GCT EXCLUSIVE

Australia’s new quarantine laws for international travellers arriving into the country came into effect on Sunday, with anyone arriving now forced to stay in a state-funded hotel room for 14 days.

Sydney-born Greek Australian business man speaks exclusively to Greek City Times about his oppressing experience from the inside of a forced quarantine hotel.

I have been overseas working in New York where I live in an apartment.

I already had a flight booked home to Sydney from Los Angeles when I saw the Scott Morrison press conference announcing the 14-day forced quarantine at hotels for international arrivals.

There’s no way I could have taken an earlier flight than the one I booked because of the time difference.

I was one of the first flights to land the morning after the laws came into effect.

New York has been shut down for the past three weeks.

At the time that I left there was nothing open except essential services and the streets were totally empty.

A ghost town.

While everyone is saying New York is the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, you wouldn’t know it because hardly anyone has left their house in the past few weeks and no venues other than food and essential services have been open.

So as far as me knowing the situation was bad, sure, I did.

But did it feel bad? No way.

The economy in New York is decimated.

Because of the population density of New York, there are a lot of people in service industries like retail, cafes, hospitality and travel.

With nowhere to go out and spend money, these people were the initial casualties.

Layer that over their debt obligations such as rent, credit cards and so on and all of a sudden there’s a lot of worried people who are out of a job overnight.

Anyone that has an office job is working from home.  The benefit to them (if they can keep their jobs) is that they have nowhere to spend their money so they have the ability to potentially use this time to save.

The poor hospitality workers and small business owners are in big trouble.

Airports are DEAD.

Most shops at the Los Angeles Airport are closed.  For a traveller going through, it has never been more streamlined. No queues, no waiting, no hold ups.  But the downside far outweighs the upside.

As mentioned, I knew about the forced quarantine policy the night before my flight.

Once on board we were told by announcement on the plane that a new law had taken affect meaning that we were required to quarantine for 2 weeks in hotels, and that the flight crew had no further information.

The pilot announced that this was the last flight this crew would be making before all being laid off, so people were wishing the crew all the best.

empty Los Angeles International Airport
* An airport worker stands in a nearly empty TSA PreCheck line at Los Angeles Airport on Saturday. (Brian van der Brug/ Los Angeles Times)

We were kept on the plane for an hour before we were allowed off.

Once we left the plane, we walked through the terminal and everyone was handed masks to wear.

There were an unusual number of health/ customs officers lining the hallways directing everyone and making sure everyone kept the required social distance.

We walked down a long corridor to a health check where we were temperature checked and asked if we had symptoms. Once cleared, we walked back down the corridor for passport control. All the self serve stations were closed and we needed to deal directly with customs officials. It was relatively painless though. They had nothing to say other than what was required to perform passport checks.

Once we collected our baggage, we were told to form another line (again at an acceptable social distance) and wait. What we were waiting for was the passengers of the previous flight to clear customs with their bags, as they were ‘batching’ people through.

Having said that, we weren’t told this, I just figured it out by watching what was happening.

The first passenger to go into compulsory quarantine arrive at Sydney Airport
* The first passenger to go into compulsory quarantine arrive at Sydney Airport (ABC News)

Everyone was VERY vague with information, no one knew what was going on.

Once we cleared customs, we lined up again, waiting until everyone had gone through. Then we were ushered outside (still without any communication).

Outside the airport there was a row of Army, NSW & Federal police either side of us in a tunnel like formation, which we walked through.

Everyone looked friendly enough, but there was no communicating whatsoever.

We walked to the end of the walkway and someone pointed (without speaking) to a bus.

Buses were normal STA buses, and filled with only about 20 or so people.

I followed the person in front as I was near the front of the line. We got on buses and sat.

Once we boarded the bus, we waited about half an hour.

There was a lot of talking from officers outside on the footpath, but nothing directed to us.

After eventually leaving (complete with our security guard on the bus) we drove in a convoy towards the city.

I only knew where we were heading because I was seated near the door and overheard the word ‘Intercontinental’ mentioned to the bus driver.

