A scary, global race to get home

Blessing McAnlis-Vasquez and daughter Ciera McAnlis near the Tower Bridge in London in January 2020. Photo courtesy of McAnlis-Vasquez family)

Dalton Walker

Good news: Two Phoenix-area women who were living in the U.K. when coronavirus cases began skyrocketing in Europe say they’re relieved to be back with family

For many, family comes first, followed by everything else.

In the age of COVID-19, a win is hard to find, even the little ones that were often taken for granted only months ago. For two Phoenix-area families, a frantic few days in March ended the way it was supposed to, united as a family.

College students Ciera McAnlis, Salt River Pima-Maricopa, and Nizhoni Saenz, Navajo and Mescalero Apache, were spending the spring semester studying abroad in the United Kingdom when initial fears of the coronavirus formed in Europe. McAnlis was in London, and Saenz was in Cardiff, Wales.

In late February, McAnlis was visiting Italy, living her best life.

The Arizona State University senior took a cheap flight to Venice with friends for a long weekend getaway and to attend the Venice Carnival.

But with the coronavirus lurking, officials canceled the popular festival last-minute on Feb. 23. Known coronavirus cases in Italy at the time were at 152, according to The Associated Press. A month later, cases approached 60,000. In early April, cases climbed to 115,000, with nearly 14,000 deaths related to the virus. Italy became the first European country to feel a big coronavirus blow

“While I was there, I didn’t notice anything out of the norm,” she said. “There were lots of tourists.”

McAnlis didn’t see much difference back in the United Kingdom either.

Nozhoni Saenz
Nizhoni Saenz in front of the London Eye in early 2020. (Photo courtesy of Saenz family)

Neither did Saenz. The Colgate University junior was a four-hour bus ride from London. She was studying abroad in Cardiff, Wales, and made the trip some weekends to visit friends and see the city.

March came, and classes continued for both students. Then things changed. First, the unknown turned into speculation then confusion. One thing that was clear was that the coronavirus was spreading to the U.K. On March 4, coronavirus cases in the U.K. jumped from 34 to 87, at the time its largest one-day increase. The first death was reported the next day, and a few days later five more died, with 373 testing positive, according to the Independent.

(More information: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus -- Data, story summaries, lists of closures, resources)

On March 11, President Donald Trump imposed a travel ban on 26 European countries. Initially, the president didn’t include the U.K. or Ireland, but that changed a couple of days later. The ban didn’t apply to U.S. citizens, but worry and confusion fell onto both Saanz and McAnlis and their families. Plus, airports were seeing a rush in travelers making their way home from Europe, and only 13 airports were designated to screen passengers.

Both students knew they had to get home as soon as possible.

“I texted my mom to come home, things were gonna get scary,” McAnlis said.

In the states, things were changing fast, too. Known coronavirus cases were increasing, and deaths were rising. The NBA shut down play on March 12, and college sports quickly followed. Nevada casinos were ordered to temporary close on March 17. Two days later, the California governor issued a statewide order for people to stay at home. Schools across the country were starting to close.

McAnlis’ mom, Blessing McAnlis-Vasquez, had an ear to the news and Trump’s announcement. The McAnlis-Vasquez family were headed from Phoenix to Las Vegas for spring break fun on March 11.

“We were driving up when we heard the first ban Trump announced,” McAnlis-Vasquez recalled, referring to the president’s European travel restrictions on March 11.

“I wanted to calm (Ciera) down. I told her that if the school is not concerned, let's not be concerned either,” she said. “Almost immediately the tone of everyone changed overnight. It went from school not being concerned to ... ‘We hear your concerns, and if you want to go home, go home.’”

McAnlis’ mom sent flight options, and Ciera selected one that was supposed to take her to Las Vegas. The flight was lonely, with maybe 38 people aboard the plane that could fit around 200, McAnlis said. An hour or so before the scheduled landing, the flight was diverted to San Francisco, where McAnlis went through customs, got back on a plane and finally met her family in Las Vegas on March 16 – 24 hours after she left London.

“I actually had several anxiety attacks on the plane,” McAnlis said. “When we got off to get screened, I had a panic attack, my cheeks were flushed, and I was freaking out.”

A text from Mom helped calm her, she said.

(Related: A sense of urgency in COVID-19 coverage ... and we need your help)

Around the same time McAnlis met up with her family, Saenz was on a flight from the U.K. to Phoenix via Amsterdam and customs in Detroit. She also felt some anxiety, along with mixed emotions about going home.

“I’m disappointed in all the traveling I wanted to do, the experiences I wanted to have, but being home now is a big relief,” Saenz said.

Her dad, Alvin, was in communication with Colgate University, and seeing what was happening in Italy, it made sense to get Nizhoni home quickly.

“As a parent, we constantly worry about our kids, no matter how old they get,” he said. “I think it was 10 times more stressful for me and her mom.”

Customs asked McAnlis and Saanz to self-quarantine for 14 days. They did and haven’t shown any symptoms of the coronavirus.

Saenz is studying sociology with a minor in psychology. Her in-person Wales classroom experience shifted to online from her home in the warmer Phoenix desert. She said she’s adjusting and hopes to make it back one day.

McAnlis, a communications major, is set to graduate at the end of the spring semester. Commencement is another story, at least in the traditional sense. It has been moved to online-only.

“Students, in general, grow so much as they travel abroad,” McAnlis-Vasquez said. “This experience, I’m so proud of her, I know she had struggles, but she held her composure, being smart about the way she was traveling.”

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker

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