Locals stuck outside the US during coronavirus shutdown
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IDAHO FALLS — With the rapid spread of COVID-19 prompting border closures around the world, some eastern Idahoans are struggling to find a way home.
The U.S State Department says it has gotten more than 9,000 U.S. residents in 28 different countries back to the USA.
“The department has never before undertaken an evacuation operation of such geographic breadth, scale and complexity. We are using all the tools at our disposal to overcome logistical and diplomatic challenges and bring Americans home from hard-to-reach areas and cities hardest-hit by the virus,” according to a State Department news release.
But even with the efforts from the State Department, some people are having a hard time getting back to Idaho, and one said the trip back might have been worse than staying put.
The young family
Regan Muir and his wife, Brenda, were married in 2017 and have been living in Rexburg. Regan is from Rexburg, and Brenda is from Peru. Brenda hadn’t been back to Peru in years to visit her family, so once Regan graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho, they decided to make the trip.
They headed down in August last year, and when they discovered that Brenda’s dad had been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, they decided to extend their stay for a few months to help the family.
“I went back to Rexburg and put in my two-weeks notice and packed our things away,” Regan said. “In that two-week time period, my father-in-law passed away. So we’ve been living here since August.”
He said they needed to return to the United States so his wife could retain her green card. They planned on coming back in April, then COVID-19 struck. They moved their plane tickets to March 17 in hopes of making it out before the borders closed, but they were too late.
“The Peruvian president said, ‘We are closing our borders. No one comes in, no one goes out,'” Regan said. “We wanted to come back this last Wednesday, but things just didn’t work out.”
Regan said the 15-day quarantine went into effect on March 16 and should end by March 31.
A news release from the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru says two flights have been scheduled for Wednesday, March 25, out of Lima. However, even if Regan and his family were able to make it to Lima, the flights are reserved for humanitarian priority individuals, including older adults, people with underlying health conditions, minors traveling without a parent or legal guardian, and other adults in need of medical assistance.
Right now they are hoping to make it out at the end of the 15-day quarantine.
“We don’t know if they are going to extend it or give us a little bit of a window to leave. We’re hoping they’ll give us a little bit of a window,” he said.
They’ve got plane tickets for April 2, and those tickets didn’t come cheap. When Regan’s parents first tried buying the tickets, they were going to cost $12,000 per person. With Regan, his wife and their infant daughter, the seats would have cost more than $36,000. Luckily, Regan said they were able to get cheaper tickets.
“It’s really sad because you’d think at a time like this people would be more willing to help each other out,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are some airlines that are trying to take advantage of people.”
He said they have tried contacting the U.S. State Department but have been redirected to the U.S. embassy’s website. The responses they’ve gotten from the embassy are automated emails telling them to keep watching the website for updates.
“Thankfully, we’re staying with my wife’s family, which is a huge blessing. I feel bad for a lot of the other people … that don’t have any family and they have to stay in their hotel or hostel,” Regan said.
If Regan and his family are not able to make it back to the U.S. by August, they run the risk of losing Brenda’s U.S. residency.
Regan and his family are fighting to get home on their own. Others who have found themselves abroad haven’t had to go it alone.
John and Sally Price have been serving as senior missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Guatemala for the past year and a half. They had around seven months left before they were scheduled to come back to Iona. Then they got a letter from the church’s leadership in Central America on March 21.
“Through inspired counsel from the Brethren and much prayer in your behalf, we have decided, in alignment with them, to send all senior missionaries to your homes as soon as borders, flights and other circumstances permit,” the letter reads.
John said that the airports there are closed, and commercial flights in and out of Guatemala are banned.
“What the church has done, when they decided to get all the senior missionaries out, they contacted the U.S. Embassy here. They will arrange charter flights,” John said.
The Guatemalan government has set a curfew from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. and is encouraging social distancing and closing down bars and restaurants.
Still, until a flight can be arranged, John and Sally are enjoying themselves and the work they are doing in Guatemala despite the restrictions.
“We’re sort of stuck, but not really. I mean, our conditions here are so sweet that you could live here for the rest of your life, no problem. It’s just absolutely marvelous. But when you’re told to go home, you’ve got to go home,” John said.
He said the last they heard they would be getting on a flight either Wednesday or Thursday this week. He said that other than a form they had to fill out, the church is handling everything.
“The church is a really good buffer between us and the government. They take care of everything,” he said.
When they do make it home, they will need to isolate themselves for 14 days, per instructions from the WHO and CDC.
The scuba instructor
A local woman who has already made it home plans to quarantine herself for an entire month due to the level of exposure she was subjected to on her trip back to the U.S.
Crystal Alexander is a scuba instructor from Shelley. She’d been working on the Honduran island of Roatan as a dive instructor for a resort when the borders closed. She lost her job because the resort closed as well.
Through a lot of work and a coordinated effort from other U.S. residents and Canadians on the island, Alexander made it home Tuesday at 2 a.m.
She said the trip was like a horror show.
“I witnessed, from the point of entry until I got home last night, just a complete lack of any kind of protocol or adherence to any measures that would mitigate this disaster,” Alexander said.
She said she didn’t see anyone besides herself practicing social distancing. Nobody used hand sanitizer, and only a few had their faces covered.
“On the airplane itself, nobody was given any kind of hand sanitizer, and they passed out potato chips so everybody could eat with their fingers,” Alexander said.
When she arrived in the U.S. in Miami, she said no one asked her if she might have been exposed or infected. She said there were no health screenings or even advisories about COVID-19.
On her flight from Miami to Denver, she said she overheard the flight attendants talking about how they had already been infected.
“Then the next flight I got on, the stewardess was from Salt Lake City, and she had brought her own baggie of bleach wipes. She had to bring her own,” Alexander said.
She says she feels like she has just run into a burning building.
“My exposure level, up until needing