Tear down these COVID prisons!
Travelers are getting sent to quarantine jails when they test positive. But there's a better way.
Let's talk about those COVID prisons. If you're unfortunate enough to get sick while you're abroad or at sea, you may find yourself in one.
It just happened to me — but I'll get to that in a second.
What's a COVID prison? Well, if you test positive while visiting another country, you're subject to that country's regulations, which can be considerably stricter than those in the United States. A government might require that you quarantine in a hotel at your expense for ten days or more. If you're at sea, you might be confined to quarters inside a "red zone."
Before we get into the specifics, let me state the obvious: COVID is a serious pandemic and we should take every precaution, including vaccinations and quarantines if necessary.
But there's a right way — and a wrong way — to isolate travelers.
What do you think about COVID prisons?
We had an animated discussion about COVID prisons on Friday. Some of our forum members felt the extra caution (even at the cost of comfort) was worth it; others didn't. How do you think the industry should treat people who get infected? Push the red button to leave a comment.
Confined to a cruise ship "red zone"
We started to hear about the involuntary cruise ship confinements in early December. There was Brittany and Steven Loiler's story about a breakthrough case on Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas. When the couple tested positive, the cruise line forced them to spend the rest of the voyage in a small cabin in the ship's "red zone," where crewmembers in hazmat suits dropped off meals, reports my USA Today colleague, Dawn Gilbertson. The food often arrived cold and they had to eat standing up because they didn't have a table. The couple referred to their room as "the dungeon."
And there was the case of Kelly and Luis Cotto, a couple on their 25th wedding anniversary cruise who were confined to quarters after NCL claimed they came into contact with someone who was infected. The passengers spent almost the entire cruise in their cabin, where they subsisted on a diet of bagels and prunes, according to reporting by our executive director, Michelle Couch-Friedman. When they tried to leave their cabin at the end of the cruise, they found guards blocking the door. NCL has refused to offer an explanation or to compensate the couple.
Can it get worse? Sure. The entire ship could become a prison. Let's not even go there.
Getting imprisoned on a cruise ship because you have COVID or might have been exposed to COVID is a real possibility. Admiralty law allows ships to set their own regulations, independent of U.S. regulations. Passengers like the Loilers and Cottos have no meaningful rights.
I wonder how many cruise lines have throttled or disabled internet access to their red zone dungeons to keep passengers from broadcasting their complaints to the media?
But surely, testing on land won't send you into a COVID prison, right?
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COVID prisons on land are often no better
Consider the case of Amy Zheng and Calvin Chan, two Canadians who booked an all-inclusive resort in Holguín, Cuba. When she tested positive, authorities sent her to a quarantine hotel that felt more like a detention facility. Zheng reported that drinking water was limited, there was no running hot water and the food was indigestible.
Sometimes, not being able to go home is a kind of prison. Earlier this week, I heard from reader Doug Marshak, who visited London with his family during the holidays. Despite taking every precaution and being fully vaccinated, he tested positive before his return to the U.S. He's stuck in England. And even though he's symptom-free, he continues to test positive.
"I don't know when I'll be able to go home," he says. "As soon as I become negative, but who knows when that may be."
This testing lag — the time between taking a PCR test and receiving the results — is a real problem, as you'll see in a moment.
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What COVID confinement should be like
COVID confinement shouldn't be a jail. This week I heard from Susan Bilhorn, who tested positive while she was on a smarTours trip to Croatia last year. Her tour guide discreetly notified her that she was positive. She was sent to a quarantine hotel with all meals provided for 75 euros per day.
"The accommodations were comfortable, and the staff was very gracious," she says. "I had more than enough food, good quality and a nice variety. The Wi-Fi connection was excellent, so I was able to communicate and access information with no issues."
And that brings me to my story. Ten days ago, my son tested positive while we were visiting the United Arab Emirates. Initially, we thought Iden had a cold, but a required PCR test showed he was positive. His symptoms disappeared after 24 hours.
Our hotel graciously extended our stay to let him quarantine. He had room service, laundry facilities and a terrific view of the Abu Dhabi skyline. I told him we were lucky he didn't test positive in Havana — or at sea.
Quarantining is difficult even under the best of circumstances. As a father, I felt like I should have done more to protect him, so I think I'm taking this harder than he is. But if you're going to open your hotels and cruise lines for business, you should do it right. Make sure you don't open a network of COVID prisons and then hope no one talks about it.
What do you think about the travel industry’s COVID prisons? How should they handle infected guests? And how should they not handle them? The comments are open.
About the art
For this piece, artist Dustin Elliott drew inspiration from Picasso, using bold lines and creating an abstract depiction of life in a COVID prison. "Yellow represents the sun setting on the rights of the inmates," he explains.