BAVARO, Dominican Republic — If anyone in Progressland had told me I would be writing a news story during my vacation, I would have told them to forget it. Vacation = no work.
But here I am, stranded in a 5-star Caribbean resort in Punta Cana surrounded by turquoise seas, palm trees — and COVID-19 (coronavirus) “refugees.”
My husband and I planned and paid for this vacation a long time ago. We went back and forth for the last two weeks, deliberating and losing sleep over whether to cancel our plans. Coronavirus was not in the Caribbean yet and there were no flight bans. Armed with Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, extra cash, and a couple of credit cards, we put caution to the wind and continued with our plans.
The State College and Washington Dulles airports were busy, but not crowded. We kept to ourselves and avoided crowded areas. Our flights were maybe half to 2/3 full. But everyone was doing the same thing — wiping down their plane seats and using hand sanitizer, and once everyone was boarded, flight crews encouraged everyone to move around to empty seats for added social distancing.
We arrived in Punta Cana on Tuesday to a bustling airport that put us through a coronavirus checkpoint and immigration in about five minutes.
That evening, we heard that the Dominican Republic government was considering closing its borders — both ways.
On Wednesday around noon as we were sitting by the pool under a cabana, our cell phones pinged in unison. United Airlines canceled our return flight scheduled Monday, March 23. The reason? “Construction on the runway of the departure airport.” That was an eyebrow raiser.
The real story: The Dominican was shutting borders immediately.
We returned to our hotel building and the AmStar representative there said United and all of the other airlines would take us home some way, somehow. After all, there were hundreds of resorts full of thousands of tourists. We can’t stay there forever?! They were obligated to bring us home.
We tried calling United — hold times were more than four hours. Our “canceled” flights were still showing scheduled on our United and United Vacation apps. And we started hearing other travelers discuss the situation — Brazilians, Canadians, Americans and more.
Wednesday night at a restaurant we overheard an Iowa family talking about their canceled United flights. I spoke to the man after dinner outside and asked if he knew anything about United.
“We are stranded,” Mr. Iowa said angrily. “United dumped us and everyone else.”
Think about it — the airlines are suddenly not allowed to bring passengers to the country. So basically, they have to fly empty planes here to pick up passengers and take them home.
United Airlines decided they were not going to do that.
Mr. Iowa was a “privileged” United customer and called them, able to get through after 45 minutes. The representative said basically, “Sorry, but you are on your own to get out of there. United is not coming.”
Mr. Iowa said he got his wife and two children tickets on a Delta flight on Sunday — the soonest available. “I suggest you find the soonest flight out and get on it. Take care of yourselves because United certainly is not.”
We came to our room to find a letter from the resort on the bed. They were closing down the resort on Thursday. We were being moved to their brand new resort next door until we had to leave.
On Thursday morning, we went to breakfast. All tourists here are in a state of confusion — and they are all asking the same question: How will we get home?
Canadians are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine as soon as they get home.
The U.S. Embassy here said other airlines are sending extra flights to get the Americans out — JetBlue, Delta, Southwest, and Frontier to name a few. We were able to snag a Delta flight on Sunday since it was the only one that could get us to State College. We acted on the advice of Mr. Iowa.
There are numerous people here who flew United. One woman and her two daughters were still under the impression that United was coming — and could not understand why they hadn’t received a new ticket for a replacement flight.
Because they are not coming, I told her.
She was in tears after I explained the situation. They were trying to get to Newark, N.J. I strongly urged her to go online with her phone or at guest services and book flights on the other airlines. Tickets for three people were ranging between $600 and $1,200. And they would have to extend their stay at the resort until they could get a flight.
They had no extra money and brought no credit cards. She was going to call her family members for help.
A man from Calgary said he and his family were scheduled to be here until March 27. He was waiting for Air Canada to let him know when to be ready to leave.
“I got text notifications and emails from our government that we will be safe and we will be taken care of. Did your government not contact you?” he asked.
My husband laughed and laughed.
“I can’t get United Airlines to answer the phone. Our government is not going to reach out, that is for sure,” he said.
The guest services employees here at the resort are helpless. They want to help their customers — but they have no answers either.
There are so many people here who, like us, thought it was still safe to travel — or at least no riskier than staying at home.
And the Dominican people who work here? Devastated. They work 10, 12, 14 hours per day cleaning rooms, making food, etc. for maybe a few US dollars per day. You heard right — per day! Tips are their lifeline. And they love US dollars because they are worth more. This is a very poor nation. Thursday was their last day of work for an undetermined amount of time. They are already poor. I doubt they will receive a government bailout or unemployment compensation.
My husband and I have been tipping generously, as have most of the guests here.
For now, we are stranded in paradise and we are praying that Delta comes to get us on Sunday, a day earlier than we were originally scheduled. We will be flying to New York’s JFK and then going to Detroit to get our flight to State College — armed once again with hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes and two masks I just happened to have after my bout with Influenza Type A in late February. But at least we will be home.
The concern, fear and panic over COVID-19 and the economic fallout is real everywhere. We have stayed calm and have pledged to try to enjoy our trip as much as possible while riding this roller coaster of unanswered questions. I hope everyone gets home safely — and stays home until we get through this together as a community and as a nation.