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Hotel quarantine program off to rocky start; Ottawa updates accommodation list

Three-hour wait times. Disconnections. Unanswered calls.

As Canada’s hotel quarantine measure for international arrivals takes effect today (Feb. 22), reports of how awful the program is have surfaced as travellers scrambled over the weekend to secure their mandatory accommodations.

Air passengers entering Canada must take a COVID-19 test upon arrival in Canada, at the airport, and await their results in a government-approved hotel, which they must book in advance.

On Friday (Feb. 19), the federal government released a preliminary list of approved hotels for quarantine in the four Canadian cities that are currently accepting international flights – this being, Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.

On that Friday, the list showed 11 approved hotels, with Vancouver, at the time, only listing one available option.

That list has since been updated. Vancouver now has five approved hotels, with Calgary – two, Ontario – six and Quebec – five. (Click here to see the full list).

Much to the frustration of travellers trying to book a room, the reservations can only be made by telephone – not online.

The Canadian government has further updated their landing page for the program by adding an additional number for international calls.

Currently, the toll-free number for calls within North America is 1-800-294-8253; for collect outside of North America, it’s 1-613-830-2992.

Passengers are also now being advised to only call if their flight to Canada is within the next 48 hours.

The page, now, lists hours of operation from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET, seven days a week, and notes that calls received after hours “will be limited to emergencies.”

Long wait times

But the system is flawed with issues, it seems, as travellers expressed frustration to news outlets over the weekend, with several reporting how they couldn’t get through on the line to book a room.

One traveller who was flying to Canada from India told that multiple attempts at reaching a booking agent were made, with wait times lasting as long as three hours.

“I have only slept three hours, approximately, but still haven't been able to have my booking done. On top of that, I have a 23-hour journey ahead with no idea of what will happen when I reach there,” Pritam Divecha said, noting how he wasn’t sure if he would be able to board the first of two connecting flights to Toronto, or if he’ll be denied boarding during a layover in Qatar.

Several other travellers reported that their calls were disconnected after three hours, forcing them to call back and start again from scratch.

Another man CTV spoke with said he waited more than six hours on hold on Saturday before finally connecting with a representative.

The booking, which he was making for his wife, who was flying to Toronto from China, took at least 25 minutes to complete, the Montreal-based man revealed.

The Public Health Agency of Canada, which is overseeing the quarantine program, wasn’t unable to provide an explanation over the weekend as to why the phone lines were jammed and causing so many problems.

Some travellers took their frustration to Twitter to make their issues known to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“the line to book quarantine hotels is not answering and I have tried 3 times today and after 2 hour waits I get disconnected,” tweeted user @debfromcapecod at the PM. “You must let us book directly with approved hotels or hire more agents to take calls.”

Another user, named @DianeAkam, called the program a #quarantinehotelfail

“…First the recording said it was a three hour wait, now I can’t even get on hold that keeps disconnecting me. WHY CAN’T WE BOOK ONLINE???” @DianeAkam tweeted.

A man CBC News spoke with – a permanent Canadian resident living in New York who is set to fly to Toronto this Thursday for a work transfer – spent days trying to book his room.

"The hold music that's playing for, like, three, three and a half hours, suddenly it stops and the call gets dropped," Vineeth Nair told CBC on Sunday (he’d been trying to get through since Friday).

Varying prices

Costs of these hotel stopovers, which Prime Minister Trudeau previously pegged at $2,000, are varying by location (and are also coming in at a lower price than Trudeau’s original estimate).

The Canadian Press reported on Friday that nightly quarantine rates at Toronto's Alt Hotel Toronto Airport and the Sheraton Gateway Hotel (two participating hotels) are starting at $339 and $319 respectively.

The price covers costs associated with food, the room, security, transportation, and infection prevention and control measures, the government explains on its website.

Travellers have been advised to prepare for at least three days of quarantine at a hotel while their PCR test is processed.

However, if a traveller receives a negative test result earlier than that, they will be allowed to leave their hotel early (but they must still complete their 14-day quarantine at home).

“The billing will be done through the hotels,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said a press conference on Feb. 12. “[Hotels] will have the flexibility to adjust their billing as they see fit.”

If a couple is travelling together, and returning home together to complete their 14-day quarantine, they can share a room, confirmed Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc at the same press conference.

If a traveller’s test comes back as positive for COVID-19, they will then be escorted from their hotel to a federal facility where their conditions will be monitored.

Who's exempt?

Some travellers may be exempt from the hotel quarantine altogether.

The exemptions are all listed here, but specifically, essential workers, cross-border workers and people receiving medical treatment, unaccompanied minors, and people with compassionate reasons (such as attending a funeral, with federal pre-approval) are allowed to skip the hotel step.

International students, as well as vaccinated people, are not exempt from the measure, federal officials have previously confirmed.

Tightened restrictions

Travellers entering Canada by land are not required to stay in a hotel on entry due to legal and logistical issues at Canada’s 117 entry points.

In addition, starting Feb. 22, all travellers, whether entering Canada by land or air, will be required to submit their travel and contact information, such as their quarantine plan or hotel booking, via the ArriveCAN app before crossing the border or boarding a flight.

Presenting a negative PCR test, taken within 72 hours, is also mandatory for all land and air arrivals. (Click here for the pre-entry requirements).

Also starting Feb. 22, all travellers entering by land and air, in addition to taking a COVID-19 molecular test on arrival, are now required to take a second test on day ten of their 14-day quarantine.

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