From tension to release: eight days in quarantine

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 May, 2009, 12:00am

The 25-year-old traveller from Mexico had no fever, but he was coughing and his throat was sore. The symptoms concerned him.

The man left his Wan Chai hotel room and took a taxi to Ruttonjee Hospital. That was 10 days ago.

The traveller had stayed briefly at the Metropark Hotel on Hennessy Road. His room number was 1103.

The Metropark is situated near many transport, shopping and entertainment outlets, and describes itself on its website as 'an ideal business hotel and boutique hotel'. Its rooms are 'spacious and elegantly appointed' and 'feature a full range of modern amenities'.

Initial results at the hospital showed the man, Aleman Arcadio Gutierrez, was clear of the H1NI virus, the dangerous and deadly pathogen that has killed 45 people in his country and was initially believed to have claimed the lives of dozens more.

But a day later, city health officials confirmed that Mr Arcadio was indeed infected with the disease.

The patient would be transferred to Block S, the Infectious Disease Centre, at Princess Margaret Hospital in Kowloon for treatment. But back at the Metropark Hotel, 283 people - guests and staff - weren't going anywhere. They would face quarantine, a week of confinement, a surreal stay with no exit nor any room-service meals. They were inmates without a warden, frustrated prisoners with a front desk and a lobby.

'An ideal business and boutique hotel' was now an 18-floor, 173-room lock-up.

Day One. Friday, May 1. Confusion

The quarantine begins around 8 pm. The building is blocked off by medical and police officers, and all guests are barred from leaving. The hotel's coffee shop and restaurant on the mezzanine level are turned into a command centre. Medical and cleaning workers, clad in biochemical suits, enter with supplies to do their jobs. One guest complains to the South China Morning Post that government officials aren't giving guests enough information. Another guest, Mark Moore of Room 711, doesn't even know he is under quarantine until after 10pm.

Day Two. Saturday, May 2. Tension

Friends and relatives drop off books, sundries and laptops, which are passed through a single glass door at the front of the building. Still, tension rises. It seems the hotel staff told guests the quarantine would only last for a day. The guests now know for certain that their confinement will last for a week. One guest, Kevin Ireland, says: 'This morning there was a Korean gentleman and he was way off the handle. He was screaming and shouting and throwing a tantrum. There is a young couple from the UK. She has been crying incessantly. Then there is a South African couple with a 10-month-old baby and its grandmother. The wife was taken away for tests and they are really quite agitated.' Later in the day, the public can no longer look into the lobby. The windows are covered up with white cloth.

Day Three. Sunday, May 3. Grievances, adjustments

Objections from guests mount. Mr Moore says there must not be a high risk of infection since the guests aren't isolated. The quarantined guests first received health checks in the restaurant, and they continue to pick up their food in the lobby. 'I suspect this is largely a PR exercise for the government, trying to show the world how prepared and organised Hong Kong is ... We should be allowed to go home,' Mr Moore tells the Post. Another guest, Nicolas Tse Jo-yum, says the only properly cleaned floor is the one the sick traveller spent several hours on before heading to the hospital. The rest of the hotel is in bad shape. There are too few staff to clean rooms, change bedding or discard rubbish, says Mr Tse, a Hongkonger who was visiting friends in the hotel when the quarantine was announced. Meanwhile, the government says the guests' comfort is a priority. Social workers are brought in. Clinical psychologists are placed on call.

Day Four. Monday, May 4. Suds and such

The guests still complain about the quality of the food being served by a government contractor - but the lodgers are lightening up. The Social Welfare Department, the Red Cross, numerous consulates and other charitable folk deliver supplies and gifts, including beer. 'I think most of us are quite confident none of us are carrying the flu, so we're all quite comfortable mingling with each other,' says Mr Tse. 'Especially now that they are supplying us with lots of beer. Last night, many of the guests were just socialising, having a good time, not worrying too much, having quite a scene downstairs.' Meanwhile, the government says it is still looking for 46 guests who never turned themselves in for quarantine.

Day Five. Tuesday, May 5. Some belly rumblings, and an apology

The criticisms about the food, which is being served in lunch boxes, continue. 'It's always fried rice, pork or Italian noodles, with hardly any vegetables,' said Mr Tse. 'There was one time when my friend found human eyelashes in his rice, and I heard a foreigner spotted steel scraps in his meal.' A government spokesman says the problem with the food will be addressed. Meanwhile, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen tells guests in a speech: 'You are our guests. You are supposed to be here to enjoy yourselves, visit friends and do business. We can appreciate the boredom, frustration and dissatisfaction the quarantine may have caused you.'

Day Six. Wednesday, May 6. Optimism

All is right with the food. The guests are socialising. Their stay is nearly over. Mr Moore says: 'Everyone is being very friendly, supportive, and trying to assist the guests and make our extended stay as comfortable as possible under difficult conditions. The Hong Kong people should be very proud.' There is another party in the lobby at night, as well as an international quiz night. The final question: 'What is the distance between Hong Kong and Mexico?'

Day Seven, Thursday, May 7. Peace, then partying

'It's very subdued. It's fairly quiet. I think it's the calm before the storm before we get released. People are ready to go home, I think,' says Mr Moore. Other guests share some lighter moments from the week, including a rumour that a prostitute was caught in the quarantine and confirmation that at least two romantic couplings occurred during isolation. Dozens of guests party in the lobby and remove the sheets from the windows.

Day Eight, Friday, May 8. Freedom

The guests are handed their quarantine release certificates after their temperatures are taken for the last time. Guests, who aren't charged for their stay during May, pay their bills for April. One, Ed Nance, says he has mixed feelings about leaving. 'I'm not going to kiss the sidewalk or say thank God I'm out of that place,' he says. 'When they [reopen], I'll be back at the Metropark.' Quarantine ends at 8.30pm.

With additional reporting by Celine Sun, Tiffany Lam, Ng Yuk-hang, Austin Chiu, Paggie Leung, Joyce Ng, Albert Wong, Simon Parry, Yau Chui-yan, Martin Wong and Loretta Fong