Utahns stranded in Peru after air travel canceled

(Courtesy of Stewart Aitchison) Utah resident Ann Aitchison (far side of table) and other stranded travelers search their phones for updates about the closure of Peru's borders, which left them stranded in the country since Monday.

Stewart Aitchison was on his way to Machu Picchu with his wife Ann and a tour group chartered by National Geographic Journeys when their guide received a notification. Members of the group from the United Kingdom were told that they had 48 hours to leave the country due to the outbreak of novel coronavirus in Europe.

The Europeans in the group rushed to the airport Saturday and boarded flights for home. The Aitchisons — who split their time between Bluff, Utah, and Flagstaff, Ariz. — were told there were no immediate plans to limit travel to the United States. But that outlook changed abruptly on Sunday when Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra announced the country was closing its borders to slow the outbreak.

The tour group turned back from Machu Picchu and traveled to Cusco where the foreign nationals were told all flights out of the country had been canceled for the next two weeks. American Airlines subsequently announced it was suspending all flights to and from the country until May 6.

Dozens of travelers have since been stranded in a hotel with travel severely limited to the hotel grounds, a pharmacy and small food stand, all on a single city block. Vizcarra’s emergency order places similar restrictions on most people in the country.

The abrupt change in Peru’s policy mirrors a similarly dramatic escalation of response in the United States, one that many travelers did not anticipate when they left the country.

“The U.S. Embassy is now recommending to ‘shelter in place,’ so that’s what we are doing,” Aitchison, an author and naturalist, said. “We have seen Twitter postings [implying] that it’s our fault to have even traveled out of the country. But there were no warnings from the U.S. government about traveling to Peru. If there had been, we would have canceled. The U.S. government ... did not take the virus issue seriously until we already were stranded here."

CNN is reporting there are hundreds of Americans stranded in Peru. The country had 117 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 13 hospitalized, as of Wednesday, according to the U.S. Embassy.

Shawn McDougal, a high school senior from San Tan Valley, Ariz., was in the same tour group as Aitchison when the news came down. He had been celebrating his high school graduation with his father, Mike, who is originally from South Jordan, Utah.

“[The oubreak] wasn’t being treated as a big deal when we left [on March 8],” said McDougal, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “There wasn’t a thought in our mind that things would get worse and countries would start shutting down.”

The stranded Utahns in the group have reached out to their representatives in Congress, and a response from Sen. Mike Lee’s office indicated there were currently no charter flights leaving Peru.

“The Peruvian government has given us way more information than the U.S.," said Jack Shipman, a college student who grew up in Salt Lake City and is currently attending Clemson University in South Carolina. Shipman and two of his classmates took a spring break trip to Peru last week, and they have been waiting in a Cuzco Airbnb since the borders closed.

"If any message needs to get across, it’s that we’ve been kind of left out in the cold from the U.S.,” he said.

Other foreign governments have been more responsive to the situation. On Tuesday, Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced a passenger jet was being sent to Peru to begin evacuating around 1,000 stranded Israelis who were traveling in the country when the borders were closed.

(Courtesy of Jack Shipman) Salt Lake City resident Jack Shipman and two classmates from Clemson University in South Carolina took a spring break trip to Machu Picchu. After Peru closed its borders on Sunday, Shipman has been waiting in a Cusco Airbnb for the travel ban to lift.

President Donald Trump announced restrictions on travel from Europe to the United States last week, but there are exemptions in place for U.S. citizens.

Alec Bagley, son of The Salt Lake Tribune’s longtime political cartoonist Pat Bagley, is currently in Bollendorf, Germany, with his fiancee and her family, five dual Luxembourg-American citizens who live in Salt Lake City. Bagley’s group traveled to the region to renew citizenship paperwork with Luxembourg, and they’ve been in a rental house in far western Germany as the crisis has escalated and restrictions have grown more severe.

Germany recently announced the closing of several border crossings, but the border with France remains open. Bagley said he is still cautiously optimistic his group will be able to travel to Paris next week for their flight back to the U.S.

For now, they, too, are sheltering in place.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

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