MAYNARD — During a typical day teaching English at the bilingual school she’s been working at in El Progreso, Honduras, Jessica Stramaglai heard a rumor the government would be closing down schools for two weeks. Stramaglai said she paid it no mind since rumors about the government were frequent. Hours later, that rumor turned out to be true and things soon became much more complicated thanks to the coronavirus.
“I had heard about it in February,” Stramaglai said on Sunday. “I had heard of it but didn’t fully understand what was going on and it wasn’t huge at the time.”
It then took her eight days, seven canceled flights and numerous calls to any officials she and her mother could find to get her back home. Stramaglai is one of many who dealt with national and international travel bans put in place to stifle the spread of COVID-19.
On March 26, the State Department issued a Level 4 “do not travel” advisory, the highest travel advisory the department can make, which suggested citizens do not make any international trips.
As of Sunday, there were 4,955 known cases of the virus in Massachusetts out of 122,653 cases in the U.S.
Stramaglai was not alone in her struggle to get home. Rep. Lori Trahan said Sunday she and her office were notified of about 94 constituents this month who were stranded in foreign countries due to travel bans and were looking for help trying to get home. Trahan said her office started getting calls in mid-March about people stuck in Morocco, Peru, Poland and Germany. These constituents ranged from students traveling abroad to people on business trips or volunteers.
“There are unique situations happening in each country,” Trahan said. “When you have loved ones that are here and, depending on which country you’re in, there may or may not be Wi-Fi or the cellphone reception might not be great or you may or may not have folks on the ground being cooperative. You really have to be scrappy and persistent and calm in looking for ways to bring loved ones home.”
Even Trahan’s office isn’t immune to coronavirus travel trouble. Sara Khun Leng, Trahan’s constituent services director, has been trying to figure out how to get her mother back to the U.S. from Battambang, Cambodia. Leng said her mother, who suffers from both type 2 diabetes and thyroid disease, was supposed to fly back to the states on March 12, before coronavirus cases started popping up internationally. Since Battambang is a remote location without much tourism, Leng said she thought it would be best for her mom to stay there for a bit.
“Now that this has blown-up even more severely, that’s when I got nervous and said, ‘OK, let’s figure out a way to get her back to the states as soon as possible,’” she said.
Leng said she managed to book her mother a flight back to Massachusetts for May 1, though she admits to still being nervous about people in Battambang being able to care for her mom if she has a medical emergency.
Earlier this month, though, some weren’t so fortunate in getting commercial flights. Ray Bahr and Beth Rosenzweig of Carlisle were enjoying their vacation scuba diving on the Honduran island of Utila and were scheduled to return home March 16. Unfortunately, that return flight was the day after the Honduran government issued a travel ban preventing new visitors from entering and advising locals to stay put. Though Bahr said the ban didn’t forbid foreign visitors from leaving, his and Rosenzweig’s American Airlines flight was canceled.
“I was really nervous because Utila is a very small, viewed by some as a third-world country,” Bahr said. “There’s one doctor and the doctor is there to handle injuries due to diving accidents, he’s not a virologist. Once the virus made its way to the island, it was going to be pretty awful. The American government was nowhere to be seen. We had no form of communication, we had no information. Now they’ve ratcheted-up their presence but there was absolutely nothing that they did to help us.”
Meanwhile in El Progreso, Stramaglai and other American staff were ordered to return to the U.S. on March 15, two hours before the government announced its travel ban. This caused flight after flight Stramaglai tried to book to be canceled and left her stranded in Honduras for a week. Although Stramaglai’s parents tried reaching out to government officials for help, she said she and her co-workers felt “left in the dark.”
“It was really hard for me,” she said. “When I heard the borders were closing, I felt stuck. Honduras is a developing country and its health care cannot take care of people in a mass setting, like a pandemic. They don’t have those resources, unfortunately.”
With virus cases continuing to rise and countries starting to close their doors to travelers, Trahan and her staff are still offering support. The representative said those concerned about getting their loved ones home from overseas can call her office at 978-459-0101 or find more information on her website at trahan.house.gov. Meanwhile, Trahan said her office continues to work with the State Department to help bring people home.
As for Stramaglai, she managed to get home via an emergency evacuation organized through the U.S. Embassy on March 22. The flight took her and her fellow Americans to Alexandria, La., where they had to stay overnight before Stramaglai caught a flight from there to Dallas and then flew back to Boston on March 23.
“I want to go back and finish out the year with my school kids,” Stramaglai said. “We didn’t even get say goodbye to them properly and it’s really heartbreaking.”
Bahr and Rosenzweig, on the other hand, got connected to a charter company called Global Guardian through an American film crew also in Utila. Bahr said Global Guardian offered them a chance to buy tickets on chartered flights leaving Utila to another island called Roatán, where they flew to Miami on March 22. Bahr said they stayed overnight before catching a flight back to Boston on March 23.
“We met other people in Utila that didn’t have the financial abilities to get home,” Rosenzweig said.
“We were lucky,” Bahr said. “A lot of people didn’t have the same means. Since when should Americans not be taken care of?”