Before Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Friday hotels around the country would start being used as de facto quarantine facilities, many hotels and Airbnbs were already advertising themselves for self-isolation stays.
Sydney's Q station, like many hotels across the country, has transformed 40 of its rooms into isolation spaces for Australians returning from overseas who need to complete their 14-day quarantine period.
Q Station, which was built in 1848 as a quarantine site, is located inside a national park along the foreshore north of Manly, making it one of the most scenic and most isolated spots for isolation – all with a bargain price starting from $100 a night.
Q Station general manager Alison Langley came up with the idea to transform the historic site, now a hotel, into a place for self-isolating following a tough week of cutting back operations and staff, and several weeks of declining demand for tourism following the government's ban on travel.
"We're mainly conference-based and leisure-based and we had bookings cancelling around us with all that was going on," Langley says. "I was home on a Saturday night and suddenly thought, what if we used the place as a quarantine station and rename the rooms as 'precincts', as they use to call it."
The idea seemed like a natural fit. The accommodation units at Q Station are self-contained and more spacious and arranged further apart than the standard hotel room.
The site was designed to house those who arrived in Sydney by ship unwell or who had been in contact with an ill passenger and who required the then 40-day quarantine period. The location was remote and far enough to keep visitors away from the centre of Sydney back in the day, and comfortable enough for people to do their lengthy quarantine.
Langley says there's plenty of space for people in isolation to go on walks and exercise without coming into contact with another person in accordance with the government's advised distance of four square metres a person.
The hotel has introduced new procedures to meet government quarantine guidelines with contactless payment, reception staff wearing gloves, housekeeping staff wearing masks and gloves and regular disinfection of common areas, including the buses that transfer guests to their accommodation. Hand sanitising dispensers have been installed throughout the property with the device being screwed into the walls to prevent theft.
At a price of $100 a night, the hotel is not making any money but, Langley says, it's about helping Australians and trying to keep the business afloat.
"It's important to think outside the box but also comply with government regulations," she says. "It's also really important to help Australians and to look after each other."
Self-isolation in a hotel: what's it like?
Q Station is among many hotels switching gears to provide self-isolation accommodation. Hotel booking across the industry is at a record low of 10-20 per cent, a decline of around 60 per cent for this period. Booking rates are usually around 80 per cent during the month of March, according to industry figures.
Kate Parker, a 33-year-old Melburnian who recently returned to Australia after moving to Canada, is spending her 14-day quarantine at Quest Hotel Apartments in Melbourne. Parker was living in Toronto when DFAT issued the urgent travel advice for Australians overseas to come home.
"Toronto was already in lockdown at that point with schools and restaurants closed, so I knew the situation would get worse before it got better and didn't want to take the risk," Parker says.
"I booked the last seat on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver then direct to Melbourne which left the next day. By that point the US had closed their borders so I couldn't even transit through LAX, which made my options quite limited."
Parker, who is in her sixth day of quarantine, chose to spend her isolation period in a hotel instead of at home with family to minimise the risk of contact. She chose Quest Hotel Apartments because the hotel offers one-bedroom units with a kitchen, so she can get groceries delivered and cook meals. The rooms also have a balcony so she can get fresh air and, she points out, to wave at family when they drop off supplies. "My dad thought [waving from the balcony] was really funny," Parker says.
Quest Hotel Apartments staff have been calling Parker, who is among a few other guests quarantining there, daily to make sure she's comfortable. She says the hotel has a strict policy that guests are not allowed to leave once here and have a good understanding of the laws around quarantining.
"They have order forms for groceries and have given me extra supplies, which they leave on my doorstep. Plus they were very clear that I need to keep the Do Not Disturb sign up at all times, so I don't come into contact with housekeeping," she says.
Parker says she isn't feeling claustrophobic but admits that being in self-isolation feels a little like Groundhog Day - a reference to the film where actor Bill Murray's character relives the same day over and over.
"I can barely keep track of what day it is, but that doesn't really matter as I have nowhere to be," she says.
"I always have music playing and have a coffee on the balcony each morning, which is nice as it has a slight view of the city skyline. The apartment is big enough for me to walk around so I try to get some steps in and I listen to a podcast or audio book to distract myself.
"I'm honestly not minding the downtime after a stressful experience leaving Canada. However, I am only on day six, so I can see myself getting cabin fever by the end."
Self-isolation in an Airbnb: what's it like?
Another popular option for self-isolation for many returning Australians is accommodation listings website Airbnb. Like hotels, Airbnb hosts have shifted their listings from leisure stays to isolation stays, following a high volume of cancellations in early March from domestic and overseas travellers. And like hotels, Airbnb hosts are required to follow new cleanliness protocols based on recommendations from the government and its medical experts.
Daniel King, 40, an environmental lawyer working in renewable energy for an NGO in Hanoi, is currently in isolation in an Airbnb in Woy Woy.
King was working in Bangkok when he learned someone from his organisation had COVID-19. He spent a week in isolation at a hotel in Bangkok with plans to eventually return to his apartment in Hanoi. But as the virus spread through Asia and Vietnam, King was not able to get a visa to return to Hanoi. His only option was to return to Australia.
However, King was not able to move back to his family home in Ashfield as his sister is recovering from chemotherapy, and so decided to book an Airbnb in Woy Woy to complete his 14 days' quarantine.
King says his hosts have been friendly and helpful, and are doing the best they can to support his stay. "My Airbnb hosts have been extremely kind and bought me groceries ... we have had lovely chats six feet apart in the garden," he says.
King is passing his time in isolation doing yoga and working remotely, dialling in with colleagues in India, Pakistan and Singapore to discuss how they are coping with COVID-19.
On Friday, Airbnb announced a new initiative to help those responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a statement, it said it will provide free or subsidised housing for healthcare professionals, relief workers, and first responders around the world, who need a place to stay away from their families. This will include waiving all fees for stays arranged through this initiative.
Properties that are "safe hosting" will follow the recommended procedures, including listing entire homes and agreeing to a number of safety requirements, such as enhanced cleaning, social distancing with their guests and allowing 72 hours between stays.