Since we were in a convoy, the journey to the city with no traffic should have been fast. But as no one knew where they were going (the leading escort car was a customs official) we didn’t take the freeway into the city the whole way.

So as a result, the buses to the rear of the convoy would never made it through any set of lights on the first attempt, so we were continually waiting for lights to change.

It took about an hour to get to the Intercontinental.

We waited on Macquarie Street, Sydney for approximately two hours. No food, toilet breaks, nothing.

The customs officials in the car in front were waiting on the footpath and actively refused to acknowledge us.

A simple, “Sorry guys we are waiting for the group ahead to check in, it could be a while longer,” may have helped to set us at ease a little.

Instead we waited and waited line, slowly edging down the street.

Hundreds of people were being checked in, one by one, one person per lift and checking names off at every step, taking hours. This, as it turns out, was the delay.

When the hotel finally reached full capacity, four remaining busloads of people were loaded back onto the buses and redirected away from the intercontinental.

Despite word from the media conferences that 5 star hotels were being used, we were heading to the ‘3 star on a good day’ IBIS in Darling Harbour/Pyrmont.

No one on the bus was happy.

Returning overseas passengers ushered into the Intercontinental hotel for their 14-day forced quarantine
*Returning overseas passengers are ushered into the Intercontinental hotel for their 14-day forced quarantine (Daily Mail UK)
Returning overseas passengers are ushered into their 14-day forced hotel quarantine by members of the Australian Police Force and the Australian Defence Force.
* Returning overseas passengers are ushered into their 14-day forced hotel quarantine by members of the Australian Police Force and the Australian Defence Force. (Daily Mail UK)

Police were waiting for us at the hotel when we arrived.

The room at the IBIS is basic, sterile, boxy and small. The hotel itself is  marketed as a ‘budget hotel’. Hardly fit for a two week stay without any fresh air.

It’s easy to say, “Oh you have it so tough in a hotel room.” But when you can’t leave the hotel room for two weeks it’s a very different experience to being on holiday with fresh towels, turndown and room service and returning from a day of sightseeing.

Buses queue to let passengers off into forced quarantine at the IBIS Hotel, Pyrmont, Sydney
* Buses queue to let passengers off into forced quarantine at the IBIS Hotel, Pyrmont, Sydney (ABC News)

I love my Greek food, and am not at all a fussy eater. But the food here is total rubbish.

The food comprises of three ‘meals’ – breakfast, lunch and dinner, delivered in a paper bag with a knock on the door.

No human interaction.

The food is served in plastic take away containers with wooden disposable cutlery.

One option only, no choices.

Buses queue to let passengers off into forced quarantine at the IBIS Hotel, Pyrmont, Sydney
* Photos of two of the meals served at the IBIS Hotel in Pyrmont, Sydney during forced quarantine

One of the meals served at the IBIS Hotel in Pyrmont, Sydney during forced quarantine

My contact with other humans is limited to the calls I make to reception, that’s about it.

There is a blanket rule of no deliveries. Pretty soul destroying that we can’t have any exercise equipment or home cooked meals delivered.

I mean seriously – prisoners have more rights.

In fact, I read the standard guidelines for prisoners of Australia (in my spare time, of which I currently have a lot) and it says an hour a day is minimum recommended. We don’t even get that.

While there is a blanket no delivery policy, the first day it was allowed. So my family cooked me a delicious Greek meal and packed some olives, feta and so on, only to be told at the door to the hotel that the rules have been changed and deliveries were not longer allowed in case we (as the hotel guests) became sick as a result of the people delivering the items.

We were told that under no circumstance can we leave the room.

There are police on every floor. We can’t have the door open.

I can hear other people in the hallway talking to the police officers through their doors asking about fresh air, and they are all saying no.

They are all nice about it because they understand, but it’s not their decision.

I’m feeling very claustrophobic, alone in this tiny room.

Police commissioner Mick Fuller publicly made a statement saying that ‘these people will be treated with dignity and respect.”

For that matter, even Guantanamo Bay prisoners are allowed outside for 2 x 1 hour exercise sessions a day. We aren’t allowed to leave the room. There’s no respect in that.

It is said that we aren’t prisoners and yet here we are we are, under police guard.

