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Coronavirus, travel rules separate a U.S. inline skate manager from Cuban fiancee

The pandemic shut down travel between the nations. U.S. restrictions will make it difficult for the couple to reunite.

TAMPA — Frank Holland knew his fairy tale romance could turn into a drama.

After all, he resides in the United States and she lives in Cuba, nations just 90 miles part that are still struggling with decades-old tensions.

“But I wasn’t prepared for this,” said Holland, a 56-year-old Tampa resident.

He’s been engaged to Yerlin Garcia, a 36-year-old resident of Cienfuegos, Cuba, since mid-February.

That was the last time they were together.

Weeks after Garcia said, Yes,” Cuba shut down its borders to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Southwest Airlines hopes to resume daily services between Tampa and Havana in November, but due to the Trump administration’s Cuba travel restrictions, there is still no guarantee the international couple will be reunited.

“It is torture,” Holland said. “Absolute torture. We talk on video two or three times a day and message each other all day, but I need to be with her in person.”

Holland is an inline speed skating coach and manages several members of the U.S. national team.

He has also promoted the sport in Cuba through free clinics and equipment donations for six years at the request of Jose Bordas, one of his national skaters and a native of Cienfuegos.

Related: Tampa speed skater works to grow sport where he learned it, in his native Cuba

Bordas' cabbie friend has been Holland’s regular driver during such trips. They became friends.

It was nearly two years ago when Holland was having a beer in Cienfuegos with the cabbie’s wife that she called her cousin to join them.

“The cousin was Yerlin,” Holland said. “We immediately hit it off.”

He spoke in broken Spanish and she in broken English.

“But that was enough,” Holland said. “We have the same sense of humor and laughed all night. We are a carbon copy of each other.”

When he’d return to Cuba every month or two for a few-week stay, she’d attend his clinics, “but refuses to skate,” Holland laughed.

Related: Tampa is training ground for Team USA inline skating

They bought a house in Cienfuegos under Garcia’s name, since Americans cannot own property in Cuba. Holland popped the question on a beach in Trinidad, Cuba.

They planned on marrying in Cuba and then figuring out the easiest way to be together full time.

Holland remains skeptical that flights to Havana will resume in November.

“I have heard several times that they’d start back up soon, and then they get pushed again,” he said.

In early September, Tampa International Airport said it hoped to again offer service to Havana by Oct. 8. Airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps said the new date is Nov. 4.

“I want to see him faster,” Garcia said during a video chat on WhatsApp from Cienfuegos. “I miss him terribly. He is my best friend.”

They could still be kept apart when Tampa and Havana are connected via daily commercial flights. Americans cannot visit Cuba for leisure. They need to qualify for a “general visa” that has several specific categories, such as for research or religious activities.

Another of those categories had been athletic competitions and clinics. That was how Holland was permitted to fly to Cuba. But, in late September, the Trump administration removed that category from the general license. Holland and Garcia need to marry before he qualifies for a family visa.

Tom Popper, the former president of New York-based travel company Insight Cuba, said Holland might qualify for a general license under the Support for the Cuban People category, which would require him to promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society on the island.

“He would just need to fulfill the license requirements, which, depending on where he goes, he could do with his fiancee,” Popper said.

Still, getting to his fiancee remains an issue. Cienfuegos is in a province of the same name. Havana is in the province of La Habana.

The Cuban government recently lifted the ban on inner-provincial travel meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus, "but it remains incredibly fluid,” said John Kavulich, president of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “How long it remains open is uncertain. Everything in Cuba is uncertain, just as it is in the rest of the world.”

Holland can’t fly directly to Cienfuegos' Jaime González Airport because the Trump administration’s recent Cuba travel restrictions also banned flights to cities other than Havana.

And, for now, he can’t even skate the law by flying to Cienfuegos from a third country.

Because of the pandemic, “all airports in Cuba are closed on the mainland. The only ones that are open are Abel Santa Maria and Jardines del Rey,” which service Santa Clara and the Jardines del Rey archipelago. Suzanne Carlson, the founder of Tarpon Springs' Carlson Maritime Travel, said there is no word on when those outside of Havana might fully reopen.

“There are a few charter flights that are bringing Cubans who were stranded in the U.S. back,” Carlson said. “That’s it.”

Meanwhile, Garcia lost her waitressing job because the pandemic has slowed the local tourism industry. Holland cannot send financial support due to new U.S. restrictions forbidding the transfer of money to nonfamily members in Cuba.

“It is immoral what the United States is doing to the Cuban people by stopping remittances,” said Al Fox, founder of the Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation. “This is an example of that.”

So, for now, Holland and Garcia will continue to video chat and hope that their romance has a “they lived happily ever after” ending.

“We have a beautiful relationship,” Garcia said. “He is my partner.”

Added Holland, “I have never been so heartbroken. I miss her so much.”

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