Sitting here on this overcast Saturday in my apartment in Hong Kong, I can't help but reflect on this past month - surely one of the craziest of my life. Currently I'm on day 3 of my compulsory COVID-19 home quarantine. I'm wearing a wristband to track my location and I'm not allowed to leave my apartment. It's a weird feeling.
As the coronavirus has spread across the globe, we've all had to deal with disruptions to our daily lives. Some have even suffered through the COVID-19 disease.
I'm not writing this article to complain about my situation or act like it's a hardship. It's not. I'm grateful to be healthy and feel lucky to have gotten home to Hong Kong.
Instead, I'm writing this article to reflect on the whirlwind that this past month has been. Also, I want to share first-hand information on Hong Kong's COVID-19 Compulsory Quarantine procedures.
As others try to make the decision on whether to return home to Hong Kong during this time, I hope this information might be useful.
Keep reading for my full story or click here to skip right to the info on Hong Kong's compulsory quarantine procedures.
Traveling to the U.S. during Coronavirus
You may be wondering, why I was traveling in the first place during the coronavirus pandemic?
My trip to the U.S. was planned months ago, back when Corona was just a crappy beer. Sorry, I've never liked it! The reason for my trip was my friend's wedding on March 28. Yes, that's today.
In retrospect, it was probably not the best time to travel. But at the beginning of March, the world looked A LOT different.
Hong Kong and the Coronavirus in February
Hong Kong had been dealing with the coronavirus for over a month. The first that I really became aware of it, it was Lunar New Year (January 25-28). People were deciding whether or not to travel for the holiday. Most people, including us, stayed at home.
After the New Year, as coronavirus cases were reported, people started working from home. Then the hoarding began - toilet paper, soap, hand sanitizer, masks, etc.
If you followed my stories on Instagram, you'll remember I spent days searching for those items at the beginning of February.
The day I finally found toilet paper and hand sanitizer, I thought I'd won the lottery!
But after a month of the coronavirus being in the city, Hong Kong only had ~100 cases. Out of a population of 7.4 million!
By the beginning of March, it was looking like Hong Kong had the coronavirus under control. Things were gradually returning to normal in the city.
Start planning for post-coronavirus days and check out these 16 Incredible Things to Do in Hong Kong!
Continuing with Travel Plans to the U.S.
Ironically, the reason that I left Hong Kong at the beginning of March is that I was afraid the U.S. would begin quarantining people coming from Hong Kong. That seems almost funny now.
Regardless, I wanted to leave plenty of time before the wedding to ensure that I'd be able to make it into the U.S. and quarantine myself, if necessary.
Leaving Hong Kong, airport officials took our temperature at the security screening. Before we boarded the plane, officials asked us questions about our travel history to mainland China.
Arriving in the U.S. during Coronavirus
When I arrived in the Los Angeles International Airport, it was like stepping into a different world. After a month of being surrounded by people wearing masks and who were constantly worried about the coronavirus, it felt like no one cared.
For the first two weeks that I was in the U.S., it stayed that way. Despite the number of cases increasing each day, most people in the U.S. seemed to be in denial.
Then almost overnight in mid-March, it seemed to flip. And the toilet paper hoarding began.... All I could think was, here we go again.
Hong Kong Announces Compulsory Quarantine
"Hong Kong issues 'red' travel alert on US....Compulsory home quarantine would apply to everyone, including Hong Kong residents, arriving in the city from March 19...."
Reading those words on March 15 in the South China Morning Post, from my spacious room at my parents' house in Florida, my stomach sank. The moment I'd been dreading for days had arrived.
Hong Kong was implementing a quarantine on people returning from the U.S. And there was no way that I was going to make it back before the quarantine began on March 19.
What to Do Next?
How strange that when I left Hong Kong for the U.S. at the beginning of March, I was worried that the U.S. would begin quarantining people coming from Hong Kong.
