‘We feel absolutely abandoned’; St. George couple stranded in Peru after COVID-19 border closures

Police in Lima, Peru on March 13 two days before after a nationwide self-quarantine and curfew went into effect in the country. A St. George couple was stranded in the country after the borders were closed. | Photo courtesy Brad Dallof, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Brad and Jodi Dallof thought they were a world away from the COVID-19 pandemic when the retired St. George couple traveled to Peru March 12 to see the 15th century Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.

At the time, there were no official travel warnings about traveling to the country, and the total number of virus cases in Peru was seven. 

But now, the Dallofs are stranded in Lima, Peru with seemingly no way to get home after Peru’s President Martín Vizcarra closed the borders and suspended air and sea transport.

There are now 86 cases of the virus in Peru, according to the World Health Organization. 

Brad Dallof, 65, is emotional about having no way to get back home. The couple’s thoughts are with their adult children back in Utah – five of whom live in Salt Lake City, which has had the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases in the state. Their other grown child lives in St. George. 

Brad and Jodi Dallof pose in front of Machu Picchu in Peru on March 13, 2020. | Photo courtesy Brad Dallof, St. George News

“The only thing that we want is to be with our family,” Brad Dallof told St. George News. “We’ve been able to keep contact with them. We’re very concerned for our safety.”

The Dallofs, who have been married 44 years, are just two of many Americans who have been reported as being stranded in Peru and other countries with borders closing and travel in and out of many nations closing down. 

The United States has also restricted travel into the country from some counties – especially from nations in Europe and China – though no restrictions are in place for Americans to return. 

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department issued a warning for Americans not to travel abroad. 

No such a warning was in place when the Dallofs departed on March 12. The only warnings at the time concerned China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. Just after the Dallofs left, President Donald Trump announced restrictions on Europeans traveling to the United States. 

“At the time, there were just seven cases in Peru and we thought it was safe,” Jodi Dallof, 62, said. 

When the Dallofs arrived a week ago, they spent a day or two in the largest city of Lima before traveling 300 miles away with a tour group to a more remote area of the country and Machu Pichu.

Thousands wait for any kind of flight at Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport in Cusco, Peru, as the Peruvian president ordered the borders closed and all flights in and out of the country halted, Cusco, Peru, March 14, 2020 | Photo courtesy Brad Dallof, St. George News

Just after arriving at the train station to head back to their hotel, they overheard an announcement by Vizcarra, who declared a national emergency. 

Vizcarra then announced that Peruvian borders would close at 11:59 p.m. that night, and all airports and seaports were closed. He said tourists in the country would either have to get out before the closure or stay in the country. 

Vizcarra also issued an order for a 15-day mandatory quarantine that included a travel ban within Peru between provinces. It also limited movement outside to obtaining food and medical care, as well as an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. 

“We realized we were the last people allowed to go to Machu Pichu,” Brad Dallof said. 

The couple and the others in the travel group also realized they had until midnight to get out of the country, and they were two hours from the nearest airport without transportation to get there. 

“There was no warning,” said Brad Dallof – who retired after a 40-year television career as a news director with KSL and KUTV, production manager for KSTU and media director with the U.S. Air Force. “You could tell there were no preparation.”

The Dallofs called what was touted to be a 24-hour emergency line by Exoticca Travel, which arranged the travel group they were part of. 

They got no answer. Neither did anyone else in the group calling the line or trying to reach anyone else at the travel company. In fact, as of Thursday, the Dallofs had yet to hear from Exoticca Travel.

Julie Stephenson, a customer service lead with Exoticca in London, told St. George News the firm has been overwhelmed since not just one, but nearly every nation, is facing closing borders and travel bans.

“When there’s a situation in one country, it’s a lot to take on board. When it is every country, it is quite another matter,” Stephenson said.

She also said attempts have been made to reach the St. George couple.

We’ve been trying to contact everyone. There were emails to Mr. and Mrs. Dallof. Our priority is to get in touch with everyone and try to reassure people we have specific people just working with the airlines.”

Unfortunately, Stephenson said there is little they can do for those in Peru.

There is nothing with Peru. There are no flights. So there’s not a whole lot we can do,” Stephensen said. “I understand what a horrible situation they can be in.”

The hotel the group was staying in informed them they would not have enough food and supplies to house them for the duration of any quarantine.  

