Tampa Bay travelers struggle to get home during the pandemic

Some Floridians stranded as countries clamp down on their borders and as airlines cancel flights.
Jessica Langlois of St. Petersburg had been working as a teacher in Honduras before the country closed its schools amid the coronavirus pandemic. She struggled to get home as flights were canceled and nations clamped down on their borders.
Jessica Langlois of St. Petersburg had been working as a teacher in Honduras before the country closed its schools amid the coronavirus pandemic. She struggled to get home as flights were canceled and nations clamped down on their borders. [ courtesy Langlois family ]
Published March 24, 2020|Updated March 24, 2020

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An earthquake shook the ground early Sunday morning in Honduras as Jessica Langlois and several of her coworkers drove toward what they hoped would be a way home.

Though the earthquake was a minor one, Langlois said, it seemed fitting in their struggle to get back to the United States during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We were joking that the world is out to get us,” Langlois texted.

A St. Petersburg resident, Langlois, 20, is one of thousands of Americans who have been trying to get home as countries clamp down on their borders and airlines cancel flights.

It’s unclear just how many Floridians may be stranded abroad, and where they are all scattered. Tampa Bay residents have reported being stuck in Honduras, Peru, Ecuador, Austria, Nepal and elsewhere.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department issued a level 4 travel warning, telling U.S. citizens to avoid international travel and for those already abroad to return immediately or prepare “to remain abroad for an indefinite period.”

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said his agency was “going to use all the tools we can” to get citizens back home. He said he’s created a “repatriation task force” and said efforts will include working with commercial and private flights to help return people.

But the federal government has also urged travelers to try to get back on their own if they can.

That’s easier said than done.

Jesse Curry of Tampa said he searched frantically for a flight out of Lima, Peru, when he heard the news that Peru was closing its borders.

Curry was traveling in Peru with his wife, mother and two children. He said he tried but couldn’t find flights out of Peru. So he and his family rushed to stock up their Airbnb with groceries, medicine and other necessities.

By that evening, he said, the city was basically locked down.

He and his family are now navigating mandatory curfews and police stops whenever they leave their lodging as they wait for a way out of the country.

Curry said he and his family are among the luckier ones. They have lodging with a kitchen and a washer and dryer. He has been able to work remotely. Some friends in the U.S. connected him with locals in Peru who have helped him and his family.

He knows other travelers who are separated from their families, who have run out of money or baby formula, or are sleeping on the floors of hostels or at the airport. Some people are jumping at opportunities to leave the country that Curry said sometimes turn out to be fraudulent.

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Curry said communication from the State Department has been “nearly nonexistent." But he did receive a message Monday saying he’ll get an email when a plane is available to take him and his family back to the U.S.

He waits and wonders when that will be.

In neighboring Ecuador, Clearwater residents Mike Jansma and Amy Creamer say they are losing faith that the U.S. government is going to help them get home.

Both parents had accompanied their respective children, who are students at Country Day School in Largo, to the South American country. At the end of the school trip, both had families stayed on to check out the Galapagos Islands.

While other families traveling with them were able to get out of Ecuador, that was not the case for Creamer and her daughter or for Jansma and his wife and son.

Trying to pay for an expensive charter flight out is too risky, and they’ve heard nothing about the U.S. bringing in planes to get them out. So they keep reaching out to anyone they think might help and watching airline websites for possible chances to leave.

They say they are safe in an area about an hour and a half northwest of Quito. But Jansma said his wife, who has an autoimmune disease, has run out of the pills to manage her condition and has also contracted a stomach virus and needs medical care.

Meanwhile, Creamer said she just wants to be reunited with her husband and other daughter back home in the U.S.

She said she wonders why the U.S. has sent planes to collect Americans in some countries and not others.

It was the U.S. government that eventually got Langlois and dozens of other Americans out of Honduras.

Langlois had been living in El Progreso since January and teaching at a bilingual school. Following Honduras’ first reported coronavirus case, the schools were shut down. A couple days later, Langlois’ employer told her she should leave, so she booked a flight home. Hours later, Honduras ordered its borders closed.

Four more times, Langlois booked flights only to have them canceled. She and her roommates stocked up on groceries. They perused airline booking sites, trying to figure out options.

Finally, on Sunday, Langlois said she and her coworkers were able to fly on a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement plane back to the U.S.

But even then, her journey home wasn’t over. After landing in Alexandria, Louisiana, she was unable to find flights back to Tampa Bay. So on Monday, she and another Florida woman she met along the way shelled out $450 to rent a car to drive the 12 hours home.

Even back in St. Petersburg, Langlois said she’s planning to self-isolate for two weeks just in case she encounters someone with coronavirus in her travels.

Langloios’ mother, Michelle, said she is still tallying up the cost of what it took to get Jessica home — including an unknown amount to reimburse the government for the flight back.

But she said she’s just relieved her daughter could get back.

“The hundreds of people praying for Jessica throughout this ordeal has been a blessing,” Michelle Langlois said.

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