Hong Kong (CNN) — I woke to the sound of my fiancée muttering "f*@!" under her breath on Christmas Eve.
While we were sleeping, the Hong Kong government had announced that all residents of the city returning from abroad must now spend three weeks in hotel quarantine instead of two, at their own expense -- effective Christmas Day.
We were supposed to return to Hong Kong from the United States in fewer than 48 hours. We had booked a hotel for two weeks to comply with the government's regulation -- which required travelers like us to purchase a hotel room even if they owned or rented a home in Hong Kong -- but this new hiccup could prevent us from getting back.
What if our hotel couldn't extend our reservation before our flight? Were exceptions being made for people who were about to hop on a plane? And, could we even afford to spend 21 days in a hotel room -- financially, physically and mentally?
We needed answers. The Hong Kong government's coronavirus website had basic information, but not advice and guidance from people who had already started dealing with this new reality.
So we turned to the HK Quarantine support group on Facebook, where people were already posting about their plans to deal with the new rules.
A screenshot of the group's page.
Borne of necessity
Since its inception in March 2020, the support group has become an invaluable resource for Hong Kongers who travel overseas during the pandemic and must navigate the city's stringent Covid-19-related travel restrictions.
What started as a simple idea to connect people in quarantine with volunteers who could get them groceries has grown into a massive, crowdsourced platform with resources on almost every aspect of the arduous journey, such as advice on where to get the right nucleic acid tests abroad and detailed reviews on quarantine hotels. Those summaries often have vital information for such a long stay -- if windows open, where you can rent exercise equipment or whether a hotel refuses outside deliveries.
The group also offers a sense of community for those struggling in isolation. People regularly post about their experiences and how they're coping. Some vent for catharsis. Others share jokes and funny videos to pass the time.
Some of them get creative, like Leo Cheung, who created his very own Angry Birds-like game with gloves and paper bags.
Angela Jo has been using sticky notes to paint her window.
And Jessica Chong used the paper bags her meals were delivered in to make masks.
Jessica Chong passed time in quarantine by creating masks with the paper bags meals her meals were delivered in.
Nearly all who post get positive support -- and that's in large part due to the group's meticulous organization by a handful of dedicated volunteer moderators.
Behind the scenes, they curate and organize posts on the group, ensuring it is not marred by hostility, a reputation other Hong Kong Facebook groups have developed. The moderators organize a "buddy program" for pairing up lonely souls via email and schedule food deliveries for those who can't get groceries. They've also supported people in unique but unimaginably difficult situations, such as those grieving friends and loved ones remotely.
The group, which is private, has exploded in popularity in recent months. It started with few hundred members, but is now closing in on 30,000.
"Never in a million years did we think it was going to be like that," said Farah Siddiqi, one of the group's co-founders.
Local hotels like the Ovolo Southside (pictured) have pivoted from catering to tourists to working with quarantining locals.
Courtesy Ovolo Hotels
A helping hand
Siddiqi created the group with another volunteer, Kunj Gandhi, almost a year ago. It was March 2020, as the pandemic was going global -- forcing authorities in Hong Kong to quickly write up new rules for people returning to one of the world's most important financial centers.
Siddiqi said the duo were both frustrated that fellow Hong Kongers were criticizing and ostracizing people returning from abroad because they might bring back the virus. She said that she and Gandhi, who did not know one another at the time, both wanted to make it easier for people to stay in quarantine and keep their neighbors safe rather than simply criticize those who did not stay overseas.
In March, returnees had to spend 14 days in home isolation -- a tough task in Hong Kong, where space is a luxury most can't afford. At the time, the city did not offer the same wide selection of same-day services as other major metropolises. One of the most popular grocery stores, ParknShop, could take days to deliver. At the beginning of the pandemic, its website was so overwhelmed that grocery shoppers would have to wait in a virtual line.
So Siddiqi set up a buddy system via email to connect those doing home quarantine who needed help with volunteers, and Gandhi established the Facebook group. Someone on Facebook connected the two after noticing how similar their two projects were. They joined forces and out put a call out for volunteers to help deliver groceries and moderate the Facebook group, and they had about 800 in the first week, Siddiqi said.
Tess Lyons was one of those first to sign up. Lyons has lived in Hong Kong since 1997, but she comes from a small town in Canada where she remembers people were always offering to lend a hand. That ethos motivated her to volunteer as one of the group's moderators and to shop for people in quarantine.
Lyons said she would take requests from people online, and when she went to the grocery store pick up her own shopping, she's add some extra items for people in quarantine and deliver them.
Siddiqi envisioned the group would fizzle out last summer when the warm weather came, which some predicted would end the pandemic. Lyons thought that people would join the group before quarantine and then leave once they were done. Instead, people stayed -- often to pay it forward.
"What I find extraordinary is that even after people have left quarantine, or have finished traveling, they still aren't exiting the group, whether it's because they have the fear that they're going to have to travel again, or because they recognized how valuable it was for themselves when they were traveling," Lyons said. "They want to impart wisdom and tips to make it easier for incoming travelers."
"The worst of times bring out the best in people," she added.
The thread of the year
Hong Kong's rules became tighter as the pandemic got worse.
At the end of March, non-residents were banned from entering. Testing requirements for returnees were tightened in April, and as cases ticked up over the summer, the city mandated that people coming from certain "high-risk" countries needed to do a two-week quarantine either in a hotel or at a government facility.
As the rules got tougher, more people sought help from the group.
One of them was Jameson Gong.
