What it’s really like to be quarantined in a Singapore hotel during COVID

So you want to know what the mandatory, 14-day hotel quarantine in Singapore is like. Maybe you’re traveling back from the US or another market from which Singapore requires a quarantine. Maybe you’re just curious. Or maybe you’re one of my siblings, whom I force to read this blog to boost my readership numbers. Either way, I’m here to share my experience.

José and I were scheduled to depart Newark Airport at 6:30AM on Saturday, January 9. When we arrived at the airport, however, we were met with some surprising news. While our flight from Newark to San Francisco was on schedule, the second leg of the trip, from San Francisco to Singapore, had been cancelled. While it wasn’t entirely surprising the flight was cancelled (many flights are being cancelled these days due to lack of passengers), what was surprising was neither Zé nor myself were informed by the airline (United) or credit card company (Citi) with whom we booked our tickets.

My immediate concern was our return date. Due to COVID, those entering in Singapore must now apply for approval before returning to the country. Through our HR departments, we had applied for and received our approval before we departed for the US in December. The issue was, the approval was for the window between January 9-11 only. If we arrived in Singapore after that date, we’d need to re-apply for approval, which wasn’t guaranteed. It would’ve meant an extended accommodation at the five-star Hayden Hotel (as known as my parent’s home). Not a bad thing; but an unplanned snag that would’ve had us working on Singapore hours from the US for an undetermined period of time.

While Zé searched for alternate flights out of JFK Airport and I checked out our options from Newark, the helpful woman at the United desk (typically an oxymoron, but in this case true) spoke with her counterparts from the re-booking department. Luckily, she was able to re-book us on a flight several hours later out of Newark and through Tokyo, Japan. We headed to the United lounge and relaxed (slept) there until our boarding time at 10AM. We were personally greeted at and escorted through Narita Airport, presenting to the immigration officers the many papers we needed to prepare in order to enter Singapore. This included a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of the departure time, the letter of approval from the Singapore government, and a completed questionnaire on our health symptoms.

After landing at Changi Airport in Singapore, we were escorted to the immigration line, where we waited for about 20-25 minutes before reaching the front. We were questioned on our travels by the immigration officer and asked for our papers. Once approved, the immigration officer ran me through the details of the stay-at-home-notice (SHN): a “legal notice issued under Singapore’s Infectious Diseases Act, to require a person to remain at their place of residence or Stay-Home Notice Dedicated Facility (SDF) at all times for a stipulated period.” Depending on where the person has traveled, travelers are either slapped with a seven or 14-day SHN, with a mandatory COVID test towards the end of the stay.

The next step was where things got very disorienting. We were seated in chairs close to the airport exit, and waited for a critical mass of folks from our flight to get through immigration. Once we had a bus full of people, we were loaded onto a bus waiting outside. We knew the bus was headed towards the hotel we’d spend the next two weeks in, but no one told us where we were headed. My head was spinning; I’d heard romantic tales about two-week stays at the five-star Shangri-La Hotel on Sentosa Island, and horror stories about cramped, 10×10 foot rooms for two. Zé had his phone out during the bus ride, tracking the hotels around us, according to the map. The drive left us feeling a rollercoaster of emotions; hope and joy while driving past the Four Seasons, despair and dread when passing the YMCA. We finally slowed down in Orchard, the shopping district, and pulled onto a side road. By process of elimination, Zé and I were able to deduce we’d be staying at the Regent Hotel, a sophisticated hotel with understated décor and spacious rooms. And we were right — hoorah!

Upon parking at the front entrance, I leapt out of the bus with the vigor and aggression of an all-star linebacker. Zé and I had a special request for adjoining rooms (to avoid the pains of working from a shared space), and I wanted to be first in line. Luckily, my determination paid off, and we were seated in the front row of the hotel. After the staff walked us through an overview of the two-week stay, we filled out some paperwork and were called up for a 1:1 with the hotel staff. We reviewed a paper with our meal choices for the full, fourteen-day stay, and looked at our other forms to ensure they were completed properly. They asked us about dietary requirements and room preferences, and we were given two keys to our adjoining rooms on the seventh floor (boo-ya!). A hotel staff member escorted us to the rooms, which was the last time I’ve seen another human besides Zé since then!

The first thing I did after dropping my bags was take a video of the accommodation, which you can view here. As you can see, we were lucky to have ample space, which was critical for two people who spend most of their days on conference calls. Prior to leaving for the US, we had packed two ‘quarantine bags’, filled with essentials like the below. Our helper was kind enough to drop them off at our hotel on the first day. I’d recommend to anyone doing SHN that you pack a bag with things that will make your stay more comfortable, and ask a friend, family member or helper to bring the bag to your hotel. Things we packed in our quarantine bags included:

  • Nespresso machine (mission critical item for us!)
  • Work equipment, e.g., monitors, keyboard, mouse, etc.
  • Exercise equipment, e.g., yoga mat, bands, weights, yoga block, etc.
  • Cleaning supplies and our robot vacuum (there is no housekeeping service throughout the stay; in fact, no one is allowed to enter your room for the duration of the SHN just as you are not allowed to leave)
  • Things to make the stay more comfortable, like candles, a throw blanket and slippers
  • Beauty products like hair and face masks
  • Games like chess and Scrabble

