There's no place like home

Progress Editor Julie Noal, right, and her husband Darryl, pictured on their last night in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic on March 21. They returned home as airports in the country were shutting down and flights were canceling amidst the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

About a week ago, I sent a story that I wrote while on vacation in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. Since returning home, I have had several people ask me to write a follow-up story to let people know that we got home safely — and provide more details about our experience.

My husband and I left on Tuesday, March 17 and less than 24 hours after arriving in Punta Cana, we received text messages from United Airlines stating our flights home on Monday, March 23, were abruptly canceled. This occurred the same day that the Dominican government issued a border closure not allowing anyone into the country starting the next morning at 6 a.m.

I wish I could say that our vacation was 100 percent relaxing. But when your return flight is canceled and you are being ordered to leave the country, it is difficult to stay focused on good times.

With no communication from United Airlines, we booked a return flight home on Delta Airlines on Sunday, March 22 — the soonest flight we could get on and ironically, the last day that the Dominican Republic would allow foreigners to get out. That same night, we learned that we were being moved the next day to Ocean El Faro — our resort’s “sister” location about 20 minutes away.

We spent all day Thursday repacking, getting on a transfer shuttle, and then standing in line at the new resort to re-register all over again. Basically, we lost a whole day doing what we did on Tuesday. We didn’t let that get us down. Well, my husband didn’t at least. A part of me could not let my guard down for fear that Delta was going to cancel our flight just like United had.

While we enjoyed the tropical sun, turquoise seas and white sand, the resort very quickly began to empty out. Excursions were canceled. The restaurants at the resort were closed, with only the buffet restaurant remaining open. Employees were seen moving supplies to various storage locations on small trucks.

And you could not help but overhear other travelers talking about the COVID-19 situation. At that point, there were only 11 reported cases of coronavirus in the Dominican — all brought in by tourists from Europe. The government had issued a curfew and was arresting people by the thousands if they were not off the streets by 8 p.m. And the airports were shutting down on Sunday.

There were still some Americans at the resort, but we were in the minority. We were all leaving on Saturday or Sunday. One large family (four adults and six children) could not get a commercial flight, so they got together with some other Americans and booked a charter flight with Miami Air, flew to Miami and rented cars to get home. The majority of tourists who remained were from Russia, Canada and South American countries like Brazil.

Most of those folks booked their vacations for 14 to 21 days. One Russian couple in particular was within earshot of our spot by the pool. They were not due to leave until March 31. They were asked why they were not leaving on March 22 since the airport was being shut down.

“We are not worried. Our government will come get us.”

When we got on our shuttle to the airport on Sunday morning, the representative handed out papers for us to fill out. “I am giving these to you now because the airport is very crowded. Everyone must leave today.” The airport was indeed packed. We boarded our flight to New York’s JFK airport. Passengers gave the flight crew a loud round of applause upon landing for bringing us home.

JFK was virtually empty. We got through immigration in less than five minutes. Also surprising — there were NO SCREENINGS for coronavirus? The immigration officer asked if we had been anywhere other than the Dominican. That was it. There were no people in hazmat suits screening arrivals with infrared thermometer guns. All of the stores and restaurants inside the airport were closed. There were a few take-out places but that was it. The restrooms smelled like bleach.

We flew to Detroit and after a fabulous experience of de-icing our airplane, we flew to State College and made our way home to our little corner of the world in Blandburg around 2 a.m. Monday. Our flight to Detroit was only 1/3 full, and there were only seven passengers on our flight to State College, including us.

We have not left the house since we got home on Sunday. My publisher is allowing me to work from home while I am quarantined for 14 days.

My husband, who is an industrial electrician with IBEW Local 5, is not working either because construction projects that were to be opening up are now postponed due to being “non essential” work. So we are confined together for the duration and hopefully we were able to keep the coronavirus away. We remain vigilant.

The coronavirus cases in the Dominican have skyrocketed to 392 with 10 dead as of Thursday, up from only 11 cases and no deaths when we left on Sunday.

We will return someday when the world settles down. In the meantime, there’s no place like home. Stay safe, stay distant and stay healthy.