Now, less than 2 weeks later, I was facing the opposite situation. Due to personal reasons and despite my friend postponing her wedding, I couldn't travel home until the week of March 23.
My husband Jeremy was supposed to join me in the U.S. on March 19. With the shifting coronavirus situation and Hong Kong's compulsory quarantine order, it became clear that he should not travel to the U.S.
As a result, so many questions were whirling through my mind! Such as:
Needless to say, my anxiety levels were high! My immediate reaction to hearing "compulsory quarantine" was claustrophobia and panic. But the thought of not being able to get home for an unknown length of time was worse.
Deciding to Return to Hong Kong for Quarantine
After a couple of days weighing my options, I decided that returning to Hong Kong ASAP, despite the quarantine, was the best move. Though it only took a couple days to make a decision, in this age of COVID-19, a couple days is like a couple weeks.
In that time, the number of reported COVID-19 cases in the U.S. rapidly increased. Businesses and schools began closing and people started talking about social distancing.
The fear I could feel in the air, and the panic-buying at grocery stores, reminded me of Hong Kong back in early February.
Watching the number of cases tick up each day, and seeing the inconsistent policies across the U.S., it was clear that the coronavirus situation is going to get worse before it gets better.
Meanwhile in Hong Kong...
As people rushed to return to Hong Kong from the UK and the U.S., the number of reported cases in Hong Kong swelled as never before.*
Because of the risk that I might be infected during my travel back to Hong Kong, we decided that Jeremy should stay at a hotel during my quarantine period. This way, he is still able to go out and take care of things, such as grocery shopping, while I'm quarantined.
Plus, if I am infected, any relatives staying with me (Jeremy) would be taken to a government quarantine camp for isolation and monitoring. We decided we'd rather avoid this possibility altogether.
*As a result, Hong Kong closed its border to visitors for two weeks starting on March 25 in order to curb the spread of imported COVID-19 cases. The government is also continuing to look for new measures to limit social interaction to curb the spread.
Finding a Way Back to Hong Kong
Since airlines keep cutting flights, finding a way back to Hong Kong proved a difficult task.
Originally, I'd planned to visit my parents in Florida, then travel north for the wedding and to visit other family. So, I'd booked a multi-segment trip on American Airlines.
Back in February, American Airlines stopped flying to Hong Kong. So they moved me to flights on their partner airline Cathay Pacific to get me to/from the U.S.
When I went to re-schedule my trip back to Hong Kong in mid-March, the Cathay Pacific flight from LA to Hong Kong had already disappeared from my American Airlines itinerary. Not a good sign.
To make a long story short(er), after several phone calls with American Airlines, they informed me that they could not see any Cathay Pacific flights in their system. Since these flights were "sold out," they could not book me on a return flight back to Hong Kong (until June!).
Because I'd checked with Cathay Pacific and they assured me that flights were still running and were not sold out, I pressed American Airlines to put me on one. Unfortunately, I had no luck.
Buying a New Flight
Since American Airlines couldn't re-book me on a flight, I decided to purchase a new one-way flight to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. Although this was an expensive option, it seemed to be the only way to get home to Hong Kong for several months.
After flying on the Cathay Pacific flight from LA to Hong Kong and having an entire row of seats to myself, I can attest that it was not sold out. Plenty of social distancing happening!
Not quarantined and want to get some fresh air? Consider taking a hike!
Arriving Back in Hong Kong
After ~30 hours of traveling from Florida to Hong Kong, a bleary-eyed, under-caffeinated version of me reached Hong Kong International Airport at 6:45 am.
I had been wearing my surgical mask for so long that I no longer noticed I had it on. It just felt like a part of my face!
Others arriving wore various levels of protective gear in addition to a face mask, including gloves, eye goggles, face shields, plastic ponchos, and/or full white biohazard suits.
It adds a certain level of intensity to the experience when you're walking through the airport and look over to see people in biohazard suits walking next to you.
