Traveling During a Travel Ban and World Pandemic

When I flew from the U.S. to Switzerland on March 4th, 2020, to start my fifth house and cat sit from TrustedHousesitters, the Corona-virus was not yet a world Pandemic. I was a little nervous flying into Geneva, which is just 60 miles from Northern Italy. At that time, Northern Italy was under quarantine. I spent a few days in Geneva, and things were pretty standard. I went to museums and did a walking tour of the old town. Someone told me that they canceled events over 1,000 people. That week an annual motor-show that brings in over 600,000 people from around the world across ten days was canceled.

The house and cat sit in Bulle, Switzerland was scheduled to start on March 9th and would last for two weeks. However, two days prior, the homeowner notified me that she and her husband might be canceling their trip to the Maldives because there were new restrictions for travelers from Italy. While they had been living in Switzerland for over nine years, their passports were Italian. They assured me that I would still be able to stay with them if they had to cancel.

I took the train to Bulle (just under 2 hours away) to start the house/cat sit on March 9th. When I arrived, Irene and Marco picked me up from the train station and took me back to their house. They explained that they just confirmed that morning that people with Italian passports would likely have issues getting off the plane in the Maldives because they couldn’t prove that they had not been in Italy in the last 14 days, so they were able to cancel their flight for a refund. 

What should I do?

I was stressed out because I had planned to stay at their house to watch their place and cats for two weeks, and then I would continue to explore Europe for a few months. However, Irene and Marco could not have been more accommodating to me. They understood that the situation was developing and changing worldwide on a daily basis, and there were a lot of things that were still unknown. Their family was in Italy, so they knew what restrictions were being placed and assumed it would hit the rest of Europe and the U.S. soon.

They explained that Italy has a sizable Chinese population, and many people traveled to and from China for the Chinese New Year. The government had warned about the virus and social distancing, but Italians weren’t taking it very seriously (similar to most countries). Marco explained that their culture in Italy involves going to the grocery store daily. They encouraged their family to go less often, but it was a struggle to get people to change their habits. When the government announced that the North of Italy would be on lock down, many people took trains to the south because their family was there, or they had a house on the ocean. If they were required to go through quarantine, they wanted to be there instead. Unfortunately, this spread the virus.

Switzerland

Irene and Marco made me dinner and drinks that evening as we talked about options. One of them would work from home while the other took the car to work so they could avoid public transportation. They assured me that not only could I stay in their comfortable guest room for the whole two weeks that were originally planned, but that I would be able to stay as long as I needed to. Their hospitality was amazing. They were in their early 40s, athletic, and had fantastic travel stories from around the world. We got along well, and I was fortunate to be there.

Over the next five days, I spent time exploring some of the areas nearby by going for a hike, tasting some chocolate at a factory, and visiting a castle. Each day, the news of more and more closures around the world continued to pour in.

Then I heard Missouri had its first case of the virus. My family is in the St. Louis area, and it’s where I was staying when I wasn’t traveling. The corona-virus case was from a girl who had flown from Italy to Chicago and then took the train to St. Louis. Even though officials told her family to quarantine while they waited for the results, her dad decided to go to a father-daughter dance at school and a party the day prior. Suddenly, St. Louis had closures because of the possible spread. 

Within a couple of days, my family texted me about President Trump’s announcement that they were going to start banning flights coming from Europe for 30 days. Marco and Irene told me how Italy was escalating. Most things were closed, except for grocery stores and pharmacies. People could only go to a grocery store in their district. When entering the store, a police officer guarded the entrance, and people were let in one-by-one while wearing masks. The police instructed them to stay six feet away from each other. Marco stressed that if the U.S. didn’t start to take the virus more seriously, they’d be in the same situation because they were just a few weeks behind them.

Seeing how much of Italy was closed, I figured it was only a matter of time until those same closures, like all public places, would hit Switzerland and the U.S. The border with Italy wasn’t closed. Irene and Marco helped talk through my options and still reassured me that no matter what, I had a place to stay.

I weighed my options and realized that if everything started to close in the rest of Europe, there wasn’t much point in being there. If I had to be on lock-down, I’d rather be close to my family. Besides, I could tell that things were going to continue to get worse, and I didn’t want to end up in a situation where I couldn’t get back home. The morning after I bought my plane ticket, Switzerland announced that starting Monday (in two days) all schools would be closed for weeks, people needed to work from home, and they would close all public places. It was a Friday, and that evening I noticed a bar was packed full of people, likely getting in their last outing for weeks or months. 

