When his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and his father fell and suffered a head injury, Dr. Ahmad Alkhatib saw no other choice but to travel to support them in Dubai.
He, his wife Yasmin Al Hadithi and their three-year-old daughter Aline flew out of Toronto Pearson International Airport on Feb. 12 — the same day Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that all travellers entering Canada would soon be required to quarantine for three days in a hotel or until they got a negative COVID-19 test result.
Once in Dubai, the family learned they’d be required to pay $1,600 for the quarantine hotel upon their return — a “premium price,” Alkhatib said.
Alkhatib, who is currently taking qualifying exams to practise medicine in Canada, hoped documentation of his parents’ medical conditions would qualify them for an exemption.
“I called the border agency, I called the airport, I called the (immigration service) to explain to them that listen, I’m going for essential issues and nobody can stop me because these are my parents that I need to take care of,” Alkhatib told HuffPost Canada. “Nobody took it seriously.”
Alkhatib and Al Hadithi documented the journey home.
“I think it’s very important to speak up about what’s happening,” Alkhatib said. “And try to share it with people so they can make their own decision.”
The booking system was one of the most frustrating parts of the process, he said. Alkhatib couldn’t connect to the reservation service from the United Arab Emirates, so he had to ask a family member in Canada to call on his behalf. She was on hold for four hours, he said.
Watch: Ahmad Alkhatib and Yasmin Al Hadithi discuss hotel concerns before flying home. Story continues below.
“That’s not available for everyone. Imagine you don’t have someone to trust in Canada to give your credit card information to make the reservation,” he said. “That would be one thing that I would change.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada acknowledged the long wait times, but they’ve been decreasing recently and some hotels now offer direct booking, said spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau. Hotels set their own rates and the price includes the room, food, security, transportation and infection prevention and control measures.
Based on social media reports, the couple were worried about the hotel conditions.
One woman recently reported paying $3,458 for a one-night stay after travelling to attend her father’s funeral. Others said they faced long waits in crowded lobbies and for cold food to be delivered to their rooms.
The Public Health Agency of Canada is also investigating an alleged sexual assault of a traveller staying at a quarantine hotel in Quebec.
Al Hadithi, a dentist, had to return home for work, and Alkhatib had to write an upcoming qualifying exam. They brought extra food from Dubai and started filming each step of the way.
So far, it’s been a fairly good experience. After being tested for COVID-19 at the airport, they checked into a large room at a nearby hotel, where they’re currently waiting for their results.
They’ve received their food on time and, as Muslims, have been able to avoid pork. And hotel staff were quick to deliver Band-Aids when Aline got a minor injury when playing with a toy.
However, they’ll have to pay for all three nights even if their results come in sooner, Alkhatib said. There’s also a lack of information about the rules: Are you allowed to order food from outside? Can you get things like winter coats delivered from your home? What if you want to smoke?
He thinks travellers should be allowed to exercise at the hotel gym or have some sort of equipment in rooms, like resistance bands, to relieve stress.
The federal Conservatives are calling on the Liberals to shut down their “ineffective” quarantine hotel program.
“Over the last week, horrifying reports of sexual assault, unsafe and deplorable conditions at federal quarantine hotel facilities have emerged,” health critic Michelle Rempel Garner told reporters Tuesday.
“Instead of this bungled, mismanaged program, we urge the government to scrap it and replace it with a more effective system of enhanced pre- and post-arrival testing for international travellers and better and safer enforcement of the at-home quarantine.
She said there needs to be exemptions for people who have to travel abroad for compassionate reasons.
Travellers can request a temporary release from quarantine for compassionate reasons if the province or territory allows it. A person may be exempt if they’re caring for or visiting someone at end of life or attending a funeral within Canada.
Trudeau said last month the restriction was necessary to stop variants spreading from other countries and to protect Canadians from contracting the virus.
“We’re aware we need to be thoughtful and compassionate about people in extremely difficult situations and need to travel,” he said at a press conference. “We are not trying to punish people, we’re trying to keep people safe.”