Hong Kong COVID-19 Health Check and Quarantine - Airport Procedures
As a result of having no idea what to expect when I arrived at the airport in Hong Kong, I was a bit anxious. Therefore, I'm sharing the step-by-step process of the COVID-19 health check and quarantine process that I went through on March 26.
At this time, procedures for people arriving from overseas are different than for people coming from mainland China.
Since things change rapidly, I have no idea how long these procedures will stay the same. But perhaps these details will give others a general idea of what to expect.
How Long Does the Quarantine Process Take?
The whole health check and quarantine process took about an hour and fifteen minutes for me. I arrived in the airport at 6:45 am and was leaving baggage claim by 8:00 am.
Compared to my normal two-minute immigration process when I arrive in Hong Kong, that's a long time. Compared to the 2-hour immigration lines I've faced entering the U.S. on a holiday, it's not so bad!
Step 1 - Temperature Check
The first step was the temperature check. Whenever you arrive in Hong Kong, you walk through a temperature check station, so that part wasn't much different.
This time, officers made sure that people took off their hats for the check and tried to space people out better.
They also had officials holding up signs asking if you've had any of the symptoms of the coronavirus. I assume that if someone said 'yes', they would take that person to a different area for screening.
Step 2 - Saliva Sample Collection Paperwork
At this point, everyone arriving in Hong Kong from overseas must submit a saliva sample to the Centre for Health Protection which will be tested for COVID-19. If a saliva test comes back positive for COVID-19, that person is taken to a hospital for isolation and treatment.
The first queue at the airport is to collect the paperwork, specimen bottle, and biohazard bags which I'll use to submit my saliva sample next week. They had around 20 desks with officials handing out the materials, so the line moved quickly.
Lucky guy that Jeremy is, he'll get to deliver my saliva sample to the health center next week. Fingers crossed that it will be negative!
Step 3 - Paperwork Check and Download StayHomeSafe App
On the flight to Hong Kong, flight attendants gave passengers two sheets of paper from the HKSAR Department of Health to complete:
1) Health Declaration Form
2) Compulsory Quarantine Order
Tip: You actually need 2 copies of the Compulsory Quarantine Order. Either ask for a second on the plane or fill out a second one at the kiosks in the airport before waiting in line.
Once I made it to the officials, they checked my paperwork to ensure it was filled out correctly. Mine wasn't the first time. So I recommend asking one of the officials floating around the kiosks to double-check your papers before waiting in the line.
Then, the officials asked if I'd downloaded the StayHomeSafe App onto my smartphone. I'd started to download it already. But if you hadn't, they'd show you how to do it.
Step 4 - Get Wristband
After the document check, I proceeded into the line for the wristband. It moved fairly quickly, but kept backing up because of the next part of the process.
Before putting the wristband on me, the official asked from which country I was traveling to confirm I should receive that type of wristband.
Step 5 - Information about Quarantine + Health Declaration
Although I'm not sure why, this stage seemed to have the longest wait time. Perhaps because they only had around 5 people working this section.
Here they checked my paperwork again and handed out information on the quarantine. As I left that station, I handed in the small Health Declaration Form.*
*Although you can complete the Health Declaration Form online and receive a QR code to show the officials, they really seemed to want the paper version. Probably easiest just to fill out the paper form.
Step 6 - Compulsory Quarantine Order
Finally, just before getting to the immigration machines, I sat with an official who reviewed the Compulsory Quarantine Order with me. She pointed out the consequences of breaking the quarantine and asked several times if I understood.
Although I felt a bit like a child back in school again, after reading stories of people breaking quarantine, I understand why they repeatedly emphasize the rules.
At this point, she stamped my papers, took one copy for official records, then returned one to me. On the form is my end quarantine date - April 8, 2020 at 23:59.
So, provided my saliva test is negative, I'll be free again on April 9!
Getting Home from the Airport
After the health check and quarantine, the rest of my departure from the airport was pretty much the same as always. I sailed through immigration and collected my luggage.