I wouldn’t be able to get a flight before the ban took place. Once the ban was in effect, the people allowed to come from Europe to the U.S. were U.S. citizens, their spouses, and permanent residents. However, they would have to go through a health screening. That evening, I booked a flight back to the U.S. The prices doubled before my very eyes, making me feel panicked. Then I realized that booking a round-trip ticket was thousands of dollars cheaper. 

I had one day left to explore before all of the closures and before my flight. That evening, Irene and Marco made me delicious homemade Italian pizza and Tiramisu. We had a wonderful time getting to know each other more and bonding over such a wild time in our world history. The next morning, Marco drove me an hour to the train station in Lausanne at 5:15 am. On the way, the large digital sign above the highway said that they had closed the border to Italy. I took the 40-minute train ride to Geneva to board my flight back to the U.S.

The flight from Geneva to Newark, NJ

When I arrived at the airport in Geneva on March 14th, I checked in with United. The computer screen made me confirm that I had not been to Europe in the last 14 days. I asked an attendant because I was currently in Europe. She said that I should just click “no” because I was a U.S. citizen, and I couldn’t continue check-in without clicking “no.” The airport was busier than I expected, but I suppose everyone was trying to get home. I got in line to check my bag, and while there were only about ten people in line, it took 30 minutes because there was only one employee checking people in for economy. I suspect people had a lot of questions.

My bag was slightly overweight because I had purchased some items in Switzerland and expected to have things like my shampoo and conditioner empty by the time I left. I threw away my shampoo and conditioner to get my bag to the acceptable weight. The man behind the counter was friendly and started asking me questions:

“I have to ask you. Why were you here?”

“I was just on vacation,” I answered. 

“Where did you go while you were here?”

“Geneva and Bulle. Oh and Gruyere.”

“Oh, nice! Where did you go there?”

“The castle and the alien museum.”

“Oh! You did the alien museum?! How was it?”

“It was really cool! There are a lot of drawings on display. I only saw part of the Alien movies, but I’ve seen Prometheus a few times, and it was cool to see where all the designs came from, like the ship.”

“Did you go to the bar?”

“Yeah! It was awesome. I sat in the huge chair at the bar, and it was surprisingly comfortable.”

“Really? They look uncomfortable.”

“That’s what I thought, but they hug your back. I felt like a queen in that huge chair!” 

After our conversation, I headed towards security. Before I could enter the line, a man checked my ticket and passport and asked, “Where have you been?” I explained that I had only been in Switzerland. He asked me how long I had been there, and I responded just a week. After going through security, I quickly ate a pastry and drank a coffee, and it was time to board the plane. 

Before being allowed to get on the plane, a security man asked me where my purse had been since arriving at the airport. Surprised by the question, I said, “With me.” He confirmed, “The whole time?” I answered, “Yes.” Then I was allowed to board.

I paid extra money to upgrade to economy plus so I’d get an additional six inches of legroom. The plane was only about one-third full. Everyone started to move from economy to economy plus, and the flight attendant explained to me that there were too many empty seats, and too many people switching places to enforce it. She recommended that I email customer care to ask for a refund of my upgrade.

My window seat was comfortable, and nobody was directly next to me. United offered free movies, and I watched, “Jumanji 2,” “Zoolander 2,” and “Little Joe.” I slept for about two hours, and there was a fair amount of turbulence. 

Landing in Newark, NJ

After almost nine hours, we landed in Newark, NJ, around 1:00 pm. It was the very first day of the travel ban from Europe, so nobody knew what to expect. We all stood up and started to grab our bags from the overhead. Then, an announcement came overhead, “We ask that everyone sit back down in their assigned seat. The CDC is going to board the plane and hand you some paperwork and take your temperature.”

A man behind me said, “This is unreal.” We all put our bags back and sat in our original seats. A man from the CDC boarded the plane with a mask on his face. He handed me a laminated card with information about the corona-virus. It listed symptoms and what to do to reduce the spread. Next, he gave me a form to fill out that requested my information, where I had been, what flight I was on, and if I had any symptoms. 

Then an announcement came on the overhead again, “We’re going to ask that you disembark the plane, and someone will take your temperature once you’re off.” We all grabbed our bags and walked off the plane and into the terminal. We walked down a long hallway that was isolated and then formed a line. It was a line that was heading into customs, but I couldn’t see the beginning of the line because it was curved.