With no help heard from the travel agency and no place to go, some members of the group were able to hire a bus to take them to Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport in the southeastern Peru city of Cusco two hours away. However, the bus would not arrive until 4 a.m.

Two hours later, the group arrived at the airport and were confronted by thousands of people. Not only those trying to leave the country, but also those who were just trying to get to a different province before the inter-province travel ban was was fully in effect. While people back in the states were worried about being six feet apart, the Dallofs were in a sea of people.

“We were with thousands at the airport and did not feel safe at all,” Brad Dallof said. “We used a lot of sanitizer and stayed away from people without masks.”

But there were no flights that could get the Dallofs back to the states. The best they had would be to get a flight back to Lima and take their chances at Jorge Chavez International Airport. To do that, they were put on a waiting list. They were one of the last three couples on the list, and they would end up waiting nearly nine hours before finally getting their flight to Lima.

A line outside a market stretches around a block in Lima, Peru after a nationwide self-quarantine and curfew went into effect in the country. A St. George couple was stranded in the country after the borders were closed, Lima, Peru, March 18, 2020 | Photo courtesy Brad Dallof, St. George News

Arriving at Chavez International, they looked for flights on the airline, LATAM, that got them into the country. But there were no flights or people at the counter. In fact, there was no one around and no way to leave the country.

“We felt like we better grab a hotel as soon as we could,” Jodi Dallof said.

The couple can walk a block to a store, but they have to wait in a long line where social distancing is nonexistent. Also helping is the fact Jodi Dallof is a retired nurse.

“She’s helped keep us healthy,” Brad Dallof said.

They still haven’t given up on trying to get back home. 

The Dallofs say their biggest frustration has been with trying to contact the U.S. Embassy in Lima or other government officials for help. 

They were initially directed to call the embassy. After a long hold, they were directed to make an automated appointment, but have not heard back in days. 

“If we would just hear one positive thing from the United States government,” Jodi Dallof said. “Everyone is saying we’ve gotten no help from the government.”

On its website, the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru has directed Americans in the country to arrange lodging for the entirety of the 15-day quarantine period and plan to limit their movements. 

The couple has also tried contacting the offices of Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Chris Stewart, but have heard nothing back.

“We feel absolutely abandoned,” Brad Dallof said. 

A spokesperson for Stewart said the congressman has several requests for help and is making an effort to get to them.

“As you can imagine, our office has received many casework requests,” Madison Shupe, communications director for Stewart, said. “Although we are unable to discuss specific details regarding constituent cases, I can ensure you that our office is working hard to make sure all constituent casework is handled in a timely manner.”

Thursday afternoon, St. George Mayor Jon Pike reached out to Brad Dallof after finding out about the couple’s situation on Facebook. Pike then reached out to Stewart’s office, who Brad Dallof said contacted him back.

“They said there’s not a whole lot we can do,” Brad Dallof said. 

Photo of the empty streets and waiting areas of Jorge Chavez International Airport taken from the Dallof’s hotel window, Lima, Peru, March 20, 2020 | Photo courtesy Brad Dallof, St. George News

The government of Mexico, however, has tried to help. Thursday afternoon, through a local travel agency, the Mexican Embassy offered to get the Dallofs and two other American couples on a Mexican government humanitarian flight. 

“We found it kind of strange we were going to the Mexican Embassy,” Brad Dallof said.

Stephenson said they are hearing from many countries and embassies about working to get their customers out, though there is one glaring exemption.

Not a whole lot we can do unless the airlines decide repatriation flights. There is talk in Europe, but we’re hearing nothing coming from the U.S.,” Stephenson said.

The Dallofs were part of four busloads that went back to Chavez International, and it looked like they were heading home. At the airport, they found stranded travelers starting to go as far as to make living spaces in the bathrooms.

Then, they received even worse news. The flight would only allow Mexican citizens. 

It’s frustrating that Mexico has provided a humanitarian flight to its people and we can’t get one from our home,” Brad Dallof said. 

For now, the Dallofs are in a new hotel, since they had checked out of the previous one thinking they were heading home. They have been told by officials there that now they are not allowed to leave their room at all, and there are no markets or shopping nearby. 

While still not giving up hope of coming home, Brad Dallof has accepted the possibility that he may not be going home for at least the next 10 days.

Or maybe more.

“If we have to hunker down, so be it,” Brad Dallof said. “But I’m worried it’s going to be a lot more than 15 days.”

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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