His mother, 83-year-old Anna, splits her time between Hong Kong and the United States. She was due to return to Hong Kong last summer to see her son and his family, but when the government announced in late July that anyone arriving from the United States would have to do a two-week quarantine at a hotel, the Gong family convinced her to push her trip up so she could quarantine at home.
Gong doesn't own a cell phone so her son asked the Facebook group if there would be anyone on her flight who could look out for her. They hadn't told her that she was required to get a Covid-19 test and wait for the results after landing because they thought it would panic her. She was already anxious because of the last-minute change.
"I just threw it out there," he said, "with no expectations."
The woman sitting in front of Anna Gong saw Jameson's post when they landed and said she'd "make sure she gets off (the plane) OK." She updated him with a picture minutes later.
Another poster said they helped her with her bags and let her cut the line for the saliva test she had to do on arrival. Someone else from the group spotted Anna giving her saliva sample and sent a picture to inform Jameson and the rest of the thread that she'd made it safely to the testing site.
Anna Gong is seen waiting at the quarantine center in this photograph from Sharon Hawkins Leung, one of the group members who updated Jameson Gong on his mother's status. Leung joked her Cantonese isn't very good but it sounded like Anna Gong was giving the guard a piece of her mind.
Courtesy Sharon Hawkins Leung
Anna Gong waits for her test results. Sharon Hawkins Leung, who took this photo, joked she had just tried to "make a run for it but the guards made her return to seat!"
Courtesy Sharon Hawkins Leung
This went on for almost 12 hours. By the time mother and son were reunited, there were 649 comments updating the group on Anna's naps, walks and conversations with new friends.
Gong thanked several of those who helped out by hosting a reunion and giving them free tickets to the comedy club he runs in Hong Kong.
Jameson Gong and his mother, Anna, shortly after she received her negative Covid-19 test results.
Courtesy Jameson Gong
'This isn't optimal'
Fast forward six months, and returning to Hong Kong is a much more difficult ordeal than the one Anna Gong faced. Residents must now book a room and board for 21 days at a pre-approved list of 36 hotels chosen by the government, one of the strictest quarantine measures in the world.
Authorities in Hong Kong said the new measures were meant to catch very rare cases in which "the incubation period of virus carried by very few infected persons may be longer than the quarantine period of 14 days."
To prevent the spread of the new, more infectious variants of Covid-19 first identified in South Africa or the United Kingdom, Hong Kong residents who have spent more than two hours in the past three weeks in those places are barred from coming home.
To get around the ban, some Hong Kong residents who were in those countries are trying a strategy nicknamed "covid laundering" -- traveling to a third country for 21 days so they can get home, meaning they'll have to spend a total of 42 days abroad and in quarantine, with no financial assistance from the government.
"We can all agree this isn't optimal. Our priority should be getting our people home," Bernard Chan, a member of the Hong Kong Executive Council, wrote in the Hong Kong-based the South China Morning Post. "It should be possible to make small improvements in services and conditions that will make a huge difference in the quarantine experience."
There are examples for Hong Kong to learn from.
New Zealand mandates that returnees must have access to supervised outdoor exercise, at least once a day, provided that they adhere to hygiene and social distancing rules. Beijing mandated a 21-day quarantine in January, but allowed people to spend the last week at home.
Girish Jhunjhnuwala, the CEO of Ovolo Hotels, agrees more needs to be done to make quarantine more comfortable and bring people home. So he recently announced on LinkedIn that the Ovolo Southside -- one of the company's hotels -- will offer 12 rooms for $1 Hong Kong (13 cents) a day to people in need who cannot afford to return home. They are partnering with two NGOs to find people who need assistance.
"The airfares are expensive enough already and then having to spend 21 days in a hotel room was quite prohibitive for many of the returnees," Jhunjhnuwala said.
Jhunjhnuwala called the decision to offer the discounted rooms a "humane gesture," one he hoped someone would do for him if the shoe was on the other foot.
"I was born and brought up here. I love Hong Kong. This is the least I can do," said Jhunjhnuwala.
Jhunjhnuwala said that after the Ovolo Southside, which is a four-star hotel, was added to the government-approved list, it hit 50% occupancy in a week -- about double what it was before. He anticipates it reaching 70 to 80% by the end of February, and felt now was the time to give back.
He said he hopes his peers in the hotel industry will follow suit, but not many have.
Like nearly every tourism-related business in Hong Kong, the Ovolo spent the last 18 months facing diminishing profits and reduced bookings thanks to the six months of sometimes violent political unrest that rocked the city in the second half of 2019, and then the pandemic.
Some of the quarantine hotels were accused of price gouging, profiting at the expense of guests forced to spend 3 weeks there to make up for months of lost revenue.
A few hotels have allegedly increased rates as demand quickly rose. Several appear to be trying to save money on food, with people on the Facebook group complaining they are serving cheap meals that are not nutritious to cut down on costs.
"I hate to say this -- I've seen some hotels and the kind of food offering they have, and it's terrible," Jhunjhnuwala said. "This is a small cost, and if you're staying for 21 days, this affects your mental well-being."
Guests at many of the quarantine hotels have complained about being supplied small, unappetizing meals that are not nutritious.
The current situation is unlikely to change soon.
While other major cities have already started rolling out Covid-19 vaccines, Hong Kong just approved its first vaccine for emergency use at the end of January. The first city-wide mass vaccination program isn't expected to begin until the end of the month, after the Lunar New Year holiday.
Hong Kong's conservative, risk-averse approach to the pandemic means that quarantine restrictions are unlikely to change until a significant number of people are vaccinated -- meaning the HK Quarantine support group will remain an important resource for the foreseeable future.