EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT STATE-ASSISTED ISOLATION
I give you the lowdown on what it's like living in state-assisted isolation. For the latest official government information and advice, see here.
Major life update: I’m in New Zealand! Like many Kiwi expats, I recently made the difficult decision to return home from the US for a while to wait out the pandemic. I’m now in state-assisted isolation at the Grand Mercure in Auckland.
Since arriving back, I’ve had a tonne of questions about what it’s like. I spoke briefly to Radio New Zealand about my experience and that got me thinking I should write a more detailed recount. Whether you’re a fellow expat anxiously wondering what to expect or simply curious, here’s everything you need to know about state-assisted isolation.
What is state-assisted isolation?
Let’s start with the basics. On 23 March, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand would be entering a total lockdown. The country had just hit 100 COVID-19 cases and the government’s strategy was to eliminate, not merely contain, the virus. All Kiwis arriving home from overseas would be subject to fourteen days of quarantine or state-assisted isolation from 10 April.
This translates into a mandatory two-week hotel stay. According to the government’s official guide, the Ministry of Health interviews all international arrivals at the airport and separates those who are symptomatic from those who are not. People with COVID-19 symptoms go into strict quarantine, while those who are not symptomatic are sent to slightly less restrictive assisted isolation. Both are free. The government covers the costs of your accommodation, food and laundry for the two weeks.
How did you get home?
I flew from New York to Auckland via Los Angeles. Fortunately, I was able to get commercial flights with United Airlines and Air New Zealand, so I didn’t need to use a government-chartered repatriation flight.
My journey started at Newark Liberty International Airport. I took a Via (the NYC version of Uber) to the United terminal and the driver almost turned back around, thinking it was closed. It turned out it was just deserted. The few people there were all in masks, some in full-body hazmat suits. The stores were wrapped shut with plastic. It felt like something out of an apocalypse.
The six-hour flight to LA was bizarre. For my Kiwi friends, United is kind of like the US version of Jetstar. You don’t normally get meals, entertainment or even tea/coffee. But this time all entertainment was free and everybody was served first-class food along with six snacks because “we have a lot spare.”
There were maybe only 20 people on the flight. We were initially seated in small clusters during take-off (presumably so the plane had the right weight distribution), then spread out into socially distant seats. My nearest neighbour was an exhausted doctor who promptly curled up in his scrubs and went to sleep.
LAX was even emptier than Newark. In eerie contrast to its usual chaos, there was barely a soul in sight. I approached the lone employee working at the customer help desk to ask for directions and she told me I was the only person who’d spoken to her all day. It was 9pm.
The Air New Zealand leg of my journey was, as always, fantastic. The only real changes to its service were that everybody got a row to themselves and beverages were served in bottles, not cups. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was the crew’s last journey before being made redundant.
What happens when you arrive in New Zealand?
Once the plane touched down in New Zealand, the arrivals process was highly structured. Passengers were let off the plane in groups of ten. As I disembarked, I walked past six security officers on the air bridge. More officers waited for my group at the end of the bridge and escorted us to be interviewed by the Ministry of Health.
Everybody was interviewed individually. The MoH official asked me about my travel history, my health and whether I’d been exposed to COVID-19. He also took my temperature. Once I was given the ‘all clear,’ I was allowed to collect my bag and proceed to Customs.
Customs clearance was also conducted one person at a time. When each person finished, we were met by a police officer and personally escorted out of the airport towards two waiting buses. The officer wasn’t sure which hotel we were going to.
Once I got to the bus, the driver confirmed our destination was the Grand Mercure. Then I boarded the bus and waited. There was never an official announcement made about what was happening. It seemed to be taken as a given that everybody already knew.
How does the check-in process work at the hotel?
My group arrived at the Grand Mercure around 7.30am. Like at the airport, the check-in process was well organised. A soldier from the Army in full military uniform boarded the bus and instructed us to form a socially distant line. Then he briefed us on state-assisted isolation. The part the stuck out the most to me was that he warned us not to try and escape.
“If you attempt to escape once, we will call the police and they will bring you back. If you make a habit of it, the police will take you to complete your fourteen days in detention,” he said. His tone implied that people had, in fact, tried to escape.
