‘It was a boondoggle’: Chaotic scenes in hotel quarantines frustrate travellers

SASKATOON — Travellers say they’re frustrated by long wait times to book hotel quarantines and chaotic service during their stays.

Raymond Truesdale recorded a now-viral video of a crowd of hotel guests yelling at staff in a government-sanctioned hotel in Toronto on Friday. They said they hadn’t been fed for hours and weren’t getting clear answers from the front desk.

“It was a boondoggle. Pandemonium. You could see people really frustrated and I don’t blame them” he told CTV News in a video interview.

Truesdale, who is returning from a work trip in Tennessee, explained that fellow travellers were exhausted from 12- to 14-hour flights from overseas.

The new hotel stay requirement — which can cost between $1,000 and $2,000 depending on the hotel — began on Monday. All incoming air travellers to Canada must spend at least three days in one of the government’s approved hotels, at their own expense, as they await results of a COVID-19 test they were required to take when they landed in Canada.

A lack of bottled water and hot, prompt meals were two of many issues travellers say they faced, as well as poor service, minimal hotel security, and poor communication.

Arunthia Urmi, who stayed at a Holiday Inn in Toronto, told CTV News she wasn’t given any utensils with her late dinner and was running out of bottled water.

“I was so hungry. I called so many times,” she said, recalling her attempts to get more water from staff. “They said, ‘we can only give with meals, dinner and lunch, one bottle [each]. Other than that, you drink from the tap.’”

Jordan Evans, who flew in from Arkansas to be with her partner in Montreal, said at her quarantine hotel, she was given extra bottled water after waiting for more than six hours.

“[My supper] was cold. It was not what I ordered and they didn’t put a beverage in there. So I didn’t have a drink,” she told CTV News in a video interview, adding that her breakfast was only two small drinks, a yogurt cup and two pieces of bread.

The Hotel Association of Canada told CTV News the health and safety of its guests is its top priority.

“The health and safety of guests and staff is our top priority. We will continue to implement the advice of public health experts including the best practices provided by PHAC for those specific hotels,” a spokesperson said in an email, adding that every hotel is operated individually.

“The cost of each stay will vary between hotels, with additional fees for meals, augmented security, supervised movement to outdoor areas, designated transportation, and additional infection control measures.”

The mandatory, non-refundable hotel stay — which some travellers have skirted — requires travellers to show proof of their hotel booking before boarding their flight.

With no online option, the only way to book a room is through a dedicated phone line run by the Public Health Agency of Canada. But the influx of calls has clogged the lines, with many travellers experiencing frequent dropped calls and wait times of up to 16 hours.

‘I’M NOT ANGRY… I JUST WISH THE MEASURES WORKED’

David Anjo, who is moving back to Canada in July after 10 years of living in Vietnam, was unsuccessful in booking a hotel after spending half a day trying.

“The experience calling on a phone system that really wasn’t designed from the get-go to be very effective has been pretty frustrating,” Anjo told The Canadian Press. “There’s no doubt in my mind they could have done this a lot better.”

Dr. Rosa Wu, a psychotherapist who lives in the Vancouver area and returned from Taiwan to deal with a family health scare, said it took her husband three tries and nearly 10 hours to get through to an agent.

“I’m not angry at the fact that we have to do this,” she told The Canadian Press, from her room at the Westin Wall Centre, Vancouver International Airport. “I think it’s about time Canada implemented strict measures. I just wish the measures worked.”

The phone line received 20,000 calls on Feb. 19, the first day it was introduced, the Public Health Agency of Canada told CTV News earlier this week. That figure was 15,000 on Feb. 20 and 10,000 on Feb. 21.

Wu said she ended up paying $2,000 for three nights, despite receiving her negative test result after the first day. She didn’t anticipate following the rules would prove this difficult and said travellers like her — who didn’t go abroad for vacation — have paid the price for a chaotic rollout of the quarantine program.

Megan Kat, a spokeswoman for American Express Global Business Travel, which is running the phone line for hotel bookings, said the company was aware of the high volume of inquiries and the wait times that callers were experiencing.

“We will continue to work with the Public Health Agency of Canada to mitigate caller wait times and provide the necessary support to those people arriving in Canada that need to book a hotel room,” Kat told The Canadian Press.

Without having proof of hotel bookings, some travellers to Canada have been outright barred from boarding planes by airport staff across the globe, including in Zimbabwe and Albania, according to reporting by CTVNews.ca and The Canadian Press.

The hotel-stay quarantines are part of the federal government’s attempts to crack down on non-essential travel amid increasing concern about more infectious variants of COVID-19.

“I’m just hoping that they’ll figure out something more efficient, in terms of booking the hotels,” Wu said, “because right now, it’s a complete disaster.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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