For Cynthia Walker, staying at a quarantine hotel near Toronto Pearson Airport was "absolutely bonkers."
The Rockwood, Ontario, local had been visiting her daughter in South Africa after two years of not seeing her due to the pandemic. She left before Omicron was named a variant concern, but by the time she was flying back to Canada earlier this month, South Africa was on a list of restricted countries for travel.
After a long, arduous journey comprised of 30 hours of flying and several COVID-19 tests and flight cancellations, Walker eventually touched down at Toronto Pearson Airport at around 4 p.m. She finally made it to a quarantine hotel nearby just after 11 p.m., where Walker felt like she had stepped right onto a film set.
"It's just like right out of a sci-fi movie. Everybody's got gas masks on and hazmat suits," Walker told Narcity, recounting her experience. Suitcases were wrapped up in plastic, and people were escorted by security officers to and from their rooms.
Walker thought she was only going to be there for 24 hours while she waited for her COVID-19 test results to come back, but was quickly proven wrong when checking in.
"At that point, they tell us that no, we will probably be in there for three to five days," Walker said. She and her partner eventually were let out on day three.
A spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada told Narcity what the quarantine guidelines are, and explained that most test results are given to travellers within 24 to 48 hours.
"Those in the [designated quarantine facility] who are required to continue to quarantine or isolate will speak with a Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) officer to ensure they have a suitable place prior to being released," the spokesperson explained to Narcity via email.
"PHAC is working to boost its capacity to release travellers as close to their test result as possible."
Courtesy of Cynthia Walker
Before getting to the room, Walker was handed an envelope, which outlined the list of rules she needed to follow during her stay.
"It was all code of conduct. And if you leave your room, it's an $850 fine. If you yell at the officers, it's a $5,000 fine. If you leave, it's a $750,000 fine and be arrested," Walker said. "It was just a whole Riot Act. And then they just left us. We didn't know when we were getting our COVID results; we didn't know when we were going to get out."
The Code of Conduct at federally designated quarantine facilities breaks down what behaviours won't be tolerated as well as the general protocols to adhere to while staying there.
"If you leave prior to authorization, you will be subject to fines and/or imprisonment under Canada's Quarantine Act. Under the Contraventions Act, Public Health Agency of Canada Officials on-facility can issue contravention tickets to people who do not comply with the Quarantine Act or the Emergency Orders made under this Act. Fines range from $825 to $5,000 plus applicable surcharges," the document stated.
"Maximum penalties for non-compliance may include a fine of up to $750,000 and/or imprisonment for six months."
On top of the strict rules they had to adhere to while quarantining, Walker said they were only allotted one brief break a day when they needed a moment outside.
"If we wanted what they called a wellness break or a smoke break, we had to call down," Walker shared.
"We were allowed one a day, and two security officers would follow us out and time you for your five-minute break. Just like jail."
What the food was like
At check-in, Walker and her partner were asked about their dietary restrictions, and since Walker's partner is vegetarian, they had some. But they couldn't provide vegetarian meals until the next day.
So, what did he eat their first night back in their home province after countless (tireless) hours of travel?
"They gave him chips and chocolate bars and crap," Walker shared.
Courtesy of Cynthia Walker
"We were given, like, water, a hard-boiled egg and a croissant for breakfast. Everything was cold, and delivered in brown paper bags. They'd knock on the door with hazmat suits and gas masks and drop the bags for our food," Walker said.
Lunch and dinner were also similar to what you'd get at a school cafeteria, and Walker told Narcity that they were given meals like a sandwich or a cold pasta salad along with snacks like an apple, a granola bar or a bun and a juice box or bottled water.
That being said, Walker wasn't too bothered by the food but more so how she and her partner were treated during their time there.
"It was the Code of Conduct thing about all the fines, and [the way] they treated you like you were a criminal and had the plague," Walker said, noting that this was all after she had already had five negative COVID-19 tests throughout her journey home.
What feds are saying about the hotels
A spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada shared with Narcity that designated quarantine facilities were designed for travellers who are symptomatic or don't have a viable quarantine plan when they get to Canada.
"These facilities are a last resort for travellers who have no options of meeting quarantine requirements by other means," the spokesperson said via email.
According to PHAC, those staying at the hotel have access to 24-hour support and health monitoring, and all rooms are equipped with phones that can make outbound calls. Travellers can also use their cellphones to connect with their loved ones during their stay.
The spokesperson also confirmed that those quarantined at the hotel are delivered three meals each day and are provided with "other essentials," which weren't clarified to Narcity. She also mentioned that travellers can ring up a toll-free phone number to let them know about any essentials they require.
Since the interview with Walker, Canada has updated its travel rules and is advising Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel out of the country amid growing concerns of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Narcity reached out to Walker's hotel but did not hear back before this article was published.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Before you get going, check out our Responsible Travel Guide so you can be informed, be safe, be smart, and most of all, be respectful on your adventure.