The Health Screening

An armed police officer with a face mask stood there, monitoring everyone. There was a sign just ahead of me saying “no photos,” and “no cell phone use.” However, there was a popup display advertising an app to download to help get through customs faster. I wasn’t into that section yet, so I was on my phone logging in the United app to see my next flight information. 

Suddenly, I heard the police officer shouting something along of the lines of, “Stop it.” I looked up, and the officer seemed to be looking at me. Confused, I looked back down at my phone. He shouted again, “That’s right; just continue.” He shook his head and was visibly angry. I looked around to see who he was talking to and realized maybe it was me. I put my phone away and scoffed at the sign that told me to download an app…on my phone. 

An employee was pushing a woman wearing a face mask who appeared to be in her late 50s in a wheelchair. The woman in the wheelchair asked the employee to keep her six feet away from people. The employee slowly pushed the wheelchair up the line, while also pushing it away from people. The police officer shouted at her to get back in line.

The woman in the wheelchair snapped back, “You are not following CDC guidelines of keeping people six feet away from each other. I’m just trying to stay away from them.” The woman was not technically in line and kept inching her way up. The officer walked towards her and snapped at her again to get back in line. They continued to argue while we all watched. The woman explained the guideline again, so the officer said, “If you want a clearance of six feet, you can go to the back of the line. Either that or stay in the line. But you’re getting back into the line.”

The woman had the employee put her in the line, which was behind the man behind me. That man loudly complained, “You don’t get to cut the line!” The woman didn’t respond, and the man continued to complain to us that she was cutting the line. I didn’t care because I purposely booked a four-hour layover to account for the additional screening. I wasn’t that bothered about the six feet clearance because we weren’t in a typical zig-zag line that you see at airports. It was one long line, so I felt the distance was acceptable.

As I slowly inched up in the line, I listened to a young guy talk with a young woman in front of me. He was in France for a class and was supposed to be there for three months. They would do some traveling around as part of the course. He was only there for a short while when he decided to book his flight home before they traveled to Kuwait. He told the woman that they would continue the class, but online. It would be following French time, which was going to be challenging to follow in the U.S. The young woman explained that she had just flown to Geneva for work and was barely there when she heard about the ban, so she turned around and left. 

While I was in line, a couple of police officers wearing masks monitored the line and people. One man approached the angry officer and explained that he might miss his connecting flight and asked if he could go to the front. The officer said, “No. If I take you to the front like you’re a VIP, then everyone is going to ask me to take them to the front. You will stay where you are.”

I talked with the man behind me about my options for getting to St. Louis and explained that the tickets were too expensive to St. Louis, so I booked my flight to Chicago and rented a car to drive the five hours back. He pulled out his phone and checked some flights. There were cheap Southwest Airlines flights to St. Louis, but they left LaGuardia. It would take too long and cost too much to get to that airport. I checked the trip from Chicago to St. Louis, and there was a $99 flight on Southwest Airlines, but it left Midway, and I was flying into O’Hare. It was the same problem – it would take too long and cost too much to switch airports. 

Then I arrived at the beginning of the line. I approached a tall desk which had two men. One was at the rope, six feet away from the desk while the other sat behind the tall desk. As the man behind the counter asked me questions, the man standing at the rope took my temperature. I handed in the form that I filled out and answered his questions about where I had been and if I had any symptoms. My temperature came back normal, and they recommended that I quarantine for 14 days, just in case. Then they told me that I could head towards customs.

Flight from Newark to Chicago

I was past the quarantine section and joined the regular customs line. I waited just a few minutes and then made it through customs. I got my suitcase, which was waiting for me with many other suitcases. I had to recheck my bag to Chicago, and the bag check was located just past the customs exit for those connecting on domestic flights. I walked over to the United counter and spent 30 minutes seeing how much it would cost if I switched my flight to St. Louis. They are on different routes even though Chicago is not that far from St. Louis. It would cost $240 to switch my flight, so I decided to keep the Chicago flight. 

As I waited at the counter, I listened to other people walk up to an employee. Many expressed concern that they just missed their domestic flight because of how long they waited in the quarantine line. As one young woman walked away angry (to re-book her flight upstairs), the employee looked at the employee helping me and said, “The last two days, everyone is upset because they all just want to get home.” 

