Hundreds of Americans stranded in Peru amid coronavirus closures

Hundreds of Americans stranded in Peru amid coronavirus closures
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Nearly 300 Americans currently in Peru are appealing for help in leaving the country after the government shut its borders earlier this week, highlighting the plight of U.S. citizens abroad as countries scramble to shut down travel in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The Peruvian government issued a state of emergency on Sunday night to close all land, sea and air borders. On Tuesday, it issued an updated travel advisory allowing flights to resume to repatriate Peruvians and return foreigners to their home countries abroad.

Many Americans have been caught up in the confusion, split between the port city of Lima where the international airport is and the mountain town of Cuzco, which has one airport. A number of Americans stuck in the country say they are having difficulty finding places to sleep.

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Two Americans tried to organize stranded U.S. travelers by creating a group chat on the messaging service WhatsApp, which has expanded to nearly 300 participants and more people being added.

They say they have received little to no communication with the U.S. Embassy in Peru, are distraught over whether they can return to the U.S. and are concerned over whether those with permanent residency status in the U.S. will be able to return.

They have organized a spreadsheet with their information, set up a Facebook group and directed chat members to register for the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. They are taking to Twitter to share their stories and appeal to their representatives and senators to help them get home.

Jenna Saulo, a 26-year-old from Florida, said she heard of the travel ban on Monday when she, her sister and a friend reached the entrance to Machu Picchu as part of their vacation.

“We walked two hours and were met by a cop and a translator saying that they just closed the borders,” she said in a phone call from Lima.

Saulo managed to travel to Lima, where one of the main international airports is located, but was told her airline had canceled flights until April 1. 

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“I did talk to the embassy once,” she said. “I told them I have a 4-year-old daughter at home and she laughed and hung up on us and now they’re not answering any calls.”

Peru has reported at least 89 cases of coronavirus. Police have taken to the streets to enforce a strict quarantine, allowing movement only to obtain food and medicine.

Numerous countries have imposed similar restrictions over the last 72 hours, as borders in Europe, the Middle East, Africa as well as Central and South America lock down to limit travel and potential carriers of the coronavirus.

A State Department spokesperson responded to an inquiry from The Hill with direction to the website of the U.S. Embassy in Peru. The spokesperson also highlighted that the department issued a global travel warning on March 14 and encouraged people to register with the State Department's STEP program. The spokesperson said the department encourages travelers to follow CDC guidelines and those from local health authorities, monitor State's COVID-19 website and contact their airlines about updated travel information.

Kristin Monesmith, an emergency department nurse for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she said she is anxious to get home to help with the coronavirus response but is stranded in Cuzco, with her flight canceled after the national emergency declaration.

“The presidential quarantine caught us all by surprise. There was no time to get out,” she wrote over Whatsapp.

“The consulate has been less than any help, just refers to a website. We truly feel abandoned by the U.S."

Dan West, 24, said he and a friend went to the U.S. consulate in Cuzco on Monday and said they were told to check with their airlines and check the embassy website for updates, but said the Cuzco airport was shuttered.

“It’s closed down for next 15 days, or at least that’s what we know as of right now. Who knows what the government will do in the next week or two.”