What Quarantine Is Like Inside Hong Kong's Bleak, High-Security Camp
(Bloomberg) -- In an isolated corner of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island sits a vast expanse of shipping container-style buildings, ringed by concrete, flood lights and a tall wire fence.
While most places have relied on hotels to quarantine travelers amid the pandemic, Hong Kong has gone a step further, building a spartan government camp to isolate out a growing number of inbound visitors or anyone exposed locally to Covid-19.
Known as Penny’s Bay, the complex lies just 800 meters (2,600 feet) from Hong Kong’s Disneyland. Made up of hundreds of temporary building blocks, the camp can house some 3,500 people. They’re held in 200-square-foot rooms furnished with plastic-wrapped mattresses, a table and chairs, and little else. There’s no wifi access, and anyone trying to escape could be fined or imprisoned.
Once used mostly to isolate Hong Kong residents exposed to the city’s few local virus cases, the omicron threat means use of Penny’s Bay is now being expanded. Travelers from countries where the variant is spreading are now required to spend a week at the camp. They’re then transferred to hotels to complete the rest of the city’s mandatory 21-day quarantine.
With omicron coursing around the globe, travelers to Hong Kong from the U.S. have joined Botswana and some 11 other African nations on the high-risk list that means a week at Penny’s Bay. Those coming from the U.K., one of Hong Kong’s biggest sources of expatriate residents, are set to shortly follow, according to local media.
Close contacts of any confirmed cases—whether exposed domestically, or on inbound flights—must already quarantine for a full three weeks at Penny’s Bay, with scores of pilots from local airline Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. recently sent there for isolation.
While Hong Kong’s government refused Bloomberg News’ request to visit the camp, we spoke to a number of people who’d been sent there to get a sense of what Penny’s Bay—now central to the city’s stringent, Covid Zero approach to the virus—is like.
One expatriate accompanied her four-year-old daughter there in November for three days, after the girl was classified as a contact of a schoolmate whose father had tested positive for Covid.
The bed in their room was rock-hard, she says, the lighting harsh, and they were rarely brought the food they picked from the menu, said the woman, who asked to be identified only by her middle name, Louise, citing privacy concerns.
“It was a very tiring experience,” she said. “I think about the risk factors now everywhere I go, and if I could get called into Penny’s Bay.”
Hong Kong already has one of the world’s strictest quarantine regimes, with most incoming travelers confined for several weeks in hotels before being allowed to access the city. The financial hub hasn’t seen a domestic Covid outbreak since early June and is one of the few places globally to have kept out the highly contagious delta variant. Still, the longer the pandemic wears on, the greater the concern that Hong Kong is being left behind—especially as other parts of the world open up and look to live alongside Covid.
Along with mainland China, the city is one of the last holdouts of Covid Zero, which aims to stamp out all infections through a regime of hardcore border curbs like quarantines, mass testing and other forms of extreme vigilance. Low vaccine takeup in the Hong Kong population, especially among the elderly, means that any outbreak could be devastating, which is why officials say they must defend the border aggressively.
Rooms at Penny’s Bay are equipped with basic items like an air conditioner—essential in Hong Kong’s sweltering summers—a folding table, kettle and television. For hygiene, plastic sheets are wrapped around the thin mattresses, leading some travelers to bring their own bedding. Blankets, sheets and towels are provided, but residents are expected to do their own laundry in the sink.
They are also given 2GB SIM data cards, but rely mostly on mobile data to connect to the outside world.
Three meals a day are provided and people can opt for Chinese, Western or vegetarian meals. There’s a so-called “secret menu” of Indian and Halal dishes. Unlike in quarantine hotels, delivery from outside restaurants isn’t allowed. Friends and family can drop off packaged food, but alcohol is forbidden.
It can be a rude awakening for some travelers—especially those who planned to undertake their quarantine at one of the luxury quarantine hotels that dot the center of town—and a financial reprieve for others. Unlike for hotels, travelers aren’t charged for time spent at Penny’s Bay, a government spokesperson told Bloomberg News this week.
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American Billy Hau, an engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has been at Penny’s Bay for more than two weeks with his parents after a confirmed case was found on their flight to Tokyo from San Francisco, on their journey to Hong Kong. The Haus were upgraded to a family room— double the size of a single, with a disability-access toilet—as his father has cancer.
“The first moment we moved here, I really thought it was the end of the world,” said his mother, Alice Hau, 60. She felt better, though, after staff accommodated requests including an external medical appointment for her husband, a fridge and instant noodles.
But for Louise, the temporary loss of identity was insurmountable.
“Once you arrive and are put in your room you cease to become your name, you are that room number,” she said. “That’s all they want to know.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.