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Grace Baja: What’s it like to quarantine for 3 weeks in Hong Kong

By Tanya Lara Published Feb 04, 2021 4:49 am Updated Feb 04, 2021 9:41 am

Two bedrooms, three bathrooms and a living room that she cannot step out of for 21 days. This is the physical world of businesswoman and popular blogger Grace Barbers-Baja, a.k.a. “The Spoiled Mummy,” who is currently in compulsory quarantine in a Hong Kong hotel with her husband and three children.

It’s not the worst place in the world—in fact, it’s posh as Hong Kong hotels go—but for someone who was at the beach twice in the weeks leading up to her flight and has a beautiful, spacious home and garden in Manila, it’s incredibly confining.

She can’t go to the store across the street, or to the hotel lobby, or even step out of the corridor—for three weeks. Her quarantine bracelet, which has a QR code containing all her info, presumably has a GPS tracker too that would show if she did.

Ready for three-week quarantine in HK: The Spoiled Mummy blogger Grace Barbers-Baja with her 16 pieces of luggage. 

Grace surprised her Instagram followers last week when she posted photos of herself at the airport with 16 pieces of luggage. The number of suitcases aside, what really caught her followers off guard was that it looked like she was moving to Hong Kong.

She is, for a few months.

Hong Kong, like the Philippines, has not opened its borders to foreign tourists, accepting only its own citizens, foreign permanent residents or workers, or those with work visas.

“Our decision was very spontaneous, it wasn’t something that we planned months ahead,” she says in a Zoom interview with PhilSTAR L!fe. “I love change; I’m a person who gets bored easily. Also, it’s the new year, so new life. As a family, even before the pandemic, we’ve always been the traveling type. We were very nomadic, we would take the kids traveling every two months locally or abroad.”

With her husband’s work taking him to Hong Kong occasionally, the family decided to go with him on this trip. She also says that she wanted that feeling of security that the pandemic is under control.

Hong Kong has 10,512 COVID-19 cases and 183 deaths compared to the Philippines’ 528,853 cases and 10,874 deaths. 

As of this writing, the Philippines has 528,853 COVID-19 cases and 10,874 deaths compared to Hong Kong’s 10,512 cases and 183 deaths. And to think Hong Kong is just next door to Mainland China and one of the first to get COVID infections in January 2020.

Hong Kong belongs to a small group of Asian countries (like Taiwan and Vietnam) that have managed to keep their COVID numbers down with early contact tracing and lockdowns.

The payoff? Relative freedom of movement for their people.

Grace recognizes how lucky her family is to have this choice to live elsewhere albeit temporarily. The experience has taught her to be more grateful “for little things like fresh air and sunlight.”

Grace is looking forward to fewer restrictions once her quarantine is over—and shopping, of course. She and her kids are planning to go hiking and to explore the island-city’s coastline.

“I’ve always loved Hong Kong, it’s one place we always went to whether for just the weekend or a bit longer. I love the food, the shopping, everything about it.”

But first, an excruciating airport experience and a 21-day quarantine.

“You can put me in the boondocks, I will survive. Basta dala ko yung pang kilay ko and lipstick, okay na ako.”

It begins on the flight and at the airport

If there is a single place in every country that tells you how drastically the world has changed since COVID, it’s the airport.

One of the world’s busiest, Chek Lap Kok International Airport handled 71.5 million passengers in 2019 and earned HK$4.72 billion (P30 billion) in retail and advertising alone.

Today, everything is closed. Everything. There isn’t even a place to buy bottled water, according to Grace.

Airlines such as Cathay Pacific are implementing no-contact policy with passengers as well. “Before, passengers look forward to the food they serve in business class—you have warm bread, butter and olive oil, wines, a real meal, etc. Now, they just give you a paper bag with two cold sandwiches, two cookies and a bottle of water. That’s it. A flight attendant told me the food pack is more substantial for long haul—but it really is not like before.”

After disembarking and you’re inside the terminal, she says, all you will interact with are health ministry personnel in PPEs.

“I didn’t expect that it would be so eerie seeing the airport with everything boarded up. It looked like a hospital. Filipinos love Hong Kong airport with all its stores and restaurants. Even airline lounges in Manila and Hong Kong are closed as well.”

They were led to a cordoned-off area with tables and chairs during the processing (each flight that lands has its own separate area and you cannot wander off).

“Ang daming forms to fill out online and I had to do it for my 10-year-old who doesn’t have her own phone,” she says.

They were given an RT-PCR test and had to wait for the results before going through immigration. Lucily, they didn’t eat their cold sandwiches from the flight because these became their lunch and dinner during the eight hours-plus wait.

