Commentary

Commentary: Saga of International Travel During COVID

Visiting family in Hong Kong for the 2022 Chinese New Year

By Herbert F. Mintz II

My wife and I have lived in the Sunset District for almost 30 years. During important times of the year, her family from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), would visit and stay with us. About 12 years ago, for several reasons, their visits ended. Consequently, we travel to the HKSAR to visit family and to celebrate Chinese New Year.

The focus of our Chinese New Year visit is my wife’s 85-year-old mother.  We celebrate New Year traditions together with family, but our priority is to improve the quality of life for her mother. It is a working holiday for us, and for my wife, any visit could be the last time she sees her mother in this world.

Since 2020, with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, entry requirements for arrivals to the HKSAR have grown in complexity. The HKSAR has followed China’s lead in promulgating a Zero-COVID policy designed to contain the community spread of the coronavirus, and as such, has some of the world’s strictest quarantine regulations. 

We knew a visit to the HKSAR in 2022 would be arduous; we just didn’t know how arduous it would become just to visit family.  

We began to prepare for our New Year visit in July 2021.

As of August 2021, all arrivals from high-risk nations, including the United States (U.S.), would be required to undergo a 21-day compulsory quarantine in a Designated Quarantine Hotel (DQH). Simple competition from hundreds of arrivals needing somewhere to quarantine meant available rooms were scarce. We finally secured a booking on Oct. 19, 2021. 

On Dec. 13, 2021, due to high rates of Omicron variation infections in the U.S., arrivals would be required to undergo a compulsory quarantine of seven days at the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre (PBQC) followed by 14 days of compulsory quarantine in a DQH. Two weeks later, on Dec. 28, the HKSAR modified its quarantine policy to require travelers from the U.S. to reside in the PBQC for only four days, with the remaining 17 days to be spent in a DQH.

We experienced two flight cancelations before departing. Cathay Pacific canceled on Dec. 22, 2021 and Air Canada canceled on Jan. 3, 2022, a day before we were scheduled to depart.  

Fortunately, after two hours of waiting on hold, Air Canada located two seats on a Singapore Airline flight. However, we would now arrive one day earlier. We had to consult with the HKSAR’s Department of Health about our early arrival. To our surprise, the Department approved our early arrival since we had our DQH reservation in place. 

Effective Dec. 24, 2021, the HKSAR required a negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 48 hours instead of 72 hours. We were lucky that our difficult to schedule PCR test on Jan. 3, 2022 would still work within that 48-hour threshold.

Our departure date, Jan. 4, 2022, began with a late taxi pick up. At SFO, we waited in a ticket counter check-in line for 90 minutes.  Our essential documents were all OK.  We waited another 90 minutes at U.S. customs and immigration. Our flight departed 2.5 hours late.

We arrived in the HKSAR on Jan. 5, 2022, at 9:25 p.m. At the first checkpoint, a Department of Health team collected a nose and throat swab to determine our COVID status. At the next checkpoint, our essential documents were rechecked. At 10:30 p.m, we were directed to wait in an assigned seating area for our results.   

While waiting, the HKSAR announced a suspension on incoming flights from eight countries, including the U.S., that would begin Jan. 8, 2022.  

At 2 a.m. on Jan. 6, a PPE-clad healthcare worker informed us that our lab results were inconclusive. Instead of another three-hour wait, at 2:30 a.m., a second PPE-clad healthcare worker informed us that are lab results were negative. 

At another checkpoint, we waited with our luggage, and later departed, in a shuttle for the Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre (PBQC) from the airport.  

Around 4:15 a.m., an eerie presence emerged out of the darkness. It was the PBQC.  Our shuttle followed a black minivan down a straight road lined with a massive array of bright white lights that defined a concrete road, rows of multicolored rectangular structures and a high metal fence with three lines of barbed wire crowning its top.

After our essential documents were rechecked at the Zone 1 checkpoint, we were given bedding and some food items for two “guests.”

At 5:10 a.m., we began a DYI set up of our spartan quarters. We arranged and then made the two small beds and moved two small tables and chairs into the corners. In the bathroom, there was a toilet, a sink with only cold water and a batch hot water shower unit with serious instructions on how to operate it. There was no Wi-Fi.

