NOW editor describes the anxiety and unexpected comforts during vacation quarantine
My family of four is in quarantine at the Beaches resort in Turks and Caicos and will not be able to return to Canada from a very long vacation until the end of January as our children tested positive for COVID-19. They’re fine. Our modest discomfort seems almost relaxed compared to what we’ve heard from other vacationers stranded abroad after ignoring the Canadian government’s advice to avoid non-essential travel.
As the Omicron wave spread worldwide, the holiday horror stories piled up. In December, people reported testing positive and being trapped in isolation wings of hotels at their own expense or in damp, government-run facilities without hot water and “indigestible food.” In Facebook groups created by guests at the resort we originally planned to visit, quarantined people shared every miserable detail as they begged other guests to sneak some fruit from the buffet into their isolation hallways. These holiday quarantine accounts persisted, but Canadians continued to jump on planes and escape the -30-degree weather and 55cm of snowfall.
We also. But our story ended in a story of happiness, comfort, guilt, and extreme privilege. We were slightly affected by COVID-19 despite our best efforts to avoid it, resulting in an extended stay on the island and – thanks to the Beaches Holiday Insurance program – a free holiday for the following winter.
Deciding to go on vacation during a pandemic
We had already canceled two vacations to Jamaica, both booked at least seven months in advance in the hopes that COVID would clear up or that the vaccine would protect everyone enough so that we could travel worry-free. We held out until the eleventh hour until that second vacation, which was to leave on January 4. I held onto that pause selfishly and stubbornly.
But on January 1, Jamaica reported 729 new cases of COVID-19 (daily cases would reach nearly 2,000 within a few weeks). The Omicron variant seemed to be taking hold in a country with a vaccination rate of only 20 percent. Fearing quarantine and overstretched hospitals, we canceled on January 2, losing the money we paid for insurance, but keeping the remaining cost of the vacation.
Then, on January 3, Ontario announced lockdowns. Schools, gyms, restaurants and movie theaters would be closed. We no longer had a physical reason to be in Canada. So we said, “Fuck it, let’s get out.” Our kids, 11 and 10, were able to skip the entire disrupted school schedule. And if we had to, we could work from quarantine. (Spoiler alert: I do just that.)
But which country felt safe? We naturally thought of ourselves when we asked that question. A more empathetic soul would also consider the safety of the locals in these destinations, who have no choice but to welcome tourism as their economy relies on it. Jamaica’s lax policy allowed unvaccinated travelers to arrive with only a negative antigen test. The Bahamas and Aruba were the same. At a minimum, Antigua required adults to be fully vaccinated. And then there are the Turks and Caicos, which have an 80 percent vaccination rate and require two doses for visitors over the age of 16.
At the time, entry to Turks and Caicos also required a PCR test where a nasopharyngeal sample was collected to enter the country. That’s the one that reaches down the back of your throat and searches your soul for COVID (then they updated the requirements to allow antigen testing, but with a nasopharyngeal sample). Those extra precautions motivated us. We booked a 15 night stay at Beaches and arrived on January 5th as we were packing up to drive out all winter.
Turks and Caicos Islands
Turks and Caicos Islands are a collection of islands southeast of the Bahamas that have often flirted with the idea of becoming a province or territory of Canada. The British Overlook Territory with serene white sand beaches, turquoise waters and little vegetation is almost entirely dependent on tourism.
One of the most famous and frequent visitors to Grace Bay is Drake. The day before we arrived, the OVO rapper set thirst traps of himself sucking it up on Grace Bay. According to locals, Drake pretty much lives on the island when he’s not in LA or his Bridlepath mansion. They have become accustomed to spotting him at the casino, the Provo golf course or a famous local restaurant called Mr. groupers. Every night we heard about a new Drake sighting, an indication of the kind of shadow he is casting over these islands.
A young woman from the island who asked not to be identified finds this annoying and refers specifically to the photo of Drake wearing a PROVO Golf Club shirt and a hat adapted to cancel OVO Golf Club. “He acts like he owns it,” she snaps.
The Beaches resort is located a few miles from Drake’s villa beach. The place isn’t cheap which is no surprise for something Sandals owned. Turks and Caicos itself is already ridiculously expensive, as everything has to be imported. Canadians who own a $4 million villa on the beach tell me they would pack a cooler full of meat before traveling to avoid paying local prices.
At Stranden you can see where the money is being spent. The service is exceptional. And the food is miles above what you would expect at an all inclusive. You could spend an entire vacation avoiding buffets, have breakfast, lunch and dinner at a la carte restaurants, eat rack of lamb, conch ceviche, or escargot, while sipping unlimited Black Label.
You would also be hard pressed to get bored. Our days were kept busy between the beach, the inclusive sailing and diving lessons, the glass bottom boat visiting nearby reefs and a water park for the kids with slides, small lazy river and surf simulator. These activities are essential as there isn’t much to do on these small islands other than visit more beaches, reefs and restaurants.
The place is beautiful, but we enjoyed it with a certain amount of apprehension. Holidaying during COVID is not exactly stress-free. There are too many unknowns playing with your nerves and putting a damper on paradise.
At first we enjoyed ourselves as much as we could while trying to be aware of masking and social distancing. For the most part we were outdoors and isolated, away from the crowded hot tub full of unmasked Americans.
But there were times when we let our guards down. An indoor teppanyaki restaurant where people like to yell at each other over clattering kitchenware was not a good idea in retrospect. Exposing our kids dancing all night in the kid’s club added to our concerns. And there were a handful of casual conversations where people got just a little too close. We don’t know if our children have contracted COVID from any of these cases or elsewhere. We just know they got it.
My son developed mild symptoms, leading to one of the worst nights of my life.
I embarked on this vacation with no fear of getting COVID, considering the likelihood that we would recover quickly if we got it, while rationalizing that we’d probably get it in Ontario anyway. But when the kids had COVID, I couldn’t stop thinking about how bad it could get. I listened all night to my son breathing and jumping with every tremor or tremor to make sure he didn’t back down. I hated myself for stubbornly insisting on going on vacation and risking my children’s lives, no matter how minimal it seemed at the time. Weighing the worst-case scenario against a desperate desire for some sun and salt water leads to the most powerful case of self-loathing.
Again, this is a story of happiness and privilege. The children quickly jumped back. And somehow my wife and I keep testing negative.
The horror stories we read from other travelers about their quarantine experience added to our anxiety. But once our Beaches quarantine began, those worries melted away.
The resort kept us in our room, all expenses were paid by their insurance program. Room service delivered food from the restaurants within the hour. The quality of the meal has not suffered at all. The nice hotel staff and even the resort manager checked in with us regularly to make sure we had every comfort like memory foam pillows or board games for the kids. I could continue to work. Mom and the kids watched shows, played games and got their vitamin D on the balcony.
Five days later we were allowed to leave our room due to our vaccine status and completely free of antigen testing. But we couldn’t go back to Canada because we needed either a negative PCR test or a positive test at 10 days old. PCR tests, which measure the antibodies your body makes to fight COVID, can remain positive for months after infection. So we’re now here waiting for those 10 days to be over, the family enjoying a longer vacation while I continue to work from warmer climes.
And we’re already planning our return trip to Turks and Caicos, which is also fully covered thanks to Beaches’ holiday insurance program. Despite discovering COVID towards the end of our 15 day stay, Beaches compensates for the interruption by providing a voucher equal to what we originally paid, which is the kind of benefit that helps us leave with no regrets .
Now I feel a new kind of fear emerging, a fear of returning to Toronto. We are coming back this weekend after a nearly a month break. Unless my wife or I test positive.