After this, the MoH interviewed everybody again. A nurse asked me a more comprehensive set of questions, took my temperature and explained the hotel rules. She said I could move around within the hotel but could not leave the building. Then I got given a key and was free to go to my room.
What’s your room like?
This is where my story starts to get more hotel-specific. Of the 16 hotels the government is using in Auckland, I’m aware of ten besides the Grand Mercure. These are the Novotel Auckland Airport, Novotel Ellerslie, Pullman Hotel, Jet Park Hotel, Ramada Hotel Manukau, Crowne Plaza, Sudima Auckland Airport, Rydges Hotel, M Social Hotel and SO/ Auckland. All are four or five star hotels, but as you can probably guess from looking at that list, your experience could be vastly different depending on where you end up.
I was stoked when I found out I’d be going to the Grand Mercure. I knew the area well and familiarity was comforting after weeks of uncertainty in New York. I was put in a standard room with a bed, desk, TV, mini fridge, kettle and bathroom. The best thing about my room is that it has big, bright windows (although they don’t open). None of the rooms get serviced, but mine came equiped with extra towels, sheets, toiletries and trash bags.
Most of the hotel’s amenities are closed. We have access the following areas:
Reception. This is the central hub of the hotel with employees from the Grand Mercure, Aviation Security Service, Army, Navy, MoH and sometimes the NZ Police.
The conference rooms. Some are used as nurses’ rooms and others are used for exercise (more on that later).
The smoker’s deck. This is a Grand Mercure highlight because it means we can get fresh air at any time. You don’t have to smoke to go there; you can just visit to stay sane.
The restaurant. Technically, the restaurant is shut and we can’t physically enter it. But we can order room service (more to come on that too).
The hotel staff have been nothing short of amazing. They treat everybody as they would regular guests and call every day to see if there is anything we need, like fresh towels or more instant coffee packets. I cannot sing their praises highly enough.
How is the food?
This is, hands down, the number one question I’ve been asked. It was also what I was most nervous about before I arrived. However, I’m pleased to report that the food has been outstanding!
On day one, the nurses gave me a menu for the week. There are three options available for every meal, including a vegetarian option (the hotel probably caters to other dietary needs, but I’m not sure since I don’t have any). The staff call you each day to take your order for the following day. Meals are then delivered to your door at set times in a brown paper bag. Each meal comes with biodegradable cutlery. After you’re finished eating, you can leave any rubbish outside your room and the hotel staff will collect it.
The meals are substantial. They consist of a main course, side salad or fruit, dessert, snacks and a drink. Snacks have included fruit, yoghurt, muesli bars, bliss balls, chips and cookies. My favourite meals so far would probably be a classic Kiwi big breakfast and a roast lamb dish. I’ve enjoyed quite possibly the best brownies of my life and my fair share of Whittaker’s chocolate (okay, maybe more than my fair share!) Needless to say, I am not going hungry.
We are allowed to order food from the outside world. We can put in orders with Countdown and UberEats, but I haven’t tried this because a) the food is so good here and b) apparently UberEats charges $4.99 for delivery in NZ?!
The exception to this is that we can’t order alcohol. It used to be allowed, but then some people at the Pullman allegedly got too drunk and snuck into each other’s rooms. Luckily, we’re still permitted to buy a limited amount of wine from the hotel restaurant. The government defines “limited amount” as one bottle per day. Although the hotel doesn’t advertise it, I’ve discovered you can also get a flat white if you ask really nicely. Ordering food from the restaurant is not a thing.
Are you able to go outside for exercise?
Yes! While people in quarantine aren’t allowed to leave their rooms, everyone in state-assisted isolation is able to exercise outdoors.
The MoH and Aviation Security Service coordinate exercise. You must sign up for a one-hour timeslot either the day before or the day of. At that time, you sign in with security and they escort you to a caged area where you can walk or run laps. You will be with a group of people from your hotel, which could have anything from three to 10+ people in it depending on how popular the timeslot is. You sign out with security afterwards.
