Coronavirus: Coming (Back) to America

Caroline was interning with The Skinny until her time in Scotland was cut short by COVID-19; here's her account of how it all unfolded as she joined the dash back to the USA

Feature by Caroline Ring | 23 Mar 2020
  • Flying

A lot can change in a week.

For some, a week is starting to seem like a lifetime, spent cooped up in self-isolation or quarantine. For others, a week offers a strange shift of pace without actually changing the fact that there is still work to be done. For me, one week is the deadline I was given to flee the United Kingdom and return home to America. What a week.

As a university student studying abroad in Scotland, pandemics aren’t really mentioned in the pamphlet of a picture-perfect term overseas. When the coronavirus started to make the news, the impact appeared devastating, yet the threat was isolated and distant. Although my programme supervisors were monitoring COVID-19 from its initial stages, the reach of the virus seemed short and benign from the United Kingdom.

As coronavirus began to engulf Italy, tensions arose with American universities and their students abroad. Suddenly, COVID-19 was creeping closer and closer. In spite of coronavirus’s rapid spread throughout Italy, mainland Europe was still being viewed as an admissible travel destination. Restrictions on my movement and location made the virus increasingly personal, but while it was a hindrance, coronavirus remained looming from afar.

The world shifts to combat COVID-19

On Wednesday of last week, our weekly class with a professor from my home university was spent discussing the potential of the coronavirus canceling my time abroad rather than the planned topics of Scottish history and culture. Although travel outside of the United Kingdom had recently been prohibited, my safety within Scotland was still being assured. The world around me was suddenly shifting to combat COVID-19 and yet I left that class on Wednesday with a cautiously optimistic view regarding my future in Edinburgh. By Thursday morning, the situation had drastically changed.

With the announcement of President Trump’s European travel ban, it became clear that Americans overseas were being strongly advised to return to the States. Despite the fact that the United Kingdom was not initially included in the ban, Trump’s declaration really changed the view of my university around my group’s presence in Scotland. Having woken up to the news that friends in Brussels and Berlin were immediately being sent home, the prospect of remaining in Edinburgh for the term was... not favourable. By Thursday afternoon, twelve hours following President Trump’s statement, I received word from my university: my classmates and I had one week to book a flight back to the United States. This was the beginning of the end.

Last flights back to the USA

For me and my American classmates, the remainder of Thursday afternoon was spent battling the mass influx of people attempting to find planes into America. The flights with the easiest layovers were already booked, and the majority that were left involved stopping in mainland Europe, which was extremely discouraged by my programme directors due to the COVID-19 risk in those locations. The feeling of rushing to purchase a ticket home generated a twisted sense of adrenaline overshadowed by the overwhelming sentiment that the next few days in Edinburgh would be my last. By attempting to secure my safety, my university sent me and my classmates into the eye of a storm.

While a number of my friends scrambled on Saturday to adjust to cancelled flights, the notion that planes home were unassured caused mass uncertainty and anxiety. Every day the status of the coronavirus and its impact on different countries fluctuated. The pace of its contagion was quickening, ways to escape its grasp were fading fast. Starting Sunday morning, my classmates began to embark on the daunting journey back to the States. With a flight booked for Monday morning, I watched my friends in anticipation of how my own travels would end up.

Upon arrival to Edinburgh airport early Monday morning, there was an eerie sense of calm. I envisioned hoards of people filling the space but discovered nothing of the sort. Operations flowed as usual with a dash of quick background surveys in the check-in lines that highlighted the airline’s attempt to screen passengers before the flight. Once on the plane, the smell of disinfectant reminded me of my surreal situation.

Arriving in a changed America

As passengers filled in, masked through fear and caution, the eight-hour flight began to feel like doomsday. Flight attendants wore gloves when serving beverages and meals, and warned passengers that following arrival into New Jersey, officials from the Centres for Disease Control (the US' public health body) may board the flight to examine passengers. Urged to cooperate with the process, flight attendants noted the inconsistency of the COVID-19 screening procedures and announced that mobile passports were no longer accepted at customs. Handing out forms in preparation for landing, flight attendants distributed on-paper questions, again asking about prior travel into heavily-affected areas and health standings.

With a three-hour layover under my belt, time was of the essence upon arriving at Newark. Although prepped with the notion of CDC officials boarding the flight, flight attendants released us and explained CDC officials would meet us at the end of our gate. However, this was also not the case.

Walking straight into customs, my flight was filed into a passport screening line headed by two members of airport security. The dragging pace of the customs line, paired with the fact that 80% of the massive space was not being used due to the ban on mobile passports, was frustrating to say the least. A process that had flown by for classmates a day earlier painfully plodded on as a result of new procedures. Having passed through an in-person customs check, I met my misfortune through the digital screening of my passport.

Unbeknownst to me, the large X over my passport screening document filtered me into a smaller line of passengers that had not moved since my time in the first customs line. When asked about the purpose of this additional line, security assured me that supplementary screenings of passengers travelling from the United Kingdom was part of protocol, despite the fact that every passenger on my flight was arriving from the United Kingdom. Eventually escorted by security to get my temperature taken, I was released to claim my baggage and head to my connecting flight.

Ultimately, the remainder of my journey home to Virginia was smooth and straightforward. Passengers gossiped about the alarming rise of the coronavirus and the possibility that these were some of the last flights into America and out of Europe or the United Kingdom. Sitting in day four of my two-week quarantine, I am still struggling to register the whirlwind of commotion caused by the coronavirus. While the haste with which I had to leave Scotland seemed severe at the time, the Department of State’s recent international travel ban (and similar bans put in place by governments around the world) showcases the frightening reality of a global lockdown. As the world continues to navigate the extenuating circumstances of COVID-19, here’s to making it back home and staying there. 

Read more of Caroline's writing in our TV section