April 19, 2021


For splendid leisure

Travel stories on the anniversary of covid-19 shutting down borders

16 min read

David and Karen Howe got out just in time.

The Chicago retirees left Morocco on March 15, the day the country suspended international flights. Two days earlier, they had frantically searched for new tickets home after their flight to Spain was canceled.

After a long, tense, unpleasant wait at the airport in Casablanca, they finally boarded their flight. But the trouble wasn’t over yet. David Howe started to feel sick on the plane and passed out in the aisle.

“I was lying there on the floor right after I first went down,” he said. “I said, ‘Whatever we do, I don’t want you go to back to Casablanca, because I know we’re not gonna get out of there.’”

Like the Howes, travelers all over the world were forced to abandon vacations, honeymoons, bachelor parties and study abroad programs the week the novel coronavirus shut the world down. Trips that started with whispers of a faraway threat came to a sudden end as countries went into lockdown, airlines canceled flights and borders closed.

The outbreak officially became a pandemic. Deaths started to mount. Texts from home became more urgent, then panicked.

And suddenly, it was past time to get home.

March 8

The coronavirus spreads on cruise ships, undetected

On March 8, the State Department warned Americans, especially those with underlying health conditions, to avoid cruises. That morning Dominic Miranda, 38, was packing up to leave the Carnival Imagination when passengers were notified they couldn’t disembark according to schedule. The captain announced the ship would need to quarantine at the Long Beach, Calif., port.

Miranda didn’t know how long they would be waiting. He also didn’t know that someone on the 2,000-passenger ship was infected with the coronavirus.

About 400 miles up the California coast earlier that week, there was a much more public covid-stricken cruise. The Grand Princess docked in Oakland two days after its scheduled arrival because of a coronavirus outbreak. Its 3,500 passengers and crew members quarantined on the ship and on military bases. Seven passengers who contracted covid-19 on the ship died later that month.

Throughout his four-day cruise to Ensenada, Mexico, Miranda — a DJ and events producer who lives in Los Angeles — was aware of the Grand Princess situation, but his trip had felt mostly normal. He and 17 friends enjoyed the standard perks, though they had noticed a crescendo of changes. Buffets were replaced by on-demand service. Alcohol began to be limited, and smoking was prohibited.

On Saturday night, the friends gathered for their last supper. Miranda noticed the service staff was wearing white gloves, “which they normally don’t,” he says.

When the friends left to find the ship’s late-night food options, restaurants were closed without explanation. So was the ship’s top deck. Back in his room, Miranda realized housekeeping skipped service for a few nights. After a confusing Sunday of waiting, Miranda was allowed to leave the ship around 6 p.m.

In the weeks that followed, cruise lines voluntarily suspended sailings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order, and four of Miranda’s cruise friends got sick, although none were tested to confirm it was the coronavirus.

Later that month, Miranda received a letter from Carnival saying that the coronavirus had been on their cruise, information the CDC confirmed in April. The Carnival Imagination has since been retired, sold for scrap and will be dismantled at a Turkish ship-breaking yard.

The world’s response to coronavirus was changing, fast.

On March 9, Italy locked down the entire country. The CDC said older Americans should avoid unnecessary travel. On March 10, New York created a coronavirus containment zone in New Rochelle as the number of cases in the United States surpassed 1,000. Deaths rose in Italy, prompting tightened border restrictions from several European countries.

With the number of known cases surpassing 120,000 globally, the World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic on March 11. That night, President Trump announced a ban on travel from most of Europe, although the details of the measure were unclear for citizens traveling abroad.

Late in the evening, the State Department urged Americans to reconsider international travel, and the CDC said citizens should avoid nonessential trips to Europe.

March 11

The World Health Organization officially declares a pandemic

Eric Kmetz and his wife, Natasha, of Baltimore, were already waiting for an overnight flight to London at Baltimore International Airport when they heard about the ban.

“We’re going, ‘I guess we figure out what we do when we land,’” said Kmetz, 34, the director of course development for an education tech company.

They planned to spend a few days in London before going to the relatively uncrowded Scottish Highlands. But then the U.S. government said flights for Americans returning home from overseas would soon be funneled through 13 airports, not including Baltimore. The couple started getting nervous about what their trip home would be like if they returned on March 24 as scheduled.

“If they’re doing this, what’s next?” Kmetz said he wondered. “If it’s changed this much over the last three days, what the heck’s gonna be going on this time next week?”

On March 15, three days after they had arrived in London, they went online and changed their flights, packed up their Airbnb and headed back to Heathrow.

“I absolutely know that there were people who were in similar situations and ended up having a much more difficult, stressful time than we did,” he said. “We were really, really lucky.”