After rechecking my bag, I went through security. By the time I ate a sandwich, it was time to board my flight to Chicago. My four-hour layover went fast because of everything I had to do. I sat down in my seat and realized this flight was going to be almost full. I pulled out my travel-sized packet of Clorox wipes and wiped down my seat, window, and the tray in front of me.

The young guy behind me peaked his head towards me and asked, “Do you have any more of those wipes? Can I have one?” I joked, “Sure, but it’ll cost you $50.” As I got a wipe from my purse, I explained that I read a story about a couple in Vancouver who filled their pickup truck full of Clorox wipes and gouged people when reselling them. They made $100,000 and said they were just hustlers.

The young guy said, “And I thought Canadians were nice.” I said, “I blame Costco. They shouldn’t allow people to buy pallets of items when a crisis is going on.” I handed the guy a wipe and told him not to worry; it was free of charge. Then I heard a guy standing up two rows ahead of me ask his travel mates, “Ok, who has the wipes?” He wiped down his seat before sitting down. 

Driving from Chicago to St. Louis

The two and a half hour flight to Chicago went pretty quickly. I was able to promptly get my bag and take the shuttle to Alamo car rental. When I arrived at the car rental building that housed many car rental companies, it was almost empty. I booked an economy car, but they offered me a free upgrade to a mid-size car. I chose an Altima with Missouri license plates since I would be leaving the car in Missouri. 

I started the drive at 7:30 pm and thought I could make it the five and a half-hour drive back. I went through the drive-through at McDonald’s for some food and water and kept driving. After three hours, I was struggling to stay awake. Exhaustion set in and hit me like a ton of bricks. I was afraid that I was starting to hallucinate while getting tunnel vision driving through the flat farmland. 

I pulled over in a small town, Lincoln, IL, and booked a hotel on Orbitz. When I walked to the counter, two guys explained that the hotel canceled the breakfast buffet because of the virus, but they’d offer to-go items if I went to the breakfast area by 9:00 am. I took a shower, collapsed on the bed, and almost instantly fell asleep. It had been 24 hours of travel since I left Bulle, Switzerland, and I had only slept for two hours. The night before leaving, I got about four hours of sleep.

The next morning, I went to the breakfast area for my to-go breakfast at 9:00 am. There were just some yogurts. The hotel was mostly a ghost town. I asked the woman at the front desk about breakfast, and she explained that they didn’t have many options. She went to the back and got me a granola bar and some tangerines. We talked about the situation, and she explained that she just started working at the hotel a month ago as a second job. She said, “My regular job during the week is a lunch lady at a high school.” 

She explained to me that their local government canceled schools starting Monday (it was Sunday). They were concerned for the children because many of them are bused in from rural towns nearby, and they will no longer have access to food. She was working with some others and putting together sack lunches for kids. Typically, she works in the section of the cafeteria that prepares sack lunches anyway.

The woman explained that they usually put peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, and veggies with ranch dressing. Now, they couldn’t put the ranch dressing inside. I asked why not, and she said, “Well, if they don’t keep it cold, it could go bad, and they’d get sick, and we’d be liable. They could sue us. They might leave it in the sun. So we aren’t putting the ranch dressing inside.” 

I was so frustrated by that. I explained to the woman that I spent six months in Australia last year, and it was so lovely to see that they hold people accountable for their actions, and they don’t have the “sue culture” that we have in the U.S. She said, “Well, it might not be common sense to some people, though.” I shook my head, “These are high school students. They should know not to leave ranch dressing in the sun.” In any case, I thought it was a helpful gesture that they were banding together to drive sack lunches to kids in rural towns.

I had another two-hour drive to get to St. Louis and drop off the car. I stopped at a gas station, and while I was filling up my coffee, I overheard the woman behind the counter tell a customer, “I know. People are driving great distances to get home. One couple came in yesterday and were driving from Maine to Texas!” It felt like I was living in an apocalyptic world. Everywhere I turned, the conversation was about the corona-virus. People like me were all trying to get home. 

