Americas

As COVID-19 causes border closures, U.S. pledges to bring home Americans stranded abroad

The State Department has established a “repatriation task force” to try to bring back the thousands of U.S. citizens stranded abroad as international borders are being slammed shut to try to control the spread of the coronavirus, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Late Friday, the U.S. Southern Command said it had sent an Air Force C-130 to evacuate 89 U.S. citizens stuck in Honduras, including members of a U.S. women’s football team.

“We are trying to get Americans back from these places where air travel has been disrupted,” Pompeo said during a press conference earlier in the day. “We will get that done over time.”

Pompeo said it was unclear how many Americans may have been stranded by COVID-19 border closures, but there have been reports of travelers stuck in Peru, Morocco, Honduras, Ecuador and Guatemala, among other countries.

The office of Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said there were likely “tens of thousands” of U.S. citizens stranded abroad. On Thursday, Menendez asked the Trump administration to charter flights to repatriate them.

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Jessica Gee Nosworthy, a 32-year-old resident of Fort Lauderdale, had been in Peru for less than two days when the South American nation announced on Sunday that it was closing its borders for 15 days.

When Nosworthy rushed to the airport the following morning she was confronted with a chaotic scene: thousands of desperate tourists trying to catch the last few planes out.

Since then, Nosworthy has been living at an Airbnb in Peru’s capital, Lima, with six other travelers, fruitlessly trying to book tickets and reach officials at the U.S. Embassy.

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To complicate matters, the entire country is under mandatory quarantine. In the three blocks from her residence to the grocery store —one of the few legally justified trips — she has to go through three police checkpoints.

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“We are hoping the U.S. will take this seriously,” she said of their plight. “The situation is deteriorating; the police and the military are becoming more aggressive, and we’re only four days in.”

Nosworthy, who works on a mega yacht harbored in Fort Lauderdale, said her housemates in Lima — a mix of travelers from the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States — spend their day studying Spanish, doing yoga and planning group meals.

“We’re just trying to keep up morale because this is a terrifying situation,” she said.

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At Friday’s press conference, Pompeo said the U.S. government was “doing a lot of things” to remedy the situation, but he said travelers need to be self-reliant and take commercial flights when possible.

“They traveled there on their own, [so] when they can get back on their own, they ought to try to do that,” he said.

But there are reports of travelers running low on funds and options as they wait for solutions. And getting out of Latin America and the Caribbean is becoming more difficult as regional and international airlines suspend service amid the crash in global travel demand.

The surge in the coronavirus in the hemisphere has led several countries to declare complete lockdowns. On Thursday, Colombia announced it was closing its borders entirely — to both foreigners and Colombians abroad — starting Monday for 30 days. President Iván Duque said he was giving ample notice so people wouldn’t get stuck.

Also on Thursday, the U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 travel warning, telling all U.S. citizens to head home, or be prepared to “ remain abroad for an indefinite period.”

After that announcement, Southwest Airlines informed passengers with reservations to the Turks and Caicos that, if they were to still travel, there was no guarantee when they would be able to return to the U.S.

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And after Haiti abruptly announced the closure of its borders Thursday, starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday, thousands of U.S. citizens and permanent residents were left stuck in the country potentially for a month.

“I’m highly frustrated with the Haitian government right now because my parents are stuck in Haiti and were supposed to come home today,” Guerlenn Moralien said, after her parents called Friday morning to say they weren’t being allowed to return to the U.S. “I feel like the government should let people go home [even if it doesn’t] let them enter the country. I need my parents now. They are old, the country is poor, and I can’t have them getting sick. “

Fortunately for Moralien, a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident, she was able to book her parents on a return flight.

On Friday, American Airlines announced that it would fly empty planes into the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in order to bring back stranded Americans and permanent residents.

Likewise, travelers have reported being stranded in Ecuador’s Galápagos islands, and in southern Argentina.

It’s unclear if the U.S. military flights will pick up other stranded travelers like the ones in Peru.

Nosworthy said there’s a Facebook group for stranded U.S. travelers in Peru that has tallied more than 1,600 people who are in the same boat.

“I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “This is a dire situation.”

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