By March 12, U.S. vacation destinations were announcing unprecedented closures. Disneyland and Disney World would both shut down, as would Broadway theaters in New York City.

March 12

International borders begin to close

At an airport in Vietnam, Robert Koch was awaiting his flight to Singapore in the morning when he heard about the U.S. border closure announcement.

“We kind of panicked and it was like, ‘What do we do?’” said Koch, 29, who lived in Arlington, Va., and was vacationing with three roommates and one of their girlfriends. They figured if they got stuck somewhere, it might as well be Singapore, where they had flights scheduled home a couple days later.

After landing, Koch found that his airline didn’t have a staffed counter. He waited for help on the airline’s 800-number for 90 minutes before giving up. He had booked the trip with points, but the credit card company wasn’t picking up. Finally, one of his roommates suggested calling the airline’s local office. Success.

I am one of the last people in America that went on vacation.

Robert Koch

Instead of the planned two days in Singapore, the group made the best of 10 hours. They went to famous attractions, food stalls and fancy bars before Koch flew out early the next morning. The same day, Singapore expanded travel restrictions to part of Europe and banned cruise ships.

Koch landed late the afternoon of March 13, with hours to spare before the deadline.

“As annoying as it probably made me sound, anytime I had to do a dumb icebreaker on a work Zoom, I would say, ‘I am one of the last people in America that went on vacation,’” Koch said.

At Miami International Airport on March 12, Kellee Mayfield, a painter from Mountain View, Ark., also processed jarring news. It had nothing to do with the coronavirus — her husband had just told her he wanted a divorce after 20 years of marriage.

Devastated, Mayfield stayed the course and embarked on her two-week plein-air painting trip through Argentine Patagonia with nine other artists. On arrival in Buenos Aires, passengers submitted forms detailing their travel plans and had their temperatures checked by staff wearing full personal protective equipment. Next was a three-hour domestic flight south to El Chaltén. Finally at their remote accommodation, the artists learned their three-night stay needed to be extended to meet military lockdown requirements.

They spent the next 18 days at Hosteria El Pillar toggling between making new plans to get home and painting while they waited for updates. Argentina’s coronavirus approach had intensified; the country suspended domestic flights, as well as long-distance train and bus services, leaving the painters more than 1,600 miles from the international airport.

“We had all these crazy ways to get back to the United States and every single one of them canceled,” Mayfield, 51, says.

A hotel staff member found an emergency evacuation flight to Buenos Aires. Their option for getting back to the United States was just as limited, and it cost more than Mayfield’s entire multicity trip.

“The U.S. Embassy kept saying, ‘If you don’t get on this flight, we don’t know when the next one will be and you will be stuck here,'” Mayfield says.

We had all these crazy ways to get back to the United States and every single one of them canceled.

Kellee Mayfield

The group underwent physical examinations, got paperwork to prove they were healthy, then drove seven hours through government checkpoints to Buenos Aires. Back in the city at the Hilton Buenos Aires, they monitored their flight status, wary of its ever-changing departure date. Mayfield landed in Miami on March 28, nine days later than expected.

More countries started to close their borders to foreigners on March 13, the last day nonresidents could travel to the United States from Europe. Spain declared a national emergency as the virus surged, and Canada urged its citizens to cancel nonessential trips.

March 13

President Trump’s travel ban goes into effect at 11:59 p.m. EST

For American sisters Cathy Reynolds, 53, and Debbie Raif, 50, the biggest development on Friday the 13th was President Trump’s European travel ban going into effect at 11:59 p.m. Eastern standard time. News hadn’t reached them yet that Paris, where they were traveling together, was shutting down fast.

The World Health Organization had just announced that Europe had become the epicenter of the pandemic, and with more than 3,600 cases reported in France, the prime minister ordered all nonessential public places to close the following day at midnight.

Reynolds, a media relations manager for the U.S. Travel Association., read horror stories of travelers booking emergency flights back to the U.S., but she bet they would still be able to get back home the upcoming Monday as planned.

The sisters made it to the Eiffel Tower and the near-empty Louvre, not realizing that in a few hours both would shut down until further notice. The next evening, the sisters struggled to find an open restaurant after spending the day walking around the city.

“Every day things were shutting down … you could feel it coming,” Reynolds says. “It was unnerving.”

After dinner, Raif got a text alert from United Airlines that their flight had been canceled. It was odd, as Reynolds had been the one to book the trip but didn’t receive an alert or email herself.

“I hopped online and started looking — I couldn’t even rebook anything,” Reynolds says. “It was just ‘Sorry, your flights have been canceled,’ nothing else. And we panicked.”

