DBA locked in police-guarded COVID-19-quarantine hotel for the last week shares his story with The Register

Holiday did not go as planned, but he’s working remotely, participating in agile rituals and happy at the half-way mark of a two-week stretch

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Alex Mackenzie was due to arrive home from a holiday in Japan on April 15. But the DBA is currently under guard in a Sydney hotel while he serves out a mandatory 14-day quarantine period after finally making it home from what’s turned into quite an odyssey.

Mackenzie’s story starts in mid-March when he and his partner went to Japan for what they hoped would be a month-long holiday from his job as a SQL Server DBA and web developer at an Australian waste management company. The couple left before stay-at-home orders had become widespread and for their first couple of weeks Japan felt like it was in full swing.

But a couple of weeks into the holiday, the pair reached Kyoto and Osaka and Mackenzie said “things had started to shut down”.

Tokyo was their next destination and Mackenzie said it was largely closed by mid-April. Finding a restaurant was not easy.

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Which was when he learned that getting home to Australia was going to be hard. The couple’s flights were booked through Taiwan, which had closed its borders to non-citizens. Alternate direct flights were available – at around AU$7,000 a head for a flight that can usually be had for AU$1000 return. Airlines and travel agents offered different explanations and alternatives.

At least accommodation was cheap: Mackenzie found a two-bedroom apartment with kitchen for a very affordable sum. This bolt-hole was adjacent to a convenience store, had decent internet and the couple felt safe and sound. Mackenzie was by now due at work, so contacted his employer and explained his situation. Nobody objected to him working from Japan: he’d be just another suddenly-remote worker. A quick trip to Tokyo’s famous Akihabara electronics district netted a cheap-but-decent laptop, and Mackenzie was on the job and productive.

But also worried, because it wasn’t immediately obvious how he’d get home. Eventually the price of flights started to fall and some affordable tickets emerged, but only a couple of weeks into the future. Mackenzie and his partner waited it out, and eventually left their apartment at check out time, went straight to the airport and waited almost a dozen hours before they could check in.

Empty seats next to everybody

Once they passed customs, some stores were open and Mackenzie now has a stash of the exotically flavoured KitKats that are a Japanese airport duty-free staple.

The couple’s seats on the Tokyo-Sydney flight were pretty good: with only ten passengers aboard there were plenty to choose from.

Landing in Sydney was scarier. Mackenzie said the small collection of passengers were given masks to wear, assessed by a doctor, then ushered towards a waiting bus by somewhat sullen members of Australia’s Army, Border Force and State Police. None wore face masks, Mackenzie told us.

The travellers weren’t told where they’d be spending the mandatory-for-overseas travellers 14-day quarantine that Australian has imposed to prevent community transmission of the novel coronavirus. Mackenzie watched as what he assumes were unmarked police cars led the bus into Sydney’s CBD and to the modestly-appointed branch of a major international hotel chain in Sydney’s CBD.

Army personnel waited in the lobby to process the new arrivals and log them in an unknown government application, then provide them with an information pack. Hotel reception staff then checked them in as usual!

Once checked in, Army personnel carried their bags and ushered the pair into their room, which has windows that won’t open, a small fridge, a bed, some chairs, a smart TV that’s thankfully Chromecast-capable, a desk to work on and not much else. Their lunch was brought in, their door closed and that was it.

On May 4.

Those in quarantine are not allowed out for a walk, even in the hotel corridors. Even opening the hotel room door can result in a warning, but short excursions can be negotiated for those who aren’t doing well in confinement. Unauthorised excursions can earn a AU$1000 fine.

Authorities also make positive interventions. Mackenzie said he receives a daily call to inquire after his health. The Red Cross calls every few days for a more general wellbeing check.

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Work has become a welcome distraction for Mackenzie, who told The Register that hotel Wi-Fi performed well for most of the week and that he was able to work remotely – albeit at lower productivity due to the lack of his favourite mechanical keyboard and dual 30-inch monitors. His employer was able to quickly scale the remote access previously restricted to a pool of users. A new software development manager has introduced agile practices, so stand-up meetings are taking place remotely. Staff are staging scrums and working on sprints.

Mackenzie said he only felt cooped-up come the weekend. Sunday’s webcast UFC bouts were welcome relief but also a source of frustration as a new influx of quarantined travelers has degraded Wi-Fi. He’s already burned through his mobile phone plan’s data allowance, so tethering is no longer an affordable option.

Food hasn’t been a highlight: much of it is packaged and processed, which is not to his taste. Food deliveries are possible, but Mackenzie is conscious of his budget and has only indulged in Uber Eats once.

Many are doing it tough in quarantine

Plenty of others in quarantine are reliant on food delivery and generally doing it tougher than Mackenzie and his partner. Facebook groups organised by those in quarantine feature many accounts of people with strict dietary requirements who just can’t eat what their hotels deliver and are reliant on deliveries from friends and family. Others report small children going stir crazy and claustrophobia proving a severe challenge for adults.

Many more point out that it’s rather hard to wash clothes in a small hotel sink, never mind dry the results without creating chaos in the cramped confines of a hotel room!

When The Register spoke to Mackenzie he hadn’t counted the number of days remaining in his quarantine period. When your humble hack pointed out he was on “hump day” – the middle of the quarantine – he was guardedly optimistic.

But he’s also worried about what happens at the end of quarantine. He’s booked flights home and found them at a reasonable price, but cancellations are currently common among Australian airlines as they seek to defray massive losses. When the bus drops him off at the airport, he’s unsure what awaits.

But he knows what he wants to do: “When I get home the first thing I want to do is go to my favourite Mexican restaurant,” he said. And then he wants to get back to work, after a quick raid on his office to bring his keyboard and monitors home! ®

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