Panic from abroad: How the European travel ban impacted my spring break

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This opinion piece is part of a series of perspectives from current or past staff of The Brown and White about the impact of the coronavirus overseas.

It was 2 a.m. when I flew open their bedroom door in a panic.

“We have to leave the country tomorrow,” I announced in shock.

My friends’ groggy faces began to process my words, as I explained that President Trump had just announced a travel ban from all European countries.

Delaney McCaffrey was in Spain when news of the European travel ban broke. Her experience, like that of many others overseas, was cut short due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Within moments, we were in a frenzy — FaceTiming our parents and calling travel agents. We watched the prices of flights home climb by the minute, spiking at over $2,500 for a ticket out the next day.

Fear mounted as texts rushed in from concerned friends and relatives back home. At that moment, we had no idea what we were going to do.

When I planned my spring break trip to Spain back in October, the only Corona I had ever heard of was the beer. For months, I was looking forward to the trip, excitedly awaiting the chance to travel and spend time with my friends who live far away.

I took the encouraged precautions, washing my hands often and wiping down the plane seats with disinfectant wipes. But at the time, I really didn’t feel like a big deal. After a few days of exploring historic cities and beautiful beaches, with little Wi-Fi in between, the threat of the virus felt as far away as we were.

On Monday, March 9, news started flooding in that the number of cases in Spain had doubled overnight to over 1,000, most of which were in Madrid — where we were heading in just a few days.

Two days later, I was sitting in a park in Seville when we got a call from our friend living in Madrid. He told us that cases had skyrocketed and there was a good chance the city would go into full lockdown soon. We were supposed to catch a flight there the next morning.

Graphic by Delaney McCaffrey. Source: worldometers.info

Luckily, we had a friend in the area who offered to let us stay with him while we figured out a plan. I rerouted my flight home to exclude Madrid, and we headed to the southern coast with our friend. In the midst of the craziness, I was happy to embrace the adventure. It felt like it was all going to work out.

Later that night, President Trump was set to give a speech announcing new restrictions. I could tell national tensions were growing, but I never could have anticipated what happened next.

Seconds after the speech began, the texts started flooding in.

“TRAVEL BAN FROM EUROPE”

“Will you be able to get home??”

“You have to get out of there now!”

The worst of the panic came from absolute confusion. When you’re placed in a high stakes situation, it is essential to have specific, accurate information in order to best evaluate your options. In those alarming moments, we had quite the opposite.

The first thing I processed was that all travel from Europe to the United States would be suspended for the next 30 days, and the new rules would go into effect Friday at midnight. This meant we had a little over 24 hours to get out.

There were two key pieces of information that didn’t come until later. First, the restrictions did not apply to the United Kingdom and second, U.S. citizens were completely exempt, a fact that was not mentioned in the speech at all.

When we found out the U.K. was exempt from the ban, we realized we had found the perfect loophole. A flight we had bought mere hours before was from Gibraltar, a tiny little peninsula on the Spanish coastline that happened to be a U.K. territory, to London, where we would catch our connecting flight home.

While the cost of next-day flights increased by the minute, keeping our original itinerary, while risky, seemed like the best option. Finding out the new rules didn’t even apply to U.S. citizens further calmed my nerves. Still shaking from the adrenalin, I tried my best to fall asleep.

The next few days I was glued to the headlines. Europe was blindsided by the news of the travel ban and more countries were starting to take restrictive measures. I set Google alerts and tracked down local newspapers to ensure we would have warning if the border between Spain and Gibraltar was going to close.

When it was finally time to leave, we crossed the border without a hitch.

The first thing I saw after landing in London on Saturday, March 14, was that the U.K. would be added to the travel ban starting Monday. We would be on one of the last flights out the next morning.

Not only that, but a few hours after we left, Spain announced a nationwide shutdown.  

When I finally landed in Newark, the intensive health screening I anticipated turned out to be a TSA agent quickly scanning my temperature and recommending I stay home for 14 days.

As the days pass in quarantine in my childhood home in New Jersey, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the baffling experience that was my spring break.

I’ll admit I was naïve. I’ll admit I was putting myself and others in danger. But a lot of that can only be seen in hindsight. The truth is, there were tons of voices impacting how I perceived the virus over the course of the past month, and those perceptions changed every single day.

I was crushed when I found out Lehigh was moving to online classes for the rest of the semester. I felt robbed of my last few months as a student, but I now understand how essential these measures are if we have any hope of getting through this.  

We have never experienced something like this before, and it’s so hard to process something that has the power to fundamentally change every aspect of our lives in the blink of an eye. All we can do is wash our hands, stay inside, and try to ride out this pandemic one day at a time.

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