The Cage is my favourite part of the day. There are multiple cages set up around the city and we share ours with SO/ Auckland. It’s on the wharf near the Cloud, which means we can breathe in the ocean air while we exercise. I've heard that some of the others are less ideal. For example, the Crowne Plaza’s cage is in Aotea Square, which probably makes people feel like they’re on exhibit in a zoo.
Another uniquely Grand Mercure phenomenon is that we can also attend fitness classes. This might sound extravagant, so hear me out: it’s not a government policy. But a woman in my hotel happens to be a fitness instructor and managed to convince the officials to let her run some socially distant workouts in the conference rooms.
This has been the best part of state-assisted isolation for me. I’ve missed the gym and those classes have provided much-needed social connection. I’ve met some really interesting people, from other repat Amerikiwis to an Australian doctor who patiently answered all of my coronavirus questions.
How does the MoH keep track of you?
The MoH has done a brilliant job of monitoring my health since I arrived in New Zealand. The onsite nursing team are really kind. Some of the nurses stay here 24/7 and are contracted from companies in other cities specifically to look after us. After living in the US, I’ve had reverse culture shock remembering what it’s like to have a free public healthcare system.
The nurses check up on me every day. They call and ask about whether I’m experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms as well as inquire about my health generally. Every second day, they visit my room to take my temperature and make sure I’m still alive. The nurses can also help with getting prescriptions you may need. I believe they can give permission for family members to drop off essential items like this, although I’m unsure if it would extend to things like food.
Additionally, the nurses are responsible for working with each person on an ‘exit plan.’ You might be intrigued to learn that you can’t just leave the hotel at the end of your fourteen days. You must have a government-approved plan for where you’re going to go and how you’re going to get there. While mine is straightforward since my family live in Auckland, I believe the MoH can help with things like organising transport if your domestic flight gets cancelled.
I’ve also had a couple of calls from MoH officials down in Wellington. They asked detailed questions about my health and offered access to extra support, such as mental health resources and financial assistance.
What are you doing to keep busy?
This is another common question. Spending two weeks alone in a hotel room is a daunting prospect and I think people are worried I might get bored. However, between the routine created by meals, health checks and exercise, I’ve found it surprisingly easy to keep busy.
Since I’m able to work remotely, I’ve actually spent a significant chunk of my time working. All of the hotels being used for state-assisted isolation have unlimited free wifi. This has been great for enabling me to keep up with my Zoom calls. Outside of my job, I’ve had a bunch of personal ‘work’ to do like recalculating my budget and editing my next US visa application.
My downtime has largely been spent talking to friends and family. One of the best things about being in state-assisted isolation is that I’ve had plenty of time to virtually catch up with them. I can’t wait to see everybody in person when the lockdown lifts.
Have there been any downsides?
Honestly, aside from the fact that I can’t leave, there has only been one real downside. It feels weird even putting this out there because my whole experience has been overwhelmingly positive. But forewarned is forearmed, so here’s a PSA to anyone potentially entering state-assisted isolation.
The laundry system kind of sucks. The Grand Mercure has laundry facilities onsite, but we aren’t allowed to use them. The good news is that you can drop off five pieces of clothing per day to be laundered for you. The bad news is that everything I’ve sent has been either shrunk or stretched. I know this is a small price to pay, but it’s disheartening to know I’ll have to replace multiple items. Plan on either bringing a lot of clothes or hand-washing them in the sink.
As I near the end of my fourteen days, I can safely say that state-assisted isolation has been a lot better than I anticipated. It’s definitely not a free holiday. It can be mentally challenging at times and I feel for the people in here with young kids. But for the most part I’ve enjoyed it. After the intense stress of NYC, it’s been a welcome relief to feel calm in New Zealand.
I am incredibly grateful to the government for keeping our country safe. Maybe I’m biased by the devastation I saw in New York, but I truly believe New Zealand is doing an excellent job. I feel immensely privileged that I have been so well taken care of – and not to mention for free. I fully support the state-assisted isolation policy and hope we can continue it for as long as is necessary. It’s good to be home.
Note: if you have further questions on my state-assisted isolation experience, feel free to message me and I’ll try my best to answer them!