By SAM MINTZ
Last weekend, several major U.S. airports were crowded with travelers returning home from abroad, dealing with new enhanced health screenings due to the coronavirus pandemic and waiting in long lines which themselves raised public health risks. In some ways, they were the lucky ones.
As airlines have canceled flights and countries have closed borders, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Americans are stranded overseas, plotting how to get back and worrying about their families. And with the State Department having declared that Americans abroad should not expect repatriation flights, their options, beyond waiting out the pandemic, are few.
On Thursday morning, State issued a level four travel advisory — its highest warning — telling Americans they should not travel internationally, and those abroad should come home or shelter in place.
Stephanie Marlin was in Guatemala City visiting a friend when the Guatemalan government closed down its borders, a day before her flight was scheduled to take her back to Nashville. She said she had communicated multiple times with Delta Air Lines about her flight, which was supposed to leave on Tuesday. Delta assured her that she was “gold” and that her flight would leave as planned.
“I really blame the airlines because I could have left earlier and would have left earlier,” Marlin told POLITICO.
The U.S. government hasn’t been much help either. In her first attempts to reach the embassy there, Marlin said she repeatedly got an emailed form response which offered no actionable help. When she called an emergency number, it simply played a recording with the same information.
It wasn’t until she had a friend get in touch with the office of her member of Congress, Jim Cooper, that she was able to speak to a human at the embassy. But even then, the embassy employee said they were powerless to do anything given Guatemala’s border shut down.
Marlin, a retired Spanish teacher, said she has a place to stay and is in good health, but is feeling extreme strain amid an uncertain pathway back home.
“Here I am in a pretty decent and safe situation, and I feel like I’m about to have a heart attack. I can’t sleep, I’m so stressed out,” she said. “It’s the not knowing if and when I’m ever going to get out.”
“Our government, all they seem to care about is the economy. And they are saying ‘don’t count on us to help you,'” Marlin said. “It just seems like if Trump gave a damn, he’d be pressuring these governments to let us out.”
A State Department spokesperson told POLITICO the agency is “considering all options to assist U.S. citizens” stuck in countries which have restricted air travel.
But Bloomberg reported Tuesday that the agency says citizens stranded abroad shouldn’t rely on the U.S. government to help them get home.
“While the department has evacuated hundreds of Americans, mostly from China, U.S. citizens shouldn’t rely on that as a way to get back instead of finding commercial flights,” was State’s message, according to Bloomberg.
In Europe, the Trump administration’s travel ban left an opening for U.S. citizens to return home, but it and other constraints have pushed airlines there to the brink and led to thousands of cancelations.
Jeffrey Ouellette, an IT worker from Austin, Texas, was stranded for a few days in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he was visiting for a technical meeting with other software engineers. His flight from Vilnius to Helsinki, Finland, the first of four legs, was canceled by Finnair. He bought an expensive replacement through Lufthansa, which itself was canceled hours later.
His frustration was boiling over this week, as airlines around the world continue to ask for financial assistance from governments. He said communication was spotty and he was repeatedly assured by airline representatives that his itinerary would be fine, only to see it crumble hours later.
“The whole system is broken,” Ouellette said in an email to POLITICO. “They don’t deserve any bailout money if they can’t fix this kind of stuff or have contingency plans in place to handle it.”
Ouellette on Wednesday had made it to Frankfort, and is booked on a flight Thursday back to the states.
He, too, said that the State Department had been “useless.” “The embassy was not helpful in any way,” he said. Some stranded travelers around the world banding together to strategize in a WhatsApp group called “We’re stuck (Americans),” which Marlin said she’s trying to join.
The Pandemic Is the End of Trumpism
The federal government’s response has led lawmakers to press for answers about what it’s doing to help those Americans stuck overseas. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday, saying he’s heard from “an alarming number of Virginians” unable to return home.
He said he commends the State Department’s efforts so far, but that “Americans need greater support” from the agency.
“I urge you to implement a response effort that is comprehensive, nimble, and timely and gets these Americans home as soon as possible,” Warner said. His spokesperson Nelly Decker said that the Virginia Democrat’s office is assisting upwards of 20 Virginians around the world “with the number growing almost hourly.” And lawmakers from New Jersey and Connecticut also reached out to State to say they’re concerned that the agency isn’t doing enough.
“It appears the United States is lagging behind our allies in terms of providing guidance and assistance,” wrote Connecticut Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal. “We urge you to exercise decisive leadership to provide immediate support for all Americans abroad to ensure the safety, health, and well-being of U.S. citizens and members of the global community.”