How’s Your Quarantine Centre? If No One’s Banging Drums Outside, Count Your Blessings

·6-min read

Spending two weeks quarantined in a hotel room is not a pleasant experience, as thousands of people who’ve flown internationally since the pandemic began can attest.

But the 300 foreigners confined to a Ramada hotel in Yongin, South Korea, have it worse than most.

Each day for the past week, from about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., protesters outside the hotel have been raising a deafening noise with drums, brass gongs and loudspeakers blaring music. They are local residents, angry that the government chose a hotel in their neighborhood as a quarantine site.

“Even with double-glazed windows, they can still be heard when the windows are closed,” said James Martin Thompson, an app developer from Washington, from his fifth-floor room in the hotel, the Ramada by Wyndham Yongin.

“When you’re stuck in a small indoor space 24/7, being able to open the windows makes it much more bearable,” Thompson said. “And during much of the daytime, that isn’t practical with the noise coming from the demonstrators.”

On June 11, the South Korean government designated the Ramada as one of eight facilities where foreigners who arrive in the country with no COVID-19 symptoms are quarantined for two weeks.

Three days later, a foreigner quarantined at the hotel tested positive for the coronavirus. Since then, residents of the neighborhood, called Jeondae-ri, have been accusing the government of recklessly exposing them to infection.

On June 27, protesters began their daily noisemaking campaign in front of the 18-story hotel, hoping to force the authorities to send the foreigners elsewhere.

“They turned the hotel into a quarantine center without any consultation with local residents,” said Ye Jeong-gyu, one of the protest leaders. “We didn’t find out about it until there was a sudden drop in the number of people visiting here, because our neighborhood has become a place to avoid since the case was discovered.”

A large banner that protesters hung in front of the Ramada read, “This is a hotel that produced a confirmed COVID-19 case. Shut it down immediately!” Other banners called on residents to “protect our right to livelihood” by joining the protest.

Under the government’s regulations, people quarantined in hotels cannot leave their rooms, and they can come to the door only four times a day — three times to pick up meals left by staff, and once to leave trash outside. Closed-circuit cameras monitor the Ramada’s corridors, and entrances are watched by police around the clock so that no one comes or goes without permission.

That leaves the foreigners with little hope of escaping the daily torment, even if they wanted to try.

Thompson, 59, whose quarantine began Sunday, has asked to be moved to a room at the back of the hotel, away from the protest site. But nearly every room was already taken by others in quarantine, and his request was rebuffed.

The only suggestion that government officials could offer was to keep his windows shut, he said. He has been using noise-canceling headphones and a white-noise app to cope.

“I feel sorry for residents who didn’t come equipped with them,” he said.

Oh Sung-il, an official from the Ministry of Health and Welfare who oversees the quarantine at the Ramada, said protesters’ worries that COVID-19 might spread from the hotel were groundless. The one foreigner who tested positive for the virus was quickly moved to a separate facility, and there have been no cases at the hotel since, Oh said.

But the protesters said fear of infection was enough to threaten their livelihoods.

Restaurants, motels and other businesses in Jeondae-ri depend on visitors to nearby Everland, South Korea’s largest amusement park. They had already been badly hurt by the damage the pandemic did to Everland’s attendance figures. But things have gotten even worse since the COVID-19 case at the Ramada was confirmed, residents said.

“Fewer people have stopped in our town as bad rumors about our town spread,” said Cha Ki-cheon, 59, who runs a 21-room motel in Jeondae-ri called Ever Park. “The rumor was more fearsome than the virus itself. If the government plans to run the quarantine center here until the epidemic is over, our local economy will be dead by then.”

On Friday, dozens of protesters gathered for the daily vigil across the street from the Ramada, clanging gongs, shouting slogans and blaring protest songs through the loudspeakers.

Many sat on the hot pavement and beat the ground with their shoes. They held signs condemning “evil forces that spread COVID-19.” The most earsplitting moment came when a dozen unionized truck drivers expressed solidarity by rolling slowly by in their big vehicles, blaring their horns.

Yongin, a city of about 1 million people south of Seoul, the capital, has been in talks with the central government about financial support for businesses near the Ramada, Mayor Baek Gun-gi said at a news conference Tuesday.

Baek also said the city was looking for a new quarantine facility, farther away from residential areas. The Ramada has a three-month contract with the Ministry of Health and Welfare to house quarantined foreigners, but with no sign of the pandemic ending anytime soon, protesters fear the contract will be extended.

The protesters are also demanding that the Ramada, which charges each person in quarantine about $100 a day, share some of the proceeds with the neighborhood, arguing that it is making money at the expense of other local businesses. The hotel’s management did not return calls seeking comment.

Oh said the government was ready to talk with the protesters to help resolve their grievances. South Korea has won positive attention from around the world for its relatively successful efforts to curb the epidemic, and Oh expressed concern that the noise campaign would make the country look xenophobic.

Some of the protesters said they shared that concern, but that they had been left with little choice.

“We are sorry for the foreigners kept in the hotel. We can imagine how miserable they may be because of our noise,” Ye said. “But we are not mad at them. We are protesting for our own safety and livelihood.”

Thompson said he had been traveling for the past year, mostly in Europe and East Asia, since giving up his Washington apartment and putting his things in storage. He has friends in South Korea and usually visits Seoul a couple of times a year.

“Being a digital nomad seemed like an exciting prospect, and it’s been a fantastic experience — at least until the pandemic travel restrictions threw a wrench into the works,” he said. He is less than thrilled with the food at the Ramada, where he said a typical breakfast included “cold and limp French fries and a mostly black banana.”

“But I’m grateful to be where I am, even if it means being confined to a small space for a couple of weeks,” he said. “Given the situation in the U.S., it seems like I got out just in time.”

Choe Sang-Hun c.2020 The New York Times Company