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Americans stuck in Peru over coronavirus fears urge U.S. to bring them home

Many of the two dozen people on a tour were able to book flights back to the U.S., but then they were canceled.
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When Federico Capasso, 70, and his wife Paola, 68, booked a 10-day trip to Peru it was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. But in the middle of their getaway, the country declared a state of emergency — closing its borders in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now Capasso and other Americans stuck in the South American country are urging the U.S. government to help bring them home.

“We’re urging the State Department to take care of this situation,” Federico Capasso, a professor at Harvard University, said from a hotel in downtown Lima on Thursday. “We just want to make sure there is a plan in place.”

Federico and Paola Capasso.
Federico and Paola Capasso were in Peru when the country shut its borders.Courtesy of Federico and Paola Capasso

Capasso said after landing in Peru on March 9 and spending several days seeing sights such as the Sacred Valley and the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, things took a turn for the worse.

Late Sunday, the Peruvian government issued a state of emergency, closing all international borders after midnight the next day and issuing a 15-day mandatory quarantine with limited exceptions for necessities or emergencies. The U.S. Embassy in Peru said that as of Wednesday morning, the country had 145 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Capasso said the tour company, Odyssey Unlimited, worked diligently to secure the group of two dozen people new flights back to the U.S. as soon as possible, but those flights started getting canceled.

A State Department spokesperson said it “has no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas.”

“We are aware the governments of several countries have announced suspension of air travel,” the department said. “We are considering all options to assist U.S. citizens in these countries and are continuously assessing travel conditions in all areas affected by COVID-19.”

“We will continue to update our travel advisories and safety information for U.S. travelers as situations evolve,” the department said.

An official with the State Department said U.S. citizens in Peru should monitor the embassy’s website, enroll to receive updates from the embassy, follow the advice of the CDC and local health authorities and monitor the department’s COVID-19 website. The department has not said how many Americans are in Peru who want to leave.

On Thursday afternoon, the State Department raised its global travel advisory to level 4, advising U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel because of the pandemic.

“U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period,” the department said.

President Donald Trump said earlier Thursday the government was “working on taking care” of the situation of the Americans stuck in Peru and were “trying to get them out.”

Capasso said the travel company flew the group back from the city of Cusco to Lima on March 16 and then the Capassos were supposed to board a flight from Lima back to the United States at 12:35 a.m. on March 17.

Federico and Paola Capasso.
Federico and Paola Capasso.

They went to the airport in Cusco and had “a boarding pass up to Boston with our luggage ready” when they heard their flight had been canceled.

Francisco Arriz, the tour director for Peru for Odyssey Unlimited, is staying at the hotel with the group and said that while everyone was trying to stay positive, some were “getting desperate.”

“Things just happened that fast and everybody lost their flights,” he said.

Arriz said his concerns were that most of those on the tour were over the age of 65 and really wanted to fly back home, see their families and take care of their health.

The U.S. Embassy in Peru said on its website that with the state of emergency, Americans who were still in the country should arrange lodging for the quarantine period and limit their movements.

On Wednesday, the country also issued a mandatory 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

Laura Lowther, another American who was stuck in Peru, told MSNBC people who were in a remote village after announcement were unable to secure flights on time before they started being canceled.

She said after the announcement she saw "hordes of people leaving the resort" she was at and to "scramble to get a flight."

She said she checked with the embassy and was also unable to go home.

"We just don't have any indication of how or when we will be able to leave," she said.