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Coronavirus forces Tampa Bay to cancel flights, plans, trips — even weddings

That destination wedding in Italy? Trip to Paris? St. Patrick’s Day in New York City? All canceled. Pandemic fears and travel restrictions are grounding Tampa Bay’s dream trips.

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Ryan McGee and Gretchen Lehman booked the little Italian villa just outside of Rome nearly a year ago. It was to be the venue for the Tampa couple’s April 4 destination wedding.

Now it, and just about everything else, is canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. The wedding’s 70 or so guests all had to cancel their flights and vacation plans.

“It’s been slowly and surely coming to this for the past week,” McGee said, “but with basically the entire country of Italy shut down, and then the travel ban, basically the decision was made for us."

McGee and Lehman were able to get their flights refunded, but whether or not they’ll get their money back for the venue and their wedding vendors is up in the air. Said McGee: “Maybe we’ll get a credit, and go to renew our vows in five years or something like that.”

Now they’re scrambling to organize a new wedding in Tampa as soon as possible. But the best man is in Texas, the matron of honor is in Pittsburgh, and they’re concerned that even traveling and gathering in the U.S. increases the chances that someone will get infected.

Travel has slowed worldwide as the global pandemic grows, spurring nations to restrict their citizens and borders to try to slow the spread of COVID-19. For many in Tampa Bay, President Donald Trump’s announcement Wednesday night that the U.S. would restrict travel from Europe was the final push they needed to pull the plug on their trips.

Bela Shukla, a part time information technology worker in Tampa, was set to leave on a long-planned trip to Spain on Friday with her son and husband, a public school teacher. Then they canceled Wednesday night right after they heard the president address the nation.

Because her flight to Madrid wasn’t canceled, she said she can’t get a refund. They were able to get a refund for train tickets and some hotels, but not all of them. She said her family is out about $3,000.

“That’s more than half our monthly income,” she said. “My health is poor, so I don’t want to get infected. That was our reason.”

More than 1.3 million Americans traveled to Europe in March 2019, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office. The U.S. Travel Association’s economists say 850,000 visitors flew from Europe (excluding the U.K.) to the U.S. over that same period and spent about $3.4 billion here.

Those who had to cancel trips described spending hours on the phone with airlines, hotels and travel agencies and getting confusing answers. Many say they were able to secure partial concessions, credits or refunds. Most said they will lose money.

Steven Gould, owner of Goulds Travel travel agency in Clearwater, said he’d been on hold with various airlines and cruise lines for at least six hours himself on Thursday as he tried to help clients adjust their plans. He said he has never been so busy.

“I personally have never seen anything like this in my 10 years in the business," he said. "But I’m here going to bat for my clients trying to take the burden off them.”

He said travel agents are comparing the coronavirus-inspired crunch to the scramble of 2001, when the 9/11 attacks led officials to shut down North American airspace, grounding domestic flights, redirecting international ones and stranding thousands.

American Travel Advisors Society spokesman Erika Ritcher said travelers should remember that at the start of business Thursday, the travel industry was still working to understand the restrictions announced hours earlier. Things are rapidly developing, she said, and will keep developing. She stressed patience.

Each airline is handling things differently. In general, if a flight is canceled it’s much easier to get a refund than if the flight is still headed to the destination. When it comes to hotels, it’s usually easier to get a refund if cancelling more than 48 hours before check-in.

Tampa’s Bridget Stasonis canceled a trip to meet her two sisters in Seattle this week to celebrate their birthdays. All were born in March.

They decided to cancel a day before their flights. Stasonis couldn’t get a refund on her $500 ticket, but said that after tweeting her complaint to the airline she got a voucher for $200.

“I have a son with asthma,” she said. “My concern was bringing it home.”

Megan Smolenyak of St. Petersburg was supposed to go to New York for St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday. She said she’d been thinking about canceling for weeks. At first, she said she was “mocked for my concerns ... Now people seem to get it.” She feared losing $700 in cancellation fees, but when she tweeted at the airline she said she got a credit to book tickets at a later date.

“I was supposed to go to Paris with my boyfriend on the 24th," said St. Petersburg resident Rachel Lustbader. “We’d been going back and forth about whether to go, but until Trump talked last night there was no way to get a refund. Now our flight has been canceled so we’ll be able to.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, she added: “I’m like 99 percent sure my boyfriend was going to propose."

St. Petersburg’s Erika Stanley was at Tampa International Airport, ready to board her flight to London on Wednesday night when the president announced the travel restrictions.

“I had an hour to make my decision,” she said Thursday. “I got on the plane and didn’t look back.”

She’s staying in a residential part of London, where she said no one is talking about the coronavirus. But elsewhere, there’s no one to talk to: “I went into Central London tonight and it was a ghost town. Restaurants and pubs were empty.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, St. Petersburg’s Samantha Lafferty was in a pub in Dublin, Ireland with her sister and two friends when news of the U.S. travel restrictions broke.

She said all the Americans in the bar found out at the same time, and they all rushed outside to start booking earlier flights back home.

Two of her friends paid $7,000 to fly back to Tampa — first class was all that was left.

The sisters originally paid about $500 for their round-trip tickets. But when they landed in Tampa on Thursday night, all it cost them to fly home was just $1,000 apiece.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: The latest and all your questions answered.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

OTHER CORONAVIRUS WEBSITES:

CDC

Florida Department of Health

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