And what’s worse, no one has explained anything to us since we checked in.  There is absolutely ZERO communication on anything. I have no idea what’s going on.

Am I just waiting for a knock on the door after two weeks to say ok you can go?

It would be nice if someone was checking up on us.

Having said that, I have had two calls from doctors who are concerned for me.

When I was checked in, I was taken to a room that was smaller than my New York bedroom.

Not even enough room to lay a yoga mat on the floor.

To make things worse, it had a frosted window, so I couldn’t even see out!

We weren’t given information about what we should do if we start experiencing coronavirus symptoms but we are able to call the doctors to come and visit.

I immediately called for a doctor to say that I couldn’t stay in the room I was given. The hotel staff immediately moved me to a bigger room (It’s the IBIS, so bigger isn’t as lush as it sounds) with a window I can see out of (but not open).

So hence I received the calls from the two doctors to see how I was.

I told them I need to exercise and get fresh air. They said they had raised concerns with the minister but there was nothing they could do and ‘were working on it.’

There are at least two police on every floor.

Presumably one near the lift, the other near the stairs. I wouldn’t know exactly where they are because I can’t see them but can hear them talking.

The second I ever open my door, they poke their heads around the corner.

Side note, I don’t even have a key to my room, so even if I try leave they will know anyway as I have no way to get back in!

We have access to internet services.   But when you have hundreds of people stuck in a hotel all day with nothing to do, what was most likely fast internet becomes extremely slow.

I can’t stream a movie or load a news website without it timing out.

The room has a free to air TV but no cable.

Apart from calls from friends and family, there is little else to do to pass the time.

Eating three meals a day  of poor quality stodgy food and staying seated is a health disaster (physical and mental).

I’m not a fussy eater, but I still want to be able to burn off the calories I’m eating in a manner that doesn’t involve laying on a hotel floor. Yuck.

We are being treated like diseased prisoners.

No one wants to come near us, and everyone is too scared to say something in case they are saying the wrong thing.

Coming from a marketing and events background the logistics side has been a total nightmare with details not being thought out logically.

If this whole operation was being treated like a government convention coming to town, there would be people providing information, people explaining what was happening, daily updates, no backlogs at hotel check-ins because it would have been planned by experienced people who consider these details.

Instead, we are locked in a room under police guard with no information.

It feels like we have been forgotten about.

It would be nice if there was a daily newsletter or something that went to all the hotels with information about the policies, exercises to do, useful information like that.

There are a lot of people who are in the same boat (across the whole country) and nobody knows what’s going on.

The way that this has been handled is a massive fail on the governments part, a knee jerk reaction to letting the Ruby Princess cruise ship full of confirmed COVID-19 cases run around the city infecting others.

If I knew that this was going to happen as a result of traveling home at this time from I wouldn’t have come back to be honest.

I felt much safer and happier in my apartment in New York. But my parents insisted that I come home and now I am caught up in this mess.

How am I feeling about the whole policy? Do I think this is a necessary step for public safety?

Yes, the forced quarantine for international arrivals is a good policy in theory.  But the execution is woeful.

I asked a doctor I spoke to in one of my phone calls who is in charge and making the rules they are enforcing. Is it the Department of Customs & Immigration, Department of Biosecurity, Department of Health, Federal Police, the NSW Police?

He couldn’t answer. No one knows what the hell is going on.

The government have been treating us like prisoners, and denying constant and clear information to people who have suddenly had one of their basic human rights removed – freedom.

Is there anything that I am missing in particular? Fresh air, sunlight and the ability to exercise. Also, some information about what the hell is going on.

What is the first thing I will do when I am released?

I’ll walk home.

Endnote

This account describes a first-hand experience of the Australian government’s tough new enforced quarantine measures for international arrivals in the country’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two-thirds of Australia’s coronavirus cases have currently been from people travelling into the country from overseas.

Passengers will be quarantined in the city they land in, irrespective of where they live.

Defence personnel will help state and territory police enforce self-isolation rules.

Please stay safe everybody and stay home.

Guest Blogger

This piece was written for GCT by a guest blogger.