At 2 a.m., perhaps thanks to her status with United, Reynolds was able to secure tickets for the next day.

Just over the English Channel, Tatyannah King, 25, was facing a similar late-night crisis in the United Kingdom, where 798 coronavirus cases had been reported. March 13 was her second night in London when “everything crashed and fell,” she says. An eruption of messages from friends and family warned King of the travel ban going into effect that day.

The sex blogger and graduate student studying to be a certified sex therapist was in Europe to speak at two conferences, one that took place in Prague a few days before, and one in London. She tacked on some extra time for a bucket-list trip to Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day. King decided to fly home earlier, and from London instead of Dublin.

Fortunately, American Airlines was allowing customers to change itineraries for free.

Unfortunately, King made a huge mistake.

“I accidentally deleted [my flight] altogether,” King says. “I tried calling American Airlines so many times, but I kept getting some kind of voice mail or an automated message that said I could just send this email and we’ll hit you back up in about a week.”

New flight options were about $2,000, far more expensive than her original booking. At 3 a.m., near tears and desperate, she called and asked her dad, a seasoned traveler, what to do. Using frequent flier miles and help from a connection at American Airlines, King’s father was able to rebook her return for the following day.

As Americans flooded back into 13 airports the country from overseas on March 14, long waits in crowded spaces plagued their reentry. The U.S. expanded its travel restrictions to include the U.K. and Ireland.

March 14

Parties end, programs shut down and high-profile cases emerge around the world

Zack Rathner couldn’t take it anymore. The communications professional from Richmond had been at his friend’s bachelor party on the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky for a few days already.

Since the first night when they watched NBA fans stream out of a canceled game from a bar, he had been growing increasingly nervous. As they traveled to different distilleries in a sanitized rental van, news alerts filled his phone. The message: “It’s coming for you.”

Jokingly, he told his four friends: “There aren’t any other people that I’d rather be with at the end of the world than you.”

There aren’t any other people that I’d rather be with at the end of the world than you.

Zack Rathner

By the morning of March 14, the day before the trip was supposed to end, he started to consider the possibility of serious lockdowns and airlines being grounded.

He called American Airlines, found out he could change his flight for roughly $100, and decided to go home early. After picking up his car in D.C., he drove home to Richmond and stopped at four grocery stores along the way.

“I was so beyond nervous,” said Rathner, 35. “Things were changing by the hour.”

In Tanzania, staff members and 30 undergraduate students, most from Canada’s McGill University, had reached the town of Bagamoyo on the Indian Ocean. It was one stop among many in East Africa during a field study program.

Mehar Gujral, the student affairs and welfare coordinator for the program that year, had only registered the virus on a couple of occasions before that month.

When actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were diagnosed in Australia on March 11, she thought American students on the trip might be affected. Then Sophie Trudeau, the wife of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, tested positive on March 12. The next day, as Canada told citizens to avoid nonessential travel, the group learned in an emergency meeting their program would end.

But first, they had to say goodbye. They decided on a prom, with dressy clothes and music from the 2000s and photos on the beach.

“Everyone just danced and had a good time. It was just so sweet,” said Gujral, 24, who was living in Montreal and Mumbai before the program. “It’s exactly what you would think of, prom at the end of the world — people just trying to enjoy and celebrate.”

Members of the group started leaving the next day. Gujral, who had participated in the program earlier, had planned to visit Rwanda and Uganda, take a family trip to Europe and then start working in India. Instead, she returned to Canada. She is now in Mumbai producing audio stories as part of a nonprofit she founded.

“We were in this very paradisiacal place,” said Gujral. “We are going to leave this to go back home because there’s coronavirus at home. It was just a weird thing to wrap your head around.”

Life around the world continued to change on March 15. Ireland asked pubs to close ahead of St. Patrick’s Day. Several U.S. states and cities started to shut down nightlife, and the CDC said Americans should cancel gatherings of 50 or more people.

March 15

Chaos ensues on flights and in airports

David Howe had a coffee the morning he and his wife, Karen, were leaving Morocco. It wasn’t enough.

The Chicago couple’s 18-day vacation was ending a few days early, and they were waiting to fly from Casablanca to the U.S. instead of Madrid as originally planned. Morocco announced that day it was suspending international flights.

David, 78, a retired chemist, was trying to get a soda at the airport when they heard an announcement that U.S.-bound passengers needed to go to the back of the terminal. The couple said the area was crowded with no chairs, no food, no restrooms and no water.

Shortly into the flight, David started to feel lightheaded and then very ill. He made his way out of the row and collapsed.

