The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has understandably made people nervous about travel. In response, public-health officials and experts have issued lots of advice for travelers, including the directive to only visit places you wouldn’t mind ending up quarantined.
That advice, often given half-jokingly, is something travelers should actually consider. About 1,000 people were quarantined at a hotel in Spain’s Canary Islands after guests who stayed there tested positive for COVID-19, and travelers in countries including China, Italy, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Philippines have also reportedly been quarantined in their hotels. Passengers have also gotten stuck on several cruise ships due to COVID-19 concerns. Even actor Tom Cruise got sequestered in an Italian hotel due to an outbreak there.
For non-celebrities, these incidents prompt an obvious question: Who pays if you get quarantined on vacation?
“Each circumstance is unique,” a U.S. State Department representative tells TIME. “In the case of several cruise ships in East Asia that underwent quarantine, the cruise lines themselves assumed the cost of accommodations. In most other cases, individual travelers are responsible for managing their self-quarantine.”
Two guests involved in mandatory hotel quarantines, however, said they did not end up on the hook for extra expenses. Sophie Smith, an Australia-based freelance journalist who traveled to the UAE to cover a professional cycling race, ended up quarantined in her Abu Dhabi hotel room for days due to possible exposure to coronavirus at the event. (She eventually tested negative and was cleared to fly home on Monday.) “There was just no communication,” Smith says. “No one had information. It’s surreal. You’re on your own in a small hotel room.”
Given the chaos of the situation, Smith says she’s not entirely sure who paid for her extra time and meals in the hotel, or for her rebooked flight home. She thinks the local sports council paid, but all she knows for sure is that it wasn’t her. (TIME could not reach the Abu Dhabi Sports Council for confirmation.)
The Canary Islands hotel placed under quarantine, H10 Costa Adeje Palace in Tenerife, also seems not to be charging guests. Lilia Kovka, who lives in Berlin, says her parents are staying at the hotel, and have not yet been asked to pay for anything. “Nobody knows at this moment who is going to pay at the end,” she says. “The German and Spanish governments need to pay and provide the flight back. We will all protest if not.”
In a letter to guests obtained by the Guardian, hotel representatives wrote that, “We are providing customers and hotel staff all the necessary care and attention so that, despite the inconveniences this situation may cause, they are taken care of in the best way possible.” TIME could not reach the hotel for further clarification.
The situation may be even stickier for travelers staying in home-shares, since they could feasibly end up quarantined in someone else’s residence. Airbnb did not respond to TIME’s request for comment about quarantine, but the company posted on its website that travelers planning to visit heavily affected areas such as China and South Korea may be able to cancel their trips for free. Guests with individual risk factors or obligations related to COVID-19 may also meet Airbnb’s extenuating circumstances cancellation policy.
The U.S. State Department recommends that people monitor its travel guidelines as well as those posted by governments of their planned destinations. But given the volatility of the outbreak, it’s virtually impossible to predict where the next case or cluster will pop up. Purchasing trip insurance can protect against unexpected costs, the State Department says.
Julie Loffredi, a spokesperson for travel protection company InsureMyTrip, says some travel insurers cover quarantine situations, but notes that there are still ambiguities. Coverage could depend on whether the quarantine was ordered by a doctor, or on whether an entire ship or hotel, versus an individual, is ordered into quarantine, she says.
Quarantine costs don’t only apply to hotel guests. The New York Times reported that a Pennsylvania man living in China and his toddler daughter were required to stay in a California pediatric hospital’s isolation unit after being evacuated from Wuhan, China by the government, along with dozens of other Americans flown home as the coronavirus outbreak there intensified. They then faced almost $4,000 in unexpected medical bills for the mandatory stays, as well as for services such as ambulance transport and radiology scans, the Times reported. The hospital, when contacted by the Times, said the bills were sent in error.
There are legal provisions that authorize the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to pay for medical expenses associated with quarantine, but only after payers such as insurers, employers and the government have contributed however much they are obligated to the total bill. The CDC did not respond to questions about its financial contributions when asked by the Times.
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Contributor: Jamie Ducharme