Travelers are stranded both within the country and abroad as efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus have led to worldwide travel bans.
Arizona State University senior Gabriela Fioretti, 21, was wrapping up what was supposed to be a weeklong family trip to Peru on March 15 when Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra announced that travel out of the country would be halted the next day. There was no warning and no time to book another flight.
“No one can come in or out of the country; you can’t leave by land, sea, or air so everyone’s kind of stuck here for 15 days,” Fioretti said over the weekend in an interview from Huaral, Peru.
The Fioretti family had gone to Peru for a wedding and the opportunity to visit loved ones, with Gabriela expecting to be back by the end of ASU’s spring break. Instead, she remains there with her mother and grandmother, trying to figure out what to do next.
“My grandma is 85 and she does have Parkinson’s, and the real big concern is that we are going to run out of her medication and that we won’t be able to … get it restocked here,” Fioretti said.
Like the Fioretti family, thousands of Americans traveling abroad scrambled to make travel arrangements home as countries began closing borders in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The State Department announced earlier this week that it has managed to repatriate more than 9,000 Americans from 28 countries since widespread travel restrictions began earlier this month. Officials did not immediately respond to a request for the estimated number of Americans who might still be stranded in another country.
“We will continue to take decisive action to inform and safeguard U.S. citizens overseas, protect the homeland, advance the administration’s commitment to building global health security capacity for this and future outbreaks, and reduce the impact for U.S. companies and supply chains overseas,” the statement said.
Limited options as airlines cut flights
Americans traveling within the U.S. have also experienced difficulty returning home. As state and federal governments impose stricter regulations on travel, airlines have cut flight schedules drastically to reduce costs.
United Airlines announced schedule cuts on Wednesday, reducing its U.S. passenger-carrying capacity by 52%. Combined with international flights, which were the first to get cut, United is operating at about one-third its normal level.
The depth and speed of cancellations has left travelers like Brooke Warner stuck at the airport with no way home. Warner is trying to get back home to Fairbanks, Alaska, and had to spend the night at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport with her dog.
“It’s frustrating to have to be going to your gate, and your gate says it’s canceled,” Warner said. “And the next flight is 6 hours away, and then you wait that 6 hours and that one is canceled. And then – it’s just so hard.”
Finding a way home for Warner and others is expected to get more difficult as long as travel restrictions remain in place. An official of one major U.S. airline, who asked not to be identified, said the average flight was just over 20 percent full and that figure is expected to drop into the teens by the weekend. They said flights will continue to be consolidated until demand returns.
Left on their own
Warner said she has few options other than to wait until a flight becomes available. Fioretti is in a similarly difficult position, as federal officials are encouraging stranded travelers to find their own way home.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a White House briefing Friday that the department is working to get Americans back from countries like Peru and Morocco, but he also said those people should try to get back on their own, if possible.
“We’re urging individuals, when they can get back on their own – they traveled there on their own – when they can get back there on their own, they ought to try to do that,” Pompeo said.
But Fioretti said the U.S. Embassy in Lima has been little to no help to Americans stranded there.
“People have been going to the embassy and they’re being turned away and not being helped,” she said.
She shared a screenshot from a chat started by other stranded Americans in Peru, in which the embassy said it had “repatriated a group of medically vulnerable U.S. citizens in the country, as well as a limited number of Peace Corps volunteers and U.S. embassy personnel and family members” last Friday.
Meanwhile, she texted Wednesday, “Still here, it’s day nine.”
“I’m just helpless and stuck and twiddling my thumbs until we have some type of help,” she said Saturday. “Which there is no help.”
Short-term packing, long-term stay
Because she did not expect to stay, Fioretti did not bring her laptop, which has made it difficult for her to participate in some of her classes, which are now online. She said she also lost her job, and her mother’s two businesses are struggling without her.
“It’s hard to come back to the states with no job, and I’m not really sure what I’m going to do from there,” Fioretti said.
With travel in Peru restricted because of the virus, Fioretti said there is little they can do but sit – inside for the most part – and hope the State Department can get them on a plane.
“Please just spread the word about the people [who] are stuck here in foreign countries, not just Peru,” Fioretti said. “There’s a lot of Americans stuck in other places as well.”
The Associated Press and Gabriella Khalaj of Cronkite News contributed to this report.