“We’ve got a runner!”: What it’s like to work at Pearson in the hotel quarantine era

“We’ve got a runner!”: What it’s like to work at Pearson in the hotel quarantine era

Massive fines, crying passengers, swear words and much more

Photo by Joe Yates

Toronto Pearson International Airport is a lively place. During the last few months, with mandatory Covid-19 testing, hotel quarantine rules, and ever-evolving requirements for international travel, it’s been downright wild. Since January, I’ve worked as an operational support representative at international arrivals, which means I’m the person who interacts with passengers after they’ve cleared customs and collected their baggage.

“Can I check your passport, please?”—I say it hundreds of times a day. Often, the response is disbelief: “Another gatekeeper?” or “How many times do I have to show my passport?”

When they show their passport, I look for the colour-coded sticker the customs officers have placed there. One sticker colour means they’re exempt from the Covid-19 testing and the three-day hotel quarantine, and I can send them on their way. “You’re free as a bird!” I like to say. A different colour means they’re exempt from hotel quarantine but not the testing. A third means they need a Covid-19 test and they must stay at a Designated Quarantine Facility afterward. A fourth means they have to book a government-approved hotel.

Sometimes, I help passengers find their quarantine hotel shuttle buses. “Which hotel are you going to?” I ask.

“Holiday Inn on Dixon Road,” they might answer. Seems straightforward, right? Except there are two Holiday Inns, and they’re both on Dixon Road. There are also two DoubleTree hotels: one on Dixon Road, the other on Dixie Road. There are two Hampton Inns and two Sheraton hotels as well. There are also three Courtyard hotels. Confusion abounds.

So does drama. One passenger had just arrived on an international flight, and when I asked to see his passport, he became agitated.

“Why?” he shot back.

“This is my job,” I replied.

“What you are doing is against the law,” he said. He refused to take out his passport and didn’t let me check his travel companion’s passport, either. They walked briskly out the automatic double doors.

The security guards aren’t allowed to touch the passengers, so they couldn’t do much. “I can’t hold their hands!” one said. So I sprinted 30 metres to the police officers stationed at Toronto Public Health. “We’ve got a runner!” I said. I described what they looked like. By the time we got to the exit doors, they were gone, vanished. I felt like a failure.

We do succeed—sometimes. Once, after I told a female passenger to go for her Covid-19 test, she stopped, turned and said, “I don’t want to do the test. I want to go home.” Then she walked out the double doors. The security guards failed to stop her. So I ran to get the police. I ran so fast I surprised myself.

Two male officers ran with me toward the exit. “Check the women’s washroom!” one said to me. I glanced under the stalls. Nothing. Eventually the officers found the woman outside the exit door and brought her back. She would have two options: comply, or pay $6,255 for refusing the hotel quarantine or Covid-19 testing. If she refuses both, the fine doubles.

When I see passengers clutching a green ticket, I know they’ve just got the hefty fine. You can judge how angry they are by how fast they walk. I call them tanks. I try to get out of their way to avoid being run over.


One time, a male passenger refused his hotel quarantine and walked out the exit doors. A taxi driver was pleased to see a potential customer. “Don’t take this man! He ran away!” I shouted. Then I sprinted to get the police. “He’s wearing a sky-blue T-shirt,” I told them. The officers caught him just in time and brought him back.

I’ve gained a lot of respect for the police. They pursue runners, but they also help passengers retrieve their luggage, lost passports or lost phones. They escort passengers to washrooms. A couple of times, I watched them clean up after passengers’ pets. Their motto is “to serve and protect.” This is definitely the serve part.

We are all part of the same team, and we count on each other. Sometimes Pearson feels like a war zone, especially when a dozen flights land around the same time. Passengers are tired from their long-distance travel and then have to wait in a long line at Canada Customs, then for hotel booking, Covid-19 testing, hotel shuttles. It’s a long process. Babies scream, dogs bark and adults complain, argue, even swear. Once a woman at the hotel booking line lashed out at me: “My children haven’t eaten for hours. They are hungry and have become weak. What you are doing is inhuman!” Then she cried and her husband comforted her. This time I knew better than to try to debate. Later, she calmed down and apologized.

In some ways, the hardest part is over, as travel quarantine restrictions are beginning to lift. Canadian citizens and permanent residents who are fully vaccinated 14 days before arrival are now exempt from hotel quarantine. But they still have to complete a Covid test. At the same time, summer is peak travel season and there are more incoming flights from the U.S. and elsewhere now. It’s a stressful job, and I don’t see that changing.

When my shift ends at 1:30 a.m., I go outside to wait for my husband to pick me up. Around 1:45 a.m., I see yellow headlights, then the car slows down and stops in front of me. I open the door and climb in. He knows how I’m feeling, so on the way home, we don’t talk. Instead, we listen to classical music in the still of the night. It feels like a concert for two. For a moment at least, there is peace.

Gu Zhenzhen is a mother of four who has just finished University of Gloucestershire’s distance master of arts in creative and critical writing.