Lack of Food, Care, and Communication
Hotel guests have reported delayed or missing meal deliveries, poor-quality or insufficient meals, a lack of water, and other shortfalls in the quarantine hotels’ ability to provide guests with what they need so that they don’t have to leave their rooms.
In some cases, that has led to guests doing exactly that: leaving their rooms, going down to the front desk to seek answers, and once again mingling with other guests and hotel staff.
— Ray Truesdale (@RaySuperurass) February 26, 2021
No Refunds If You Leave Early
When the policy was first introduced, there was mixed messaging as to whether guests could seek a refund from their hotel if they receive their negative COVID-19 test results and leave before the end of the three-day stay.
Most travellers’ experiences indicate that no refund has been forthcoming, rubbing further salt in the wound for travellers who’ve paid $1,000+ for a one-night hotel stay and an all-round bad time.
What Should Returning Travellers Do?
It’s been clear from the very start that Canada’s hotel quarantine rules were primarily geared towards discouraging international travel, and had very little to do with actual science-based quarantine measures.
To that end, it’s fair to say that the new rules have served their purpose as it relates to leisure travel. With an additional four-figure sum to deal with in the travel budget, it’s hard to imagine many Canadians embarking on leisure trips to the usual March Break destinations this season.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that there are still thousands of Canadians who must travel for reasons like family, work, and education. In the face of such farcical circumstances surrounding the hotel quarantine, it’s only natural to ask: do travellers have any other choice?
Regional authorities at each airport are responsible for overseeing travellers’ compliance with the hotel quarantine measures. By most accounts, they have not been taking any further action besides issuing fines for non-compliant behaviour.
Much has been made in the media about the possibility of simply refusing to undergo a hotel quarantine, heading straight home, and accepting a fine from the regional authorities that might be cheaper than the cost of a quarantine hotel (and which one might later choose to fight in court as well).
To be clear, this is in violation of the law and the Quarantine Act, and it’s not something that I’m recommending you should do.
But it is an action that some Canadians have chosen. And even though they’re technically breaking the rules, you can’t exactly accuse them of not doing their utmost to limit the virus’s spread, either. After all, they’re choosing to quarantine directly at home, instead of hopping on a shared shuttle bus and mingling with a hotel lobby full of other people.
Keep in mind that a violation of the Quarantine Act can carry more severe penalties including hefty six-figure fines and prison time. Those who choose to contravene the Quarantine Act likely hold the belief that these maximum penalties wouldn’t be enforced, but it’s up to each individual to decide how comfortable they are with the risks here.
One other alternative to the three-day mandatory hotel quarantine is to enter Canada via the land border instead.
As long as you can show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within the past 72 hours, you can cross the land border without undergoing the hotel quarantine. But in the absence of scheduled buses, trains, and one-way car rentals these days, this will likely present a significant logistical challenge as well.
If you don’t have a vehicle of your own that you can drive across the border, you’d need to arrange transportation to the US border, cross the border on foot, and then arrange your own transportation from the Canadian side.
The extra time and money involved may not be worthwhile in the end compared to the $1,000+ hotel quarantine, as much of a shambles as it may be.
Personally, I have an upcoming trip planned to China to visit my family later in the spring. Even though I’ve always intended to following the quarantine rules wherever I go, I must admit that the nightmarish rollout of Canada’s hotel quarantine measures have given me pause about how I plan my return.
I don’t feel comfortable brazenly breaking the rules and going home, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to skirt them and plan a return journey via the land border instead of a direct flight into Canada.
Of course, the outcome I’m hoping for is that Canada will finally show something resembling decisive leadership and competence, which has been sorely absent throughout all of the travel restrictions that we’ve had over the past year.
The federal government has now said that it’s working to address the myriad issues that have confronted returning travellers over the past week, so my hope is that we’re able to start running a smoother, fairer, and safer hotel quarantine operation over the upcoming weeks – one which no longer puts us to shame compared to other countries around the world.
The launch of Canada’s new hotel quarantine measures have been marked by poor messaging, chaotic conditions, and ineffective quarantine measures. For those of us who have been closely following the federal government’s haphazard travel restrictions over the past few months, this might not even be much of a surprise.
Some travellers are choosing to skip the hotel quarantine and head straight home, which may appear more favourable from both a monetary and an epidemiological standpoint, even if it’s in violation of the law.
While I don’t advocate for this, I do think the current situation is downright unacceptable, and the government urgently needs to step up its handling of the hotel quarantine measures to keep things from descending further into a complete farce.
If you’re travelling to Canada by air in the near future, I’d recommend joining the Canada Hotel Quarantine for Returning Travellers Facebook group to learn from others’ experiences and ensure as smooth a journey as possible.
I’d also like to hear your thoughts on the sorry state of Canada’s quarantine hotels, whether in the comments below or in one of the ever-growing threads over on the Prince of Travel Elites Facebook group.