This story has been updated.
“Try not to breathe in too deeply, kids. We don’t want to risk getting sick in quarantine.”
Lobbing this ridiculous warning at my children was a low point in the middle of our 14-day government-mandated quarantine in a 245-square-foot hotel room upon our return to Amman, Jordan.
After taking our required coronavirus tests, we had filled the first seven days of confinement with a mix of dance parties and board games, yoga videos, history and geography lessons, Duolingo language sessions, bingeing “The Great British Bake Off” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” napping and eating (and more eating). But my creativity and inspiration were waning, and the lack of fresh air and movement had dulled my brain. The only lessons I had left in my bag of tricks were virus-avoidance measures so that there would be no prolonging our confinement.
“Actually,” I said, “now that I think about it, maybe we should just keep our masks on all day.”
Americans are banned from traveling to most countries these days thanks to covid-19, but there are exceptions for people who must report to new jobs and attend schools or for those with dual nationalities. These travelers inevitably face some form of quarantine to ensure they are virus-free before reaching their final destinations.
Each country has its own quarantine, testing and oversight requirements to ensure that travelers do not bring the novel coronavirus into the country. Jordan’s quarantine is quite strict. Upon our arrival on a specially arranged repatriation flight, we were transferred from the airport to our hotel in government buses with a police escort (just in case someone tried to escape!) and then taken immediately to our rooms, where we would stay confined for 14 days.
That we had made it this far was in itself a small miracle. In May, after enduring months of one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, along with some brief flirtation with food shortages, my children and I opted to take a repatriation flight home to the United States for the summer, while my husband stayed behind for his job. We hoped to recharge in nature and visit with family with the expectation that Amman’s airport, which had been closed since March, would reopen in time for us to return at the end of the summer and for the kids to start school. We did not suspect that the covid-19 situation in the United States would devolve into one of the worst globally and that we would face the possibility of not being able to return to our temporary home in Jordan.
As Labor Day approached, with the airport still closed and panic settling in, we learned of a charter flight from Dubai to Amman arranged by a Jordanian boarding school. After a few urgent phone calls and emails, we were offered the last three spaces on the flight that was leaving Dubai for Amman that Friday at 5?p.m. But there was one caveat — we had exactly 48 hours to cut short our vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, secure three negative PCR (short for polymerase chain reaction) coronavirus tests and provide confirmed reservations on a one-way flight to Dubai.
A tropical storm coming up the East Coast prevented us from leaving immediately, so we lost precious hours and began our journey before dawn the next day. As we raced down Interstate 95 to D.C., three family members worked the phones, calling nearly every lab on the corridor between Massachusetts and Washington to see which one, if any, could test us and guarantee results in time for our flight the next evening. Lab after lab reported that it would be impossible, citing anywhere from 48 hours to seven days as the standard waiting time for results.
We put our faith in D.C.’s Farragut Medical and Travel Care, whose staff informed us that if we could arrive by 3:15 p.m., they would test us and try their best for a 24-hour turnaround. It was our only hope of making the flight. I looked at my navigator. Without stopping even once for gas or the bathroom or encountering traffic delays, we were due to arrive in D.C. at 2:45. We had spent part of the summer bingeing early seasons of “The Amazing Race,” and now our own race was on.
The I-95 gods smiled on us that day, and we pulled up to the clinic right at 3:15. A doctor and nurse in full personal protective equipment came to our car, gently swabbed our noses and promised to mark our labs “stat.” It wasn’t the guarantee I’d hoped for, but it was all we had.
We spent the rest of the day securing the other items required for our travel — physicals showing we were “fit to fly,” proof of health insurance to cover covid-19 treatment should we get sick en route, a health declaration form for the United Arab Emirates and the airline’s contact tracing app.
The next day I packed and waited — all the time wondering what I would do if we could not make the flight. But with just two hours to spare before our departure for the airport, we received our negative coronavirus test results. Those lab results were the first documents we were asked to show as we checked in at Dulles International Airport.