Outside of “Can you leave the room?” (no), the biggest question I’ve received about SHN is “How’s the food?” I am here to tell you it’s not that bad (this assumes, of course, that you’re not a picky eater). Mornings in quarantine have been marked by a ring at the door each day at 7:30 on the dot; breakfasts by a croissant and pastry, juice and fruit, and yogurt, all which change flavors daily. I found the croissants to be quite good but the rest of the meal a bit sugary, so I did place regular grocery delivery orders for Greek yogurt and berries throughout our stay. Yes, we were able to receive packages; unfortunately you cannot send things out of the hotel. Lunches (which come between noon and 12:30 each day) consisted of a rotating menu of pasta, curry dishes, marinated tofu, and more. All lunch meals were served with rice and vegetables, along with a piece of fruit. Dinners, you ask? At 6:30PM, a buzz of the doorbell means a more substantial meal of soup, stews, chicken with mushrooms, larger pasta dishes, etc. is waiting on the chair outside your room.

Back in November, we were lucky to find a cook who was furloughed from his (excellent) restaurant in Singapore and decided to start cooking in private homes. He comes to come to our apartment and prepare meals for the week, and was kind enough to agree to bring some fresh prepared meals to the hotel for us, in case the government-issued dishes weren’t up to snuff. We had him prepare salads and sandwiches, which were *clutch* during SHN. I’d say we (two very non-picky eater) ate 80% of the meals; most were decent, some were simply inedible (gray chicken and tofu with crispy fish skin are where I draw the line).

Another curious bit about SHN is the Ministry of Manpower (responsible for the formulation and implementation of labor policies related to the workforce in Singapore)’s oversight of those serving SHN. We both received calls within the first few days asking us to download an app, where we’d submit our temperature checks three times per day (thermometers are supplied by the hotel or the employer). Additionally, a representative from the Ministry calls twice per day to check in, asking a standard set of questions like “Which hotel are you staying in?” and “Are you staying alone with others?” Once, they video called me and asked to see the room. A bit intense, but I guess the stringent overview is one of the reasons cases are so low in Singapore…?

So, how did we spend our fourteen days in a 600-square foot hotel room? Well, the work weeks were easy; both of us work quite long hours and, as stated before, spend most of the day in conference calls. Setting a routine was very helpful. Each day, I’d wake up and eat breakfast with Zé, have a cup of coffee and listen to the news, work out and shower (including changing out of pajamas; critical!), and start my work day. We’d break for lunch at midday, sometimes eating together and sometimes taking in our food separately if we were extra busy, but always eating away from the desk. I think setting up different ‘zones’ in the hotel (e.g., a place for working out and getting dressed/changed, a place for eating, for working, for relaxing, etc.) was incredibly helpful in helping the day to feel a bit more normal. I recognize we had the luxury of space, but I’d recommend trying to do this as much as possible in any SHN hotel, no matter the size.

As I said, the work days flew by. There were a few days where we heard the buzz of the bell for dinner and were taken by surprise; “How is it 6:30 already?!” Following the work days, I did what I’d normally do on a weekday evening; catch up on culture with a book, magazine or a TV series (s/o to Schitt’s Creek and Fleabag for keeping me entertained), or call a friend and chat. On the weekends, we kept to a (loose) routine as well: wake up, have a long breakfast, get a workout in, answer emails or catch up on news and podcasts, eat lunch, then relax for the rest of the day. Both Saturdays, we spent the afternoons doing movie marathons, watching flicks we’d both always wanted to see. We really took advantage of the time to do nothing; I think both of us really excelled in this (read: we love to be lazy).

Because we landed just after midnight on Monday morning, the Ministry has asked us to stay until this coming Monday, the 25th of January. There is an election in Portugal on Sunday, so Zé called the Ministry to see if we could be released early so he could vote in the election; or at least leave the premises to vote (what do you think the answer there was?). So we’ve got another two days and we’re out of here. And while I’d heard tons of anecdotes about people going stir crazy during SHN, I found the experience strangely enjoyable. It gave me fourteen uninterrupted days to do all the things I don’t ‘have time for’ in my normal, day-to-day routine. I watched the shows I’ve been meaning to absorb but haven’t gotten around to doing. I finished two books I’d been inching along on. I called multiple friends I’ve meaning to catch up with. I recognize we were lucky in the hotel, the spacious, adjoining rooms, and the fact that we don’t have kids running around and going insane being stuck in a room. We had it relatively easy, all things considered (though not being able to open a window for two weeks/have access to fresh air was certainly not easy!). Either way, I hope the above tips are helpful no matter the size of your room, or your group. For those with questions that are planning for SHN, please feel free to leave questions below. And of course, if you’ve served a SHN and think I missed any critical information here, let me know as well!

Signing off from quarantine,

Sam