International air passengers grumble as they’re forced into quarantine hotels on new rule’s first day

Michelle Fernandes could almost see her home from the steps of the Sheraton Four Points hotel near Toronto Pearson International Airport on Monday.

She had flown all the way from New Delhi that morning, but lives nearby in Mississauga, the suburban municipality where Pearson is located.

Yet instead of heading to her house, she was checking into an airport hotel, becoming one of the first international air travellers required to quarantine in government-sanctioned accommodations for her first three days in Canada.

Lugging three hefty suitcases after a months-long visit with relatives in India, the policy didn’t seem to make sense to Fernandes.

“I don’t think it’s necessary because I could have quarantined in my basement,” said the 31-year-old, Pearson’s tarmac and parked airliners visible over her shoulders. “It’s a full-fledged house.”

It was a common sentiment Monday as Canada put into motion one of the most dramatic measures yet to control the spread of COVID-19, a rule that has prompted talk of constitutional challenges and complaints of unlawful confinement.

Similar scenes were playing out in Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver, the only other airports allowed to accept international flights under new federal rules. There was also widespread grumbling about a telephone booking system for the stays that was reportedly swamped by demand.

After three days in a hotel room, travelers are required to complete their 14-day quarantine at home, so long as the COVID test they took on arrival comes back negative.

The government says the measure was needed to try to curb the importation of variants of the coronavirus that are more easily transmissible. Australia and other countries with far more success than Canada at handling the pandemic have forced travelers into two-week quarantines in such facilities for months now.

Following the example of those countries and keeping passengers in hotel isolation for 14 days would have been ideal, said Dr. Jeff Kwong, a public-health professor and interim head of the University of Toronto’s centre for vaccine-preventable diseases.

“But requiring pre-departure testing, post-arrival testing and three-day hotel quarantine is better than what we had before, i.e., nothing,” he said via email. “Whether it’s enough remains to be seen.”

Despite the complaints, implementation of the policy at Pearson seemed less than draconian.

Passengers made their way unescorted to the four hotels taking part in the program by the usual methods, including shuttle buses and a monorail that has a station next to one of the hotels. Inside, they milled about as would any guests waiting to check in. Once in their rooms, however, they won’t be able to leave for 72 hours, apart from short, supervised trips outdoors.

Kirti Hooda, also arriving from India, said she couldn’t quite see the point.

She and her travel companion are the only residents of their house in nearby Brampton, and will also be sharing a room at the same Sheraton Four Points.

“At home we are two people, and in the room here we are two people,” said Hooda. “So there is no use for this.”

Travellers arrive at mandatory quarantine hotel Four Points by Sheraton and Element Toronto Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic, Monday February 22, 2021. PHOTO BY PETER J. THOMPSON

Fernandes, who was traveling on her own, said the stay cost her $1,100 including meals delivered to her room. That’s just over half the $2,000 that government officials cited when the policy was announced.

Even so, for some “affordability is a question,” she argued. “For a family, you could pay three or four thousand. For three days you’re paying $4,000 for your family to quarantine. It’s not worth it.”

Meanwhile, the hotels seemed reluctant to embrace the media attention invited by the new rules. Staff referred a National Post reporter to their industry association for comment, and in two cases abruptly cut short interviews with guests inside their lobbies. The Hotel Association of Canada issued a pro-forma statement.

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