This is what living within a big historical event looks like
When President Trump made his proclamation banning travel from Europe just as my husband and I were leaving the country, we were alarmed. But when we looked at the text of the proclamation and realized the ban would not apply to U.S. citizens, we breathed a little more easily, knowing we would be able to get home again.
We were in Switzerland with my youngest son, and our circumstances over the next few days would change daily as European countries began closing borders and challenge after challenge to returning home unfolded. The whirlwind was capped by a shocking lack of vigilance by U.S. health authorities at an American airport.
Since our region of Seattle had already been hit with the spread of coronavirus, we had not been taking any travel plans lightly. But we are planning a move to Switzerland in the summer, and this trip was to prepare for that: to look for housing options and to give our son a chance to visit his future school.
What we didn’t count on was the quick and hard response of European nations as they saw the grave situation in Italy unfold. On Thursday (March 12) we listened to French President Macron announce national school closures until further notice. When we arrived at my brother-in-law’s house the next day, Switzerland had just announced school closures for at least two weeks. My son’s class visits would be off, but we thought we might still be able to visit the building and meet the director.
On Saturday (March 14) we visited a rental apartment and went for a walk with my mother-in-law, trying to keep the recommended distance, which affectionate Swiss mothers-in-law don’t necessarily appreciate, no matter what’s at stake. That afternoon the Swiss government reduced the allowed number for public gatherings from 100 to 50. Meanwhile the U.K. was added to the U.S. travel ban.
Our church in France had canceled church services, so we made plans to have a small outdoor service with some friends in a backyard. We watched the online sermon, then sang hymns and prayed together, all sitting a healthy distance apart. Not being able to greet people with “la bise” is hard on a French soul. So they invented an elaborate heel tapping dance and gave us a “kiss coude” or “elbow kiss.”
One friend’s grandmother had just died (not from the coronavirus), and the service was going to be in two days in the north of France. Laurence planned to go with her kids and stay with her parents, but her father wanted guarantees that they didn’t have any symptoms. He’d heard the local hospitals were filling up, and doctors weren’t intubating anyone over 75. Laurence decided to go on her own. As the day progressed and she heard news reports, she changed her plans again to go only for the day, then not at all. Later that evening she passed along reports from cousins working in healthcare in eastern and northern France of overwhelmed hospitals and ICU beds being set up in hallways.
We planned to spend the next nights at my mother-in-law’s house, but once there started questioning that plan. Were we being wise? The government was now recommending isolation for anyone over 60 and ordered all restaurants and non-essential stores to close. Gatherings of more than five people were prohibited, apart from large families. We decided to leave my mother-in-law’s in the morning and go back to our friend in France as she had spare guest rooms.
The Swiss government announced it would close its borders to non-citizens on Monday. We spent another restless night, realizing that we really needed to get home as soon as possible if we didn’t want to wait out the confinement abroad. I began thinking with dread that maybe we would have to stay, spending the next weeks or possibly months with no home and separated from our older children.
On Monday I spent hours dialing British Airways only to get kicked off their phone system before even getting in the hold queue. Finally through, I was able to change our tickets to Wednesday. I breathed a sigh of relief. That evening Macron made another speech ensuring the government would guarantee employment and income and announcing stricter measures of isolation in France beginning noon the next day.
But in the morning, our friend woke us up to tell us the stricter measures had been laid out in a text message sent out to the entire nation: To leave your home you needed a written dated attestation that you were going out for work, groceries, or healthcare. The French border was closing. “You need to cross the border before noon,” our friend said. While quickly packing our suitcases, British Airways notified us our flight from Basel to London was canceled. Most of the other London flights had also been canceled.
We threw our bags in the rental car and headed to Zurich, where there were more options. I got on the phone again, and an agent put us on a flight from Zurich the next morning. By the time we stopped for gas, that flight had been canceled too, along with all the others for the next day. We heard rumors that Switzerland would be closing its airports. I wondered where we would spend the confinement period if we couldn’t leave. Our French friend had promised us that if we couldn’t leave Zurich, she’d bring us back, leave us on the Swiss side of the border in the forest, let us walk across the border, and pick us up on the French side. That was a little too much like all the World War II stories I’ve ever read for my comfort. We had to keep trying.
With one flight still scheduled that evening, we drove straight to the airport, calling the airline on the way, and to our relief got ticketed for the flight. The next several hours we self-isolated on an airport bench, praying that flight wouldn’t be canceled. All the airport restaurants were closed. The stores that were open selling food and pharmaceuticals had signs in front stating only five people could be in the shop at a time.
When we finally left Zurich, the relief felt like that in the movie Argo when the plane takes off. Landing in London airport later was surreal. Aside from a lot of hand sanitizer stations and a few posters and flyers listing the symptoms of COVID-19, there were no indications of anything out of the ordinary. People ate in restaurants as usual and crowded together on the escalator. We wore our homemade masks to walk through the airport and bought food to eat in our hotel room.
The next day’s flight left as scheduled. Airline agents made sure everybody had U.S. passports. On the plane the crew passed out Traveler Health Declaration forms that we would need to leave the plane. The crew announced that with the new restrictions we would be screened upon entry and told to self-quarantine for 14 days. On the form was a space for a measured temperature.
Information on the Department of Homeland Security website says travelers should expect to encounter enhanced entry screening, to face questions about their medical history and current condition, and to leave their contact information for health authorities. “Passengers will then be given written guidance about COVID-19 and directed to proceed to their final destination, and immediately home-quarantine in accordance with CDC best practices.”
When we finally arrived in Seattle on Wednesday night, I was relieved and happy to undergo the “enhanced entry screening,” even if it meant a long wait like those I’d read about at Chicago’s O’Hare airport on Saturday. But it never happened. At the end of the gangway, people in protective gowns, masks, and robes met us with a smile, took our health forms and said, “Welcome to Seattle.” Customs and Immigration were as usual, except that the immigration officer wore a mask. No one gave us any written guidance. No one took our contact information form.
The Seattle Times reported on March 19 on this apparent lack of screening at Seatac Airport, where other travelers have had experiences similar to mine. The Times said the three agencies involved, Customs and Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security, and the Centers for Disease Control each referred to another agency when asked about the screening process. The CDC said the DHS had taken over the screening operational efforts. DHS sent inquiries on to the CBP. A CBP spokesperson told the Times that CBP only facilitated the screening. To find out about guidelines on how they are performed, the spokesperson said to contact the CDC.
Other travelers returning through Los Angeles and other airports over the weekend reported cursory “screenings” like ours. But on Sunday, President Trump tweeted, “We are doing very precise Medical Screenings at our airports ... It is very important that we be vigilant and careful. We must get it right. Safety first!"
In its first day of restrictions, France passed out 4,000 fines of 135 euros for noncompliance. Authorities have now denied access to walking paths, forests, and parks. As of Friday, Switzerland added fines to enforce its restrictions on gatherings. The speed and force with which these regulations have been put into place and accepted by the population is almost as chilling as the virus itself.
In the end, my experience was about merely trying to get from one safe place to another. As I waited in the airport in Zurich, I thought about all the people, who for whatever reason—virus or no—are trying to get somewhere safe. I have new compassion for refugees fleeing crises, only to face this new crisis in overcrowded camps.
No one ever did tell us to quarantine. But we’re doing it anyway, here in our own Home Sweet Home.