“It was very organized and the chairs were comfortable, pero nakaka-bato.”

Grace says the PCR test was done so differently from Manila. “We were pleasantly surprised because they have a different technique, the swab stick reaches only the side of your nose, not all the way in na mapapa-iyak ka. We were holding our breath waiting for it to go deeper when we were told, you’re done! Same for the throat swab.”

After this, they were given plastic bracelets with a QR code to wear all the time—including in the shower.

By the end of her quarantine, Grace will have taken four PCR tests in 23 days: the first in Manila before she flew, the second when she landed, the third on the ninth day of her quarantine, and the fourth before leaving the hotel.

After collecting their luggage, passengers are not allowed to take a taxi or hotel service. They are bussed to their hotels and, in their case, there were only two other couples with the Bajas’ party of five.

Reading by her hotel window. 

Needless to say, the driver was shocked when he saw their luggage. Grace laughs, “The kids and I rushed inside the bus before he got very mad, and they told me, ‘Mom, he’s throwing the luggage in the compartment.’”

The family left Manila early morning and arrived at their hotel at midnight. Luckily, Grace had ordered rom service ahead of time and she had packed pandesal with prosciutto for the trip.

21-day quarantine

The Hong Kong government has a list of 36 hotels designated for quarantine (as of this writing). Its website is complete with prices per night, policy on children, whether they have room service or accept outside delivery, addresses and telephone numbers.

The hotel prices per night range from HK$450 or P2,791 (Bridal Tea House) to suites at HK$51,150 or P317,342 (The Landmark Mandarin Oriental).

So for a three-week quarantine, you’re looking at spending anywhere between P58,611 for the lowest-priced hotels and P6.6 million for the highest.

This city, after all, was built as Asia’s finance capital during 156 years of British control, and built on the backs of migrant workers and local Hong Kongers.

It’s easy to say being in a hotel for three weeks is a breeze—until you realize you cannot step out even onto the corridor or just to bring something to the room next door.

Grace relates that HK quarantine is so thorough that when the authorities get wind of a COVID case in one residential building, they seal the entire block and bring the residents to a quarantine facility immediately.

The Spoiled Mummy is now the cleaning lady for her family. There is no cleaning or laundry service in their quarantine hotel. 

Quartz reported on Jan. 28 an “ambush” lockdown in North Point, which sealed off four apartment blocks. (Watch the video here.)

With their family of five, Grace says they were lucky they found a hotel with connecting rooms: a guestroom with a bedroom, a living room and dining table connected to another bedroom. The authorities wouldn’t have allowed five people in one bedroom anyway.

“Because we knew it was going to be a three-week stay, we had to consider privacy and the kids’ comfort as they are still attending online classes.”

Just as they cannot step out of their room, no one goes in either. There is no housekeeping or laundry service; room service and outside deliveries are left at the door.

“You can ask the hotel for linens, towels, cleaners, trash bags, paper towels and things like that, but you have to do everything yourself.”

Nevertheless, three of her 16 suitcases were filled with cleaners, Lysol and other disinfectants that she could have ordered online, but she brought them anyway.

“I’m the opposite of a light packer—I’m maximalist.”

She laughs and adds, “Maarte ako, sure. I love the finer things in life, pero wala akong kiyeme. You can put me in the boondocks, I will survive. Basta dala ko yung pang kilay ko and lipstick, okay na ako.

“And I really clean, I want things organized, I pick up after my kids and husband. Except now I have to do the dirty cleaning too—I scrub the toilets and bathrooms.”

“ This is a good experience for the kids. It’s teaching them a lot about the world.”

For the children 

Grace says it’s the perfect timing for them all to be in a different place for a few months. Her eldest child is going to college in June with his application results in universities abroad coming in March.

“This experience has taught us to be mindful and grateful for the little things we take for granted—like fresh air! Some people were asking me if kaya ko to be cooped up for three weeks, to do everything, the cleaning, etc. Obviously I don’t mind doing it because it’s for my family. I wanted the kids to have a change of scenery and to accompany their dad.

“It was hard for the kids to be in lockdown. Since they were babies, we’ve been traveling with them (once they all turned five years old, no more yaya on our travels), running around in airports, and sometimes missing our flight.

“My husband and I agreed that this is a good experience for them. It’s teaching them a lot about the world, not just about how this pandemic has affected us. Dati, this is not how we look at Hong Kong, now it’s so different, they also see the way daddy goes to work, the way I’m here with them all the time.”

The first thing Grace will do after the quarantine? She will step out on the street and whisper a prayer of thanks for the sun in her face.