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

National Post logo National Post 3 days ago Tom Blackwell
a woman walking in the snow: A traveller arrives at the mandatory quarantine Alt Hotel near Toronto’s Pearson Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic, Monday February 22, 2021. © Provided by National Post A traveller arrives at the mandatory quarantine Alt Hotel near Toronto’s Pearson Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic, Monday February 22, 2021.
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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 were reportedly swamped by demand.

After three days in a hotel room, travellers 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 travellers into two-week quarantines in such facilities for months now.

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. © Peter J. Thompson/National Post Travellers arrive at mandatory quarantine hotel Four Points by Sheraton and Element Toronto Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic, Monday February 22, 2021.

Fernandes, who was travelling 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.

But the policy may be a boon for some of the group’s members, starving for business after months of on-and-off lockdown. The website for one at Pearson indicated Monday afternoon it was booked solid for the next few days.

Though air traffic into Canada is down by about 90 per cent compared to pre-pandemic days, close to 30 international flights had arrived at Pearson alone by late afternoon.

For passengers on those planes, securing one of the mandatory hotel rooms might have been their biggest challenge. Many complained about a government toll-free reservation line – operated by a company called GB Travel – they said was overwhelmed.

Fernandes said her husband in Canada spent as long as three or four hours trying to book her a room.

“The line keeps getting disconnected after a certain amount of time. And then sometimes it goes on hold and you’re waiting on hold for about two hours,” she said. “This is a trial run by the government and there are many people who’ve been through a terrible thing because of that.”

Another traveller, who asked not to be named, said her arrival at Toronto airport was “chaotic.” While a few passengers had already booked the requisite hotel rooms, many had not, and had to do so once they had landed.

Yet if making the reservations after arrival is an option, that message has apparently not been universally communicated. A Canadian woman visiting her dying father in Eastern Europe tweeted that she had been denied boarding on her flight to Canada because she didn’t have a reservation.

“I had a family emergency and had to travel a week ago,” she wrote. “I need to return home to my family.”

Hooda managed to circumvent all of that. She simply booked a room on the hotel’s website from the Pearson terminal.

“It was quite easy.”

• Email: tblackwell@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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