I Made it to St. Louis

I dropped off the car near the St. Louis airport, and my parents picked me up. My dad explained that he had bought $350 of food at Walmart. One woman told him, “Will you have enough room in your freezer?” My dad explained that they have a freezer in their garage, and the woman responded, “Us too!” My parents also told me that a couple of days ago, a man at their nearby Walmart was angry that there weren’t enough cashiers, so he punched an employee and then shot a gun at him. The police came and arrested him

I understand people need to buy extra food because of places shutting down for weeks. However, I don’t understand this hoarding mentality that I’ve seen all over social media, especially with the toilet paper. There are people like me who are returning and need some supplies. I’m not asking for a ton; I just want food and toilet paper to last me a week. In Italy, their grocery stores and pharmacies are still open. There is no need to hoard. But I understand people’s fear because every day there is more news on closures. It’s the unknown that is scaring people. 

I’ve been back for one day, and St. Louis has now canceled schools and said that restaurants and bars would need to close for eight weeks. They have canceled events that have more than fifty people. There is talk that states will start closing borders. Irene also told me that France, Germany, and Spain have a lot of cases of the virus. Switzerland now has the most cases and deaths per capita after Italy. Within two days of me leaving the country, they have instituted a lock-down. People aren’t allowed to go for a walk unless they carry I.D., they have to stay in their neighborhood, and they have to keep five meters apart. I left just in time and am quarantining myself.

Where Does This Leave Us?

We are living in an unprecedented time. On the one hand, maybe our “go, go, go” society needs a break. Perhaps this forceful rest will help us all reflect on what’s important. Ideally, the closures will help to stop the spread of the virus. 

But I can’t help but be worried about the financial cost. I have my house listed on Airbnb, and at first, I didn’t have cancellations. Most of my guests are relatively local and coming from Midwest states. Once they canceled conferences, concerts, and events, my guests started withdrawing. I had to notify my house cleaners, who will no longer get paid either. I still have to pay my mortgage and utilities, so this will be financially rough. I won’t get a payroll relief. Many people are in worse situations, and these closures will bankrupt both individuals and companies. 

Watching the news and some social media posts, I get frustrated when I see people pointing the finger. Yes, governments could have done some things better. But there were good things too. President Trump blocked flights coming from China at the very beginning of this. Yesterday on the news, I saw an anchor at the airport in Los Angeles interviewing a woman who came in from a flight from Europe. She was complaining about the long line and how they weren’t following the CDC guidelines about staying six feet away from each other. In regards to the screening, she claimed they didn’t ask her any questions about her health or where she had been. The news anchor closed by saying the majority of people thought the safety measures were excellent. Then why focus on one woman who was complaining?

My experience at Newark wasn’t perfect, but overall I thought that the CDC, the airport, the employees, and the airlines were doing the best they could in the situation. Things have developed more rapidly, and more extreme than any of us have ever experienced. Give people a break, be a little understanding, and realize we are all human. It’s a scary time, and I can’t change these things. Instead, I will focus on positive things. 

I have a place to stay, and I can spend time getting caught up writing about my travel adventures. I am beyond honored that TrustedHousesitters introduced me to such amazing people. Irene and Marco’s generosity serves as an example of how we should all act. Their much-anticipated vacation was canceled due to the virus, but they thought about me and ensured that it did not impact me as best they could. Their hospitality was above and beyond, they were so friendly and fun, and they gave me hope in humanity. They allowed a (mostly) complete stranger to stay with them for a week, made her food, reassured her, and provided transportation in the early morning hours.

Irene and Marco serve as a reminder that sometimes world tragedies can bring out the best in people. I will forever be grateful for their kindness. There are things to be thankful for, like people making positive impacts by helping those in need, even amid a world pandemic. You just might have to look for them. Or better yet, maybe you can be one of them.

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Published by Christy

I quit my corporate job and sold my house in Los Angeles so I can travel and write. I grew up in St. Louis, MO and moved to the Los Angeles area after college. I worked in the business world for 15 years. Follow along to see pictures and hear stories of people I've met along my journey so far - driving to Alaska.

17 thoughts on “Traveling During a Travel Ban and World Pandemic

  1. What an ordeal! You were lucky to get home. We live in both North Carolina and Northern Italy and we can’t go back to Italy for the foreseeable future even though we have paid tickets. Things have gotten very bad in all of Europe but especially Italy, Stammi bene!

  2. A wonderful piece of writing, I must say. Thank you so very much for sharing your experience, I so do appreciate it in every which way. Take Care and look after yourself. A

  3. Hi Christy thank you I am enjoying your blog so sad I was in Japan got back a week before it got bad luckily .Planned to go to Europe wedding in May but expecting it to be cancelled .Looking forward to hearing more about your travels stay safe Wendy

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