Because I wanted to make sure I followed the rules, I asked the official (at step 6) how I should get home. She told me that I could take public transportation. So I rode the airport bus home like always, then walked the couple blocks to my apartment building.
Upon arriving home, I entered my 496 sq. ft. apartment, where I'll stay for the next 14 days. Well, only 11 days to go now!
Hopefully once I'm finished my quarantine, I'll be heading to one of these 16 Best Bars for Craft Beer in Hong Kong!
Hong Kong COVID-19 Quarantine - All about the Wristband
Although they clipped the wristband on me at the airport, I still had to activate it when I got home. First, I had to wait for the health department to send me an SMS with a pin.
At 11:30 am, I received the SMS on my phone and activated the wristband.
How to Activate the Quarantine Wristband
Although they provide instructions at the airport, in case you're curious, here's how I activated the wristband.
Using the StayHomeSafe App, I scanned the QR code on my wristband. Then, I entered the pin provided in the SMS. It asked me to allow location reading and had me turn on the Bluetooth on my phone.
To get a reading of my location, the StayHomeSafe app asked me to walk slowly around the apartment for 60 seconds.
And yes, I managed to walk around my entire apartment, including my balcony, in those 60 seconds. Perhaps that more than anything should tell you how small my apartment is!
Once I completed all the steps, my wristband was activated! The StayHomeSafe app stays active on my phone at all times. So far, I'm finding it's a drain on my battery so I have to charge my phone regularly!
Verifying Location with the Wristband
Periodically, the app buzzes and asks me to verify my location.
I have a few seconds to open the app and hold up my wristband to scan the QR code on the side. Once it reads the QR code, it sends my location to the app. At least I'm pretty sure that's what's happening.
So far, it's buzzed me 4 times in 2 days. I'm not sure what happens if I don't respond right away. But it does make me a bit anxious to think I might not hear it if I'm cooking and my phone is in the other room.
Or, what if I'm sleeping? Right now I'm jetlagged and awake by 9:00 am when it's buzzed the past couple days. But when I'm not jetlagged, sometimes I sleep in!
Hong Kong COVID-19 Quarantine - Life So Far
Because I work from home on the blog in Hong Kong most of the time, the home quarantine isn't that different from my normal life. Of course, usually I have going out to eat or weekend hiking to break up the mundane!
So far, the hardest parts of the quarantine are:
1) Jeremy is in Hong Kong, just a couple blocks away, yet we cannot be together.
When I returned to Hong Kong, we'd already been apart for 3 weeks, now we're looking at another 2 weeks. Knowing he's just down the road somehow makes it harder not to see him. Yesterday, I watched him deliver groceries to me through the peephole in our apartment door, forcing myself not to open the door!
2) I cannot walk out of my apartment... for any reason!
I know this sounds obvious but, picture this - my garbage room is on the same floor of my apartment building, just 20 feet away. Yet I cannot take my own garbage out. Jeremy has to come over (wearing gloves) and pick it up from outside our apartment door where I've left it to throw it out.
This compulsory quarantine is a very strange situation. I think I'll probably feel much more stir-crazy by the end.
But right now, I'm trying to stay positive. Plus, I have to catch up on all the things I let slide last week as I realized I'd have plenty of time to do them in these 14 days!
And as more and more people self-isolate around the world, I know I'm not alone with these feelings.
So that's my story of how I'm now sitting in my Hong Kong apartment under compulsory COVID-19 quarantine wondering what the hell happened to the world.
I'm hopeful that these measures that Hong Kong is taking will curb the spread of the coronavirus so that things can begin to return to normal. Or even the semi-normal state that we were in at the start of March when I left for the U.S.
Have you been self-isolating or under quarantine? What things are you doing to help curb the spread of coronavirus where you live?
Leave me a comment, I'd love to hear from you!
Finally, I hope you are all staying healthy (and sane) in this age of coronavirus and social distancing!