Bad Food, Slivers of Sun: Life in Sydney’s Hotel Quarantine

SYDNEY — With our long journey to reach Australia behind us, and 14 days isolated in a hotel ahead of us, the police officer on our bus tried to inject some humor: "If you're looking to save some money on the hotel," he joked, "this is your last chance to hook up and share a room."

As a photographer for The Associated Press, I had spent the past 20 days in Japan covering the Olympics. In a bid to limit transmission of COVID-19, officials imposed tough rules on visiting media and athletes that kept us in an "Olympic bubble" for our first 14 days in Tokyo. During that time, we were only allowed to move between the main media center, Olympic venues and our hotel; our meals were mostly from convenience stores. On Aug. 9, I returned to Australia, where I faced another 14 days in a hotel bubble. 

Australia shut its borders to the world shortly after the pandemic erupted in 2020. Most Australians who want to travel abroad — be it for work, or to move, or to visit a dying family member in another country — must apply for permission from the government to leave Australia. Those lucky enough to be granted permission to travel must then spend two weeks quarantining in a hotel when they return, at their own expense — approximately US$2,400. The system has stranded tens of thousands of Australians abroad, as there are a limited number of quarantine hotel rooms available, and thus a limited number of Australians are allowed to return home each week. 

Many have wondered what these quarantine hotels are like — and how those of us cloistered inside pass the time during those 14 days. 

After landing in Sydney, we were welcomed by friendly local health officials who ushered us through customs and baggage collection and then onto the bus, where the jovial police officer ran through what to expect over the next two weeks. We were checked into the hotel one at a time, and then finally — three hours after landing — I walked into my room. 

I was lucky enough to be placed in a one-bedroom apartment with every luxury included — a washing machine, two TVs and a kitchen. A friend dropped off gym equipment for me, and I rented an exercise bike to try and meet some fitness goals.

The provided meals are the biggest challenge. After two weeks of convenience store food in Japan, the grim, plastic-wrapped meals that arrive three times a day aren't a whole lot better. The meals vary daily, but there is no choice. 

My savior has been my wife, who every few days has delivered some great food and wine (we are allowed one bottle per day — more than enough for me!). Her deliveries have made my time here bearable. 

My Olympics colleagues who are in other quarantine hotels across Australia are all experiencing slightly different conditions. None appear to be as lucky as me with the room, though some have better food options — even a choice!

As a photographer, I have passed much of my time documenting the world outside my window. Though Sydney is normally a bustling and vibrant city, a COVID-19 outbreak has forced residents into lockdown for the past two months. Life in the streets below is now quiet. 

I perk up when I spot hints of normality: garbage trucks, parking inspectors, food delivery staff, a few office workers. I see the sun for around one hour a day as it passes between tall office towers. 

The hotel staff have been wonderful. I enjoy my daily "mental health" calls from the in-house nurses. Less enjoyable are the three "up your nose" coronavirus tests we do on days 3, 7 and 12. Once I have completed my time here, I will have had nearly 30 such tests in the past six weeks.

As I pass the halfway mark, I have sets my sights on seeing my wife in person and not just from a balcony. I'm also looking forward to a hot, home-cooked meal and stretching my legs during a walk in the sunshine.

And I am really looking forward to a day when the toughest part of coming home to Australia is the long plane ride to get here.


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