Hong Kong (CNN) — When I first stepped onto a plane departing from Hong Kong to visit my family in the United States for the holidays, I knew my return trip to the city wasn't going to be easy. But I never expected a new coronavirus variant to appear and that I'd be sent to the city's government quarantine camp as a result. Back in October, I was prepared to undergo a mandatory 21-day quarantine in a hotel room when I returned to Hong Kong, one of the few places around the world still adopting a zero-Covid approach. To that end, the city already had some of the strictest border control and quarantine measures in the world, even before the emergence of Omicron. On November 26, five weeks before my return flight, the World Health Organization announced it had designated the newly discovered strain first detected in South Africa as a variant of concern, named Omicron. Omicron spread quickly. By mid-December, the variant was detected in 77 countries and became the most dominant strain in the US. Fears over Omicron prompted a fresh round of travel restrictions across the world, including in Hong Kong. Three weeks before I was due to fly out of the US, the Hong Kong government announced that it would impose the "most stringent" quarantine measures for travelers arriving from the US after a traveler (yes, just one) tested positive for Omicron. This meant I had to spend my first four days of quarantine at a government quarantine center instead of the hotel I had already booked. Located far from the city center, Hong Kong's government quarantine camp in Penny's Bay accommodates people who have been close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases and those who arrive from high-risk countries from which imported Omicron cases have been detected in Hong Kong. Not knowing what to expect, I turned to the HK Quarantine Support Group on Facebook. It is a massive, crowdsourced platform with resources for Hong Kongers who travel overseas during the pandemic. In the group, there were many posts from people who had previously stayed at Penny's Bay.
The veterans suggested tips like downloading my favorite Netflix shows and bringing items like a WiFi hotspot, an extension cord, loads of food, slippers and booze.
The first day
I landed at Hong Kong International Airport on January 2.
After deplaning, I had to present a QR code obtained after filling out a health declaration form, verify my phone number, obtain a quarantine order and get a nose and throat swab.
Travelers wait for Covid-19 test results at Hong Kong International Airport.
Then I was directed to an area where I waited three-and-a-half hours for my test result before I could pick up my luggage and get into a van that took me and five other passengers to Penny's Bay.
On our way there, the van drove through the entrance of Hong Kong Disneyland, which the quarantine center is ironically located next to.
After driving through a set of green gates, the van passed rows of colorful two-story buildings that looked like stacked shipping containers before dropping us off at the reception desk. Staff wearing blue disposable caps and gowns, face shields, masks and gloves -- who are called the "Blue Meanies" by some inmates -- assigned me to a unit.
The "Blue Meanies" at reception were all friendly and nice (so much for the nickname), but they also reminded me that if I broke the quarantine order, I would be subject to a maximum imprisonment of six months and a fine of $25,000 HKD (about $3,200).
Workers dressed in full protective gear sit behind a reception desk at Penny's Bay.
Life in government quarantine camp
My room at the camp reminded me of my old college dorm room. It came with two single beds with thin mattresses, a hard sponge pillow and a duvet, two small tables with a small television, an electric kettle, a hair dryer, two folding plastic chairs, a fabric closet, a bedside table, an air conditioner and a water heater.
I was allowed to open my window to retrieve food and other necessities that were delivered, or just to get some fresh air. Three meals were provided daily in plastic bags (in the morning, afternoon and evening) and were left on a tray outside my window for me to collect. Through that same window, staff members swabbed my nose and throat as part of the daily Covid-19 testing requirements.
The camp has a total capacity of 3,416 units, according to data from Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection (CHP). There were a total of 16 rooms in each building, eight rooms on each floor.
As of 9 a.m. local time on January 4, when I was on my third day there, almost 1,300 people were occupying 995 units at the camp, according to the CHP.
My room at the quarantine camp reminded me of my old college dorm.
When I checked in, I was given a menu with four meal options: Chinese, Western, vegetarian and soft foods. I chose Chinese for most of my meals, but the instruction on the menu warned that I will only start getting my chosen meals two days after submitting my selections. To my surprise, though, the selections began arriving almost immediately.
That said, they were like bland airplane meals, and I was stuck with them as food delivery companies like Deliveroo or Foodpanda don't service the camp. Staff also delivered water bottles, trash bags and fruits to my room. In case I needed more of the camp-provided items like instant noodles or towels, I was given a quarantine center hotline number to call and a number to text on WhatsApp, but these items did take time to be delivered.
A staff member delivers meals in plastic bags to people who are in quarantine at the camp.
It was possible to get items dropped off by family or friends, but it wasn't easy. In order to get care packages, the deliverer had to apply for approval either 24 hours in advance with a full list and photos of items, or they had to fill out a form upon arrival. Items like alcohol and cigarettes were prohibited.
The room also got quite noisy when staff delivered meals and other essentials to my neighbors, workers wheeled carts and dumpsters outside, trucks drove by the buildings and airplanes flew over.
My mattress was very thin, so I placed the one from the other bed on top of it. They were covered with plastic wraps and made a sound whenever I moved. My feet also touched the bed frame when I slept -- and considering I'm only 5 feet 5 inches (165 centimeters), I can't imagine what it was like for taller people.
Mattresses provided at the camp were very thin and covered with plastic wraps.
On my last day there, health workers came by in the morning to test me for Covid. After getting swabbed, I had to wait in the room until the Health Department informed the camp that I was cleared to be transferred to the hotel I booked. Then I had to wait again until a worker came by to tell me I could come out of my room, check out and get in line for my assigned van. Staff helped me load my luggage to the van, which took me to my hotel for another 17 days of quarantine.
But overall, aside from having to eat monotonous airplane meals, sleep on an uncomfortable bed and worry about one of my daily Covid-19 tests coming back positive, my stay at Penny's Bay wasn't as bad as I expected. Granted, I only stayed there for four days, unlike close contacts of Covid cases who have to spend 14 days (previously 21) at the camp.
Such stringent measures seemed like a worthwhile cost of living in a Covid-free city with no locally transmitted coronavirus cases for nearly three months. That streak broke in late December when authorities confirmed two locally transmitted cases of the Omicron variant linked to a Cathay Pacific aircrew member. The individual was one of four Cathay employees found to have violated a three-day home isolation rule imposed on aircrew returning from overseas flights, showing that even with strict Covid-19 containment policies, one loophole can lead to an outbreak, especially with the highly contagious Omicron variant.
As crazy as it sounds, by some metrics I felt lucky.
Just three days after I arrived, Hong Kong banned inbound passenger flights from eight countries for two weeks, including the US.
The price of getting in was high. From the cost of my quarantine hotel and the lost rent for my apartment, to excess baggage fees to bring necessary items for quarantine, these expenses quickly added up.
And it's not only about the money.
The time I lost from being confined and the toll on my physical and mental health and my social life are immeasurable. Moreover, the price isn't going down any time soon, and I'm not sure how many more times I can afford it.