The Outbreak | I still went to Spain for spring break

The Outbreak is a new blog describing the different ways the coronavirus pandemic has affected our lives.

At the end of the fall semester, I had an idea to spend some of my hard-earned cash on an international trip for my spring break. Though many of my friends were planning spring break getaways in the Bahamas, Mexico or at other tropical beaches, I wasn’t really interested in such a vacation. I was more interested in a trip to Europe — Barcelona, Amsterdam and Dublin specifically — for about the same price. I had never been before and a good friend of mine offered to let me crash at his place. The nightlife, the culture, the people — the thought of it all had me counting down the days until I left.

The stage was set for what I was sure would be a memorable vacation — and it was.

After I booked my flights and well before I was set to leave, I started hearing something about a virus on the news, based in a Chinese city called Wuhan. I thought it was strange, but I didn’t think anything of it at first. After all, I remembered the talk of the swine flu in 2009 and the Ebola virus in 2016 and how little both of those outbreaks affected my life.

The more time that passed, however, the bigger the story became. One day, while scrolling on my Twitter feed, I came across something that caught my eye — “Wuhan is placed under quarantine.” That was the “light bulb” moment that made me realize this virus was not like Ebola or the swine flu. Still, although I realized the gravity of quarantining an entire city in China, I did not believe this outbreak would impact my life.

A week later, the World Health Organization declared a global public health emergency

It is worth noting that I am working toward a National Preparedness and Homeland Security (NPHS) certificate here at Pitt. In these NPHS classes, students are taught how to deal with disasters both on the macro and micro level. In my NPHS classes this past semester, we discussed COVID-19 in detail — so it is safe to say I was fairly aware of the virus since it was first reported.

I distinctly remember my professors discussing China’s response to COVID-19 and how late it was. One of the main ideas that is constantly repeated and emphasized throughout the NPHS courses is that you are not prepared unless you plan for the next disaster well before it happens. Our professors made it clear that no one was prepared for COVID-19. Our world leaders should have taken more preventative measures much sooner. They told us that the best time to act on a disease outbreak is right away — this did not happen. 

Fast forward to about a week before spring break and things had hit the fan. By this point, outbreaks had reached Iran and Italy, and the first death on American soil had already occurred. There also was a COVID-19 spike in South Korea, but they were able to nip it in the bud quickly thanks to rapid preventative measures — something the United States should have mimicked. 

By this point, I was a bit worried about my health for my trip to Europe, but not worried enough to cancel my vacation plans. During this time I remember thinking, “I would only be worried if Trump had taken domestic quarantine measures.” And at the time, the president was not worried.

I told my NPHS professors about my trip and of my itinerary, which included a rave for American college students studying in Europe called AbroadFest. They basically told me I was crazy and questioned my desire to go to a rave at all — let alone during a pandemic. A fair response indeed, as I was a little bit crazy but — like many young people — I didn’t want a virus to stop me from living my life.

I got to my friend’s place in Barcelona — my home base for my week abroad — on March 7, the day before Italy placed all 60 million residents on lockdown. I remember thinking, “Something’s not right here, I’m definitely gonna get the virus.” I also found it disturbing that other raves such as Ultra — located in Miami — were cancelled but AbroadFest wasn’t, and that it was highly probable that students studying in Italy would be at this rave. 

Nevertheless, I went on with my itinerary. I saw all of the sights to see in Barcelona. I took advantage of the close proximity of European nations and went to Amsterdam. Despite my professors’ best wishes and my own intuition, I partied at AbroadFest. I had a great time.

And my vacation wasn’t done yet. I had plans to go to Dublin with some friends to finish off what had been a truly amazing experience. Unfortunately though, we never got to go. News outlets reported that many festivities in Dublin — including a St. Patrick’s Day Parade — were cancelled. There were rumours that if my friends and I went to Dublin, we would be quarantined immediately upon arrival. We don’t know if that was true, but we didn’t want to take the risk.

No matter, I figured I would have a great time in Barcelona for the rest of my trip. That was, until the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. This happened to be the same day that COVID-19 cases in Spain began to grow exponentially. That’s when I noticed a shift in the street life in Barcelona. There were fewer people walking around and various shops and restaurants began to close indefinitely. These things gave me pause, and I began to realize that there was a great chance I would be quarantined when I returned home.

To add to the pandemic hysteria, President Donald Trump — in what was the middle of the night for us in Spain — banned all travel from 26 European countries.

My friends and I were partying at a club during the announcement. Though we later found out the ban didn’t apply to Americans, we initially thought that we were going to be trapped in Europe indefinitely. As a result, we stopped partying and left the club in a panic.

All of us American college students called our parents in a panic as we frantically tried to book flights back. I remember being on the phone with my mom as it was happening — struggling to book flights as prices skyrocketed and seats filled up. Seemingly in a flash, all of us had plans to leave or had left already by the next morning. My vacation was over.

When I left Barcelona, it was as virus-ridden as Italy was when I had arrived a week earlier. Which begs the question, why was I able to make it back into the United States without quarantining?

My friends and I had just been in a COVID-19 hotbed, yet none of us were quarantined upon arriving into the United States on March 13. Customs officials didn’t even ask me if I thought I had been exposed to the virus or if I was feeling ill at all. The only question they asked me was if I brought livestock or produce back to the states — which I thought was strange.

I expected customs or TSA to ask me where I flew in from, or even ask if I wasn’t feeling well. I figured our government would have taken some measures to quarantine citizens that flew in from international flights, but I guess I was expecting too much from them. I couldn’t help but think about the disease-prevention tactics I was taught in my NPHS classes and how practically none of them were being executed by our government.

Upon my return home I laid on my bed and contemplated everything that had happened. It was all such a rush — the situation had progressed so quickly before and during my trip. I couldn’t help but be critical of the lack of preventative measures I had seen throughout my travels the past week. I remember thinking, “This virus is only going to get worse.”