International Arrivals in the Time of Covid, and the SHN Hotel Lottery

Singapore locked down hard during covid, pausing all arrivals for a while in 2020. Then very slowly they resumed new arrivals from certain countries, imposing strict conditions and elaborate entry procedures. Fun fact! Since Singapore is a city-state of only 280 square miles (724 square kilometers), there’s only one airport and all flights are international. Most new arrivals to Singapore fly in, though a smaller number drive in across the causeways from Malaysia.

After our three flight, 27 hour journey from the U.S., we finally landed at Changi Airport in Singapore shortly after midnight, ready to face those entry procedures for ourselves. Clutching our stack of assorted entry approvals, covid test results, health declarations, and passports, we headed to immigration and spent the next three hours weaving through queues, and then more queues, and yet another round of covid testing. Our path was roped off, and friendly, PPE-clad employees led us through the gauntlet. Along the way we amassed a collection of stickers on our shirts that indicated…honestly, I have no idea. Remember, 27 hours of air travel. At least one of the stickers indicated how long our hotel quarantine would last, and frankly I have no idea what the other stickers were for.

So shortly after 3AM we headed to the hotel transportation desk. Given our enormous mountain of luggage, we rated two vans instead of getting on a bus. Also I suspect we were the last ones remaining given how long we spent in immigration after landing, and the bus likely left hours earlier.

Before we get to the Big Reveal, here’s a quick recap about Singapore’s Stay Home Notice (SHN) requirements. Depending on the traveler’s country of origin, different terms of SHN apply. Right now a very small number travelers from specific countries (Germany, Brunei) have no SHN at all with proof of vaccination. Other categories allow travelers to serve seven or fourteen days of SHN at their homes, or in a hotel or serviced apartment that they can book themselves. Since the U.S. falls under the strictest category, we had no choice in our accommodation and were randomly assigned an SHN Designated Facility (SDF, and yes, that’s an acronym within an acronym) by Singapore’s Ministry of Health. The cost is $2000SGD (roughly $1500USD) for the first adult per room, and $1300 SGD (about $960 USD) for the second adult, and it includes both the room and three meals a day. The traveler pays the SHN costs.

When travelers to Singapore abruptly stopped coming, Singapore hotels seriously suffered. Once SHN became a thing, the hotels shifted away from regular travelers and signed on as SHN providers. This documentary by Channel News Asia gives a fascinating account of the measures the hotels go to in order to keep their staff and guests as safe as possible.

SHN terms and durations are always changing. At one point this summer, the SHN duration jumped from fourteen to twenty-one days, including for those travelers already in SHN when the duration changed. Imagine hitting day thirteen, thinking that you’re free the next day–only to learn that surprise! You have eight days left, and not one day.

Another quirk of the SHN rules: the “worst” country in your itinerary sets your SHN terms, no matter how brief your stay there. During our endless wait at immigration we heard the tale of woe of a Canadian national who is a Singapore Permanent Resident, living in Singapore for over twenty years. He originally traveled from Canada but changed planes in Japan, arriving on our flight. Even though he never officially cleared Japanese immigration and therefore didn’t enter Japan–Singapore doesn’t care. Japan arrivals must serve SHN in a government-designated hotel. So his brief transit through Japan meant that the 14 day quarantine at home suddenly become a $2000 forced hotel stay. He was polite about it–because again, Canadian–but I heard him muttering that he would have planned a different itinerary had he realized the consequences of transiting through Japan. He ended up at our hotel, and down the hall from us; Mark opened our door to collect our dinner, and saw him doing the same.

The hotels are not reserved ahead of time; the bus drives the new arrivals to whatever the next hotel is that accepts SHN guests. The Ministry of Health insists that the hotel assignment does not give preferential treatment based on the originating country of the arrival, and Facebook groups dedicated to SHN buzz with theories of who gets what hotel. The SHN hotel could be the Ritz Carlton, which of course is everyone’s wish. Or it could be a windowless love hotel, which one poor soul endured for fourteen days during the Christmas 2020 season. Apparently the nicer hotels with SHN contracts paused the contracts during the holiday season to take advantage of the rise in staycation guests, leaving the slightly less desirable hotels to pick up the slack.

So what does hotel quarantine mean, anyway? I know that many of you readers out there served some sort of quarantine since covid began. Perhaps you were confined to your home for a week or two, and friends dropped off groceries or meals since you couldn’t go out. I’m sure that such home confinement gets old.

That said, hotel quarantine is no joke. The key card for your room works once, to let you in. Then you don’t leave the room for fourteen days, except for one more covid test the day before your departure. Food is delivered three times a day, and fresh towels and linens every few days. The hallways are monitored with CCTV, and the Singapore government will press charges against anyone violating the rules. One (married) man decided to leave his room and visit the room of a woman (who is not his wife) he met on the flight, purportedly “to collect snacks and chat,” which I guess is what the kids are calling it these days. Both he and the woman were sentenced to three weeks of jail time. Plenty of others have faced fines for assorted covid-related violations.

So back to the airport. We waited with our overflowing luggage carts while the transportation coordinator summoned our vans. I took a breath and asked the question: where are we going?

So the bad news: it’s not the Ritz. But! We did land in a five-star hotel after all.

The InterContinental, she replied.

I fist-pumped. Like, literally. I fist-pumped.

The InterContinental, as shown on their website. So fancy!

A quick gander at the InterContinental’s website shows that this is a fancy hotel indeed. It looks like an amazing place to stay in the Normal Times. Of course nothing is normal during covid. The hotel has completely converted to SHN stays only. So the doormen donned PPE instead of the elaborate uniforms featured on the website, and the lobby featured plexiglass barriers.

The next big worry was about our room type. While most families get assigned connecting rooms, it simply depends on whether or not the hotel has any such rooms available. Just in case we did not get connecting rooms, Mark and I packed our bags assuming that we would be separated with one adult and one child per room. Thankfully we did get connecting rooms. I made one more request of our hotel staff: could we possibly get a room with a balcony, or opening windows? But alas, no InterContinental rooms have either.

So here are our rooms! As you can see the adults have a big space, helpfully divided into two areas by the TV wall thingy. The kids’ room is a more traditional room with two queen beds. Our king bed is amazing! Feather pillows, luxurious bedding. Truly five-star all the way, and we are so incredibly grateful.

Next time: our food, our activities, and our amazing friends who are taking care of us.

Arriving in the Covid Times lobby at 3:30AM. Note the plexiglass that I guess protects the paperwork from the traveler….?
Our mountain of luggage awaits us at the end of the hall. The table outside each room is the landing spot for food, linens, towels, and outside deliveries
The kids’ connected room, slightly smaller than ours but still comfortable. Note the array of stickers on Cy’s shirt that each of us collected as we transited immigration and covid controls at the airport.
The kids’ view of the hotel courtyard
More of the kids’ view. At least it’s not a brick wall, or a car park.

One thought on “International Arrivals in the Time of Covid, and the SHN Hotel Lottery

  1. Pingback: Passing the Time in Hotel Jail – martayaki

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s