As we considered brewing water for a cup of tea, the power failed. Sleep won us over and we crashed. 

Over the next three days, we underwent daily temperature checks and COVID-19 tests. We not informed about the results of any test but assumed they were negative. I generally remained on “my” side of our quarters, while my wife stayed on the other side. We ordered our delivered meals from a basic menu. We came together to eat, plan or watch something online. I set up a portable Wi-Fi hotspot which enabled us to FaceTime with my wife’s mother, her caregiver and local Senior Center staff.

On Jan. 8, NOW TV – a Hong Kong cable news outlet – reported that one person on our non-stop flight from SFO had tested positive for COVID-19.  

We were allowed to depart our PBQC quarters Jan. 9 at 3:55pm.

We transported our luggage to a waiting area using an airport trolley cart. At a checkpoint, our documents were rechecked. We took our seats in a shuttle and exited the PBQC at 4:45 p.m.

The shuttle drove us about 30 kilometers to our Designated Quarantine Hotel (DQH) in Causeway Bay, one the most densely populated districts on the planet. The PBQC, in contrast, during the day and night, seemed like a neighborhood under a 24-hour curfew. Our room, on the 25th floor, came with a view of the Causeway Bay skyline. Although we were inside city limits, we really weren’t in Hong Kong.  

Our 17-day quarantine required a new set up and new arrangements. We underwent temperature checks and COVID-19 tests a total of nine times. We did receive by text our results from those tests. We unpacked. We washed our clothes in the bathroom sink.  Our food and TV channel choices improved. Our room amenities were better. There was Wi-Fi.  Communicating with my wife’s mother, her caregiver and local Senior Center staff was easier.

An SMS arrived Jan. 12 informing us that the first leg of return flight had been canceled.  After three two-hour sessions on hold, we secured two seats on one of the few departing flights on the date of our departure. 

Since we arrived in the HKSAR one day earlier, we would be released from quarantine one day earlier. By email, we asked our non-DQH to extend our stay by one day. A reply informed us that our non-DQH did not accept guests released from quarantine. New HKSAR regulations required us to make a reservation at a self-monitoring hotel for a period of seven days.  

On Jan. 26, at 7:32 a.m., we were released from compulsory quarantine. A taxi drove us to our self-monitoring hotel in Wan Chai. After check-in, we made our first visit to my wife’s mother’s apartment, about 90 minutes away by train. Our quality of life projects started that day.

Within a day or two, the HKSAR ended all indoor dining after 6 p.m. This curfew made returning to Wan Chai for dinner a little tricky since we were only so familiar with the district.

We celebrated Chinese New Year’s Eve and Chinese New Year’s Day in my wife’s mother’s tiny apartment.

On Feb. 2, at 10:25 a.m., we checked into our non-DQH in Mong Kok East. After check-in, our daily visits and quality of life projects continued. We were now only 60 minutes away from my wife’s mother’s apartment.  

Another new set up and new arrangements ensued. I unpacked. I found a laundry and had my clothes washed. A nearby food court made decent take-out meals possible after 6 p.m. We used FaceTime to connect with my mother-in-law during two visits to cemeteries. 

After a week in our non-DQH, the HKSAR issued new COVID-19 regulations as a result of the rapid increase in transmission of untraceable local cases. Access to most venues would now require using the HKSAR “Leave Home Safe” app with proof of vaccination. We were already using the app and were vaccinated, so it was not an issue for us. Nonetheless, we felt that the virus was getting closer to us.

We didn’t realize how lucky we’d be if we made it to the HKSAR.

Now we just needed some New Year’s luck to be able to get back home.

Epilogue

Thirty-three hours later, after three flights, two layovers, a taxi to the HKSAR airport and another home from SFO, we returned safe and sound to our Sunset home.  Good fortune played its part, but careful planning and proper execution are your best practices if you plan to visit relatives during Chinese New Year in Hong Kong.

1 reply »

Leave a Reply to MaggieSmith Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s