Karen, 74, a retired teacher, climbed over a man in their row and called for a doctor. One who responded realized David was dehydrated and told him to drink lots of fluids, including champagne, very slowly.

The next day, March 16, the Peace Corps suspended global operations. In the U.S., where more than 4,450 cases had been reported, the Statue of Liberty closed, and President Trump told Americans to avoid restaurants and groups of 10 or more. Residents in the San Francisco Bay area were asked to stay home.

March 16

‘Shelter in place’ directions are issued as death toll reaches 100 in U.S.

On the day Hanks and Wilson left the hospital after their coronavirus diagnosis, D.C. resident Tammy Gordon, 48, was a few weeks into a month-long stay at a house rental in Tampa, when her neighbor, a biologist, sent her a worrisome text.

He said if she wanted to get back to D.C., she should come back immediately. The sense of urgency shocked Gordon, a political consultant, so she decided to leave at dawn.

She slept unsuccessfully. “I couldn’t go back to sleep because I had anxiety running through my veins,” Gordon says. “Around 4:30, I was like, ‘What am I doing just laying here? If I’m awake, I might as well get on the road.’”

I couldn’t go back to sleep because I had anxiety running through my veins.

Tammy Gordon

With her dog, Ike, and a pizza in tow, Gordon took off in her Mini Cooper convertible. “It was packed to the brim like it was like ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’” she says.

In the 12.5-hour race home, Gordon let Ike out at rest stops but was too concerned about other travelers to use the crowded restroom herself. Her bladder complied with the emergency, and Gordon was able to make it home without a break.

Maggie Hughes and her husband, Doug, of D.C., were getting ready to wrap up their honeymoon with three days in Sydney after spending two weeks in New Zealand. But Australia had just announced a two-week self-quarantine requirement for international arrivals, and they didn’t want to spend all their time stuck in a hotel room. They decided to fly back to the United States early.

The couple packed rolls of toilet paper from their hotel after hearing about shortages in the U.S. and headed to the airport in Queenstown to figure out their arrangements. They arrived to discover their airline didn’t have a desk there, and they weren’t sure how to call Australia with their cellphones. A travel agent had booked their flights, but the time difference made it difficult to reach that person in the U.S. and the airline wouldn’t let them make the change.

Finally, an employee at another airline’s desk used her phone to call the travel agency to make the necessary changes.

“We were holding phones up to other phones, it was total chaos,” said Hughes, 30, who works in advertising sales. “It was very frustrating … We were like, ‘We’re trapped in Queenstown, what are we gonna do?’”

In retrospect, she realizes that wouldn’t have been so bad.

“We could have just worked remote from New Zealand,” she said. “We wouldn’t have to deal with the coronavirus at all.”

New Zealand soon closed its borders to foreigners and went into a strict lockdown. More countries were following suit. The U.S. death toll reached 100, and the virus was confirmed to have reached every state.

March 17

Americans race the clock to get home

Travel writer Brett Schmechel, 31, was staying in Manila for a month with his long-distance girlfriend, Winna Altamira, when the Philippine’s enhanced community quarantine began to escalate. Forty-eight-hour windows to get groceries before lockdowns became 10-hour ones, then eight hours. On Tuesday, March 17, he learned people had 72 hours to leave the country’s main island of Luzon before air travel was restricted.

With the uncertainty of country’s lockdown, Schmechel decided to fly home to Austin early. His flight was sorted, but his transportation to the airport was not. Drivers feared they wouldn’t be able to get back to their neighborhoods before stay-at-home orders began.

Finally, a hotel taxi driver agreed to make the risky trip to Ninoy Aquino International Airport. At 9:30 p.m. on March 18, the black GAC sedan picked Schmechel up for the 30-mile trip through military checkpoints. Like Cinderella, the driver had to make it home by midnight. While Manila regularly ranks as one of the world’s most traffic-choked cities, the road was eerily empty.

Fifteen hours early to his flight, Schmechel found a spot to sleep on the floor nestled between a trash can and the one available ATM.

But as travelers know, March 2020 was the beginning of the story — not the end.

Countries locked down to Americans, and flights went empty. The collapse of international travel ultimately resulted in the loss of $1.3 trillion in export revenue, and it put 100 to 120 million direct tourism jobs at risk.

The pandemic took hold, and then travel was changed forever.

Read more on travel during the pandemic:

Tips: Advice column | Coronavirus testing | Sanitizing your hotel | Updating documents

Flying: Pandemic packing | Airport protocol | Staying healthy on planes | Fly or drive? | Layovers

Road trips: Tips | Rental cars | Best snacks | Long-haul trains | Rest stops | Cross-country drive

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