Once on board the flight, we were given a hygiene kit with gloves, hand sanitizer and extra masks and were told that under no circumstances were we to switch seats because of contact tracing. Upon arrival in Dubai, our lab results were checked again before we were cleared to enter the Emirates. One night in a hotel and one more flight — I imagined the hardest part of the trip was behind us.
I thought about all sorts of options for the two quarantine weeks ahead of us. After all, when else in life do you get two uninterrupted weeks to do whatever you want (within the confines of a hotel room, of course)? My kids could get over the summer slump by spending time each day on their languages and math. I would recover from a summer of family barbecues and frozen drinks with daily workouts and work on my novel. That would still leave plenty of time for family fun with games and movie watching. Together we would exit the hotel rested, refreshed and ready for the year. Ha.
We were in the five-star Landmark Amman Hotel, with three meals a day (not of our choosing, but still, we weren’t starving), toiletries and fresh towels. But because we couldn’t leave our rooms, we had no fresh air, beyond what the three-inch opening of one window provided, and little floor space in which to move around if we did motivate ourselves to exercise.
One of the worst parts of quarantining in a hotel, as opposed to at home (which is allowed in some countries), is the -ever-present worry that you could catch the coronavirus while there. And the closer you get to freedom, the more worried you get about the risk of contracting it. One day, a food deliveryman coughed outside my door and was on the receiving end of my wrath. (I told him to take his cough elsewhere.) And my children suffered through days without air conditioning when I became paranoid that the ventilation system could turn the hotel into a Diamond Princess situation.
Throughout our stay, the hotel staff did their best to keep our anxious bunch happy, including frequent check-in calls to see how we were doing and inquire about the quality of the food. But the time couldn’t go fast enough, and with just three days to go, we were really struggling with the lack of outdoor time. We begged for, and were granted, approval to visit the roof for 15 minutes that evening. There we discovered a posse of older men who had convinced the hotel that their health conditions necessitated nightly visits to the roof — apparently health conditions that required smoking!
Other countries are not so tough. Madison Agresti, a friend who is a graduate student, recently relocated to Switzerland and was able to quarantine in her new home. A wealth of food delivery options kept her well-stocked, and the Swiss government’s only requirement was that she contact the health authorities within two days of arrival, complete a form for tracking and then stay inside for 10 days. Once 10 days were over, she had to contact authorities again, and if she was experiencing no symptoms, she was permitted to leave.
Last month, another friend, Laurel Goldberg, a D.C. neighbor of ours, relocated to New Zealand with her two daughters for the year to join her mother, a native New Zealander. Although they were confined to a hotel for 14 days and had to pass two mandatory coronavirus tests while in “managed isolation” (in New Zealand, the term “quarantine” is reserved only for those who test positive), they were allowed unlimited outdoor time between 7?a.m. and 7 p.m. during their stay.
Regardless of where you find yourself in quarantine, there are some items that will make your stay easier. A friend who was in quarantine in Jordan with me insists that the contraband gin she smuggled in a hair-spray bottle was her lifesaver, but if you’re not a gin drinker, these are my recommendations for must-have items:
●Energy bars or other small snacks like dried fruit and nuts. These saved us from some of the less savory meals.
●A yoga mat. Stretching was key with a lack of options for any significant movement, and you really don’t want to exercise directly on the hotel floor!
●A VPN, or virtual private network, so you can access Netflix, Hulu and Disney Plus no matter where you are. “House Hunters International” was a treat to help us imagine that we might travel again one day.
●A meditation app to calm the fear that comes while waiting for coronavirus test results.
●Friends’ contact information loaded on WhatsApp so you’re ready to chat.
●Something to keep idle hands busy. A beading project, embroidery, a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
●A Kindle loaded with good books.
●Melatonin for those sleepless jet-lagged nights.
●A journal. As horrible as it is in the moment, you’ll want to remember your great quarantine of 2020.
Orr is a writer based in Amman. Find her on Twitter: @amandaorr