SINGAPORE: Being stuck inside a hotel room in Honolulu for three days wasn’t the end to her spring break Claudia Wu had expected, but the day after she got to Hawaii, the US state went into a COVID-19 lockdown.
She and her group of five whiled the time away watching television and surfing the net, before they flew back to Chapel Hill, where they were exchange students at the University of Carolina. The SIngaporean was there as part of a study abroad programme, which was officially cancelled on Mar 15.
Last weekend was spent packing and saying premature goodbyes to friends. But Ms Wu did not have the opportunity to do so with her professors and tutors. Now, she watches them from afar, on a screen in another hotel room at the Swissotel Stamford in Singapore.
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The 21-year-old is one of the many returning Singapore residents who are serving their 14-day stay-home notices (SHN) in a hotel, after it was decided that all those who have travelled to the United Kingdom and United States should do so as part of measures to reduce the risk from imported COVID-19 cases. About 1,200 people a day come to Singapore from these countries.
Unlike the usual tourists out and about exploring the island, guests like Ms Wu are not allowed to leave their room.
Not that she has any problems with that. There is still schoolwork to complete, Skype chats to look forward to, and she is glad to be isolated right now.
“I live with my grandma, so it would be a risk to be home right now, even if my family quarantined me in my room,’ she said.
“The hotel is clean, the wifi works,” she added. “That’s all I ask for.”
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Other Singaporeans have also expressed their relief at the mandatory self-isolation programme arranged for them.
Siti Adilla, a master’s student in domestic violence and sexual abuse at Goldsmiths in London, had been looking for hotels when the Government announced the new rule on Tuesday (Mar 24) night. She is now staying at the Holiday Inn Express in Clarke Quay.
“It makes sense, especially with the recent news reports of people who are infectious but asymptomatic,” said Ms Adilla, who is also a senior social worker at Big Love Child Protection Specialist Centre. “We have to be socially responsible and civic-minded, especially at this point of time.”
“If I passed it on to someone else, I would feel so guilty.”
Tech investor Aaron Fu finally managed to fly to Singapore on Thursday night from Boston – where he lives – via New York after multiple flight cancellations.
“Every country is prioritising their citizens now,” he said. “You don’t know how they will treat you if push comes to shove.”
He has had to make himself comfortable inside a room at the Village Hotel Sentosa since Thursday afternoon, setting up a work station, carving out a small area to exercise after flipping one of the twin beds vertically, and plugging in a blender for his smoothies, which he makes with fruit sent by his family.
Mr Fu, 36, said that he finds the whole SHN experience “a bit harrowing”, as it was announced right before he came home.
“There’s no balcony, (so it’s) circulated air for two weeks,” he said. “I wish there was a level of choice for me to be able to say I need more space and willing to pay more (for a larger hotel room).”
“This feels a little bit extreme, but I guess with all measures now, you want it to be an overreaction.”
While stuck in their rooms, meals and other items are brought to them by staff decked out in personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks, the returnees said.
At Swissotel Stamford, guests choose their meals – they are given two or three options – via an online form they fill up each day, said Ms Wu. The food arrives in disposable boxes.
After leaving the meals at their doors, staff ring the doorbell, she added.
Fresh linen will be given once every seven days, while towels are provided every few days or upon request. Anyone that needs their laundry done can put it in a plastic bag, leave it outside their door and inform housekeeping afterwards.
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“I’m definitely impressed,” said Marcus Chua, 36, who is staying at the Swissotel Stamford after flying in from Washington DC via San Francisco on Thursday.
Other than finishing his work and watching shows online, the environmental studies and public policy PhD student plans to spend his time birdwatching from his balcony. There is even enough room to do a shuttle run if he wants to exercise.
The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) declined to say how many hotels have been roped in so far to house returnees from the US and UK, but that “through a multi-agency effort involving STB, SLA (Singapore Land Authority) and other public service organisations, the Government was able to procure SHN facilities in a matter of days”.
Three hotels – Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort & Spa, Grand Park Orchard and Far East Hospitality – have set aside entire compounds for SHN returnees, transferring existing guests to other hotels from the same chain, representatives told CNA.
All of them said joining the initiative is their way of helping Singapore manage the spread of COVID-19.
As to whether joining the initiative helps boost business amid the current tourism slump, Grand Park Orchard’s executive director Tan Shin Hui said that the SHN programme “only help(s) to defray some costs”, particularly in manpower.
“The recently announced Resilience Budget is more of a lifeline to the hospitality industry… than the SHN programme,” she said.
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To ensure the safety of both guests and employees, some of the measures the hotels have implemented include having separate entry points for SHN returnees and requiring staff to don protective clothing when they work on floors with SHN guests.
At Grand Park Orchard, the returnees enter via a back entrance and use a separate lift, so that they don’t mingle with its restaurant’s patrons, said its general manager Kanchan Kanwar. About 100 of the hotel’s 308 rooms have been occupied so far.
The hotels also refrain from having elderly staff tend to any matter involving those on SHN, she said, and they will make sure that rooms are left to air for 12 to 24 hours after they are vacated before they are cleaned.
Josie Lam, the hotel’s executive housekeeper, added that the building’s public areas are sanitised and disinfected every morning.
She said that she is not afraid of working at the hotel right now.
“Sure, there are confirmed cases from (returnees on SHN),” Ms Lam said. “(But) If you think about it, in a controlled environment such as Grand Park Orchard, the chances of getting the virus is less than say going to a crowded club.”
Staff with pre-existing conditions working at the three Far East Hospitality hotels have been allocated to non-guest contact roles or placed on annual leave clearance, said the group’s CEO, Arthur Kiong. Hospital grade disinfectants will be used to clean the rooms after guests leave.
The company has set aside a total of 1,066 beds at Village Hotel Albert Court, Village Hotel Sentosa, The Elizabeth Hotel for SHN returnees up till May 31.
Knowing that being enclosed in a tiny space can be vexing, the hotels have also tried to make the experience as appealing as possible, they say.
Rasa Sentosa, which has 454 rooms, is considering organising exercise sessions where guests can join in from their balconies, setting up groups on social media for guests to participate in quizzes and stories, and providing children with arts and craft materials, its general manager Gavin Weightman said.
Some of Grand Park Orchard’s staff have left handwritten notes of encouragement and additional mini snacks on the guests’ doors, said Ms Kanwar.
Special requests such as asking for groceries, food items, magazines or flowers are welcomed as well, she added.
While none of the returnees CNA spoke to has asked for any personal shopping assistance, they say that the staff have been generous with their hospitality.
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Mr Fu’s request for a screwdriver – “to assemble my monitors” – was promptly fulfilled. Ms Woo left her laundry outside in the morning, and it was delivered back to her by the afternoon. Mr Chua got a cup of bubble tea from a friend who works as a concierge.
At Village Hotel Albert Court, Amanda Koh, 24, gets calls from a staff – what Far East calls an ‘e-Buddy’ – who checks in with her regularly.
“It can be detriment to my mental health (so I’m) grateful that there is someone out there who is looking out for my welfare,” the medical student at the University of Dundee said.