Americans trapped in Morocco, Peru plea for US help getting home

The State Dept. had warned countries may impose last-minute restrictions.

March 18, 2020, 4:52 PM

Art Goldberg and Sarajane Johnson toured the streets of Marrakesh Wednesday, but not exactly as planned. Confined to a bus to keep their distance, they drove through streets of closed tea shops and spice vendors, palaces and museums -- even as Morocco's government moves to seal its borders Thursday and bar any international travel in and out of the country.

That could leave the American couple, along with 12 others in their tour group, soon stranded in the North African country -- some of many Americans around the world caught by fast-changing travel restrictions imposed by local governments amid the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But while the State Department has chartered evacuation flights out of Wuhan, China and for passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, it is advising American citizens to not rely on the U.S. government to fly them home.

PHOTO: Passengers of the MS Westerdam, back, owned by Holland America Line, disembark at the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Feb. 15, 2020.
Passengers of the MS Westerdam, back, owned by Holland America Line, disembark at the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Feb. 15, 2020. After being stranded at sea for two weeks because five ports refused to allow their cruise ship to dock, the passengers of the MS Westerdam were anything but sure their ordeal was finally over. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Heng Sinith/AP

"We're fine, healthy so far," Sarajane said in an email, "but starting to worry about when and how we'll get out." Like dozens of other Americans, their flight was canceled after Morocco announced it would close its borders Sunday, and while there are some emergency flights out before Thursday, their tour group says they won't be on one.

There have been 38 confirmed cases in Morocco, with two deaths. Art and Sarajane said they worry about their group of 14 Americans, with 12 of them over the age of 70 and one aged 85 years old -- although she's the "most feisty" of the group, Art said.

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Local U.S. embassies have been trying to keep American travelers up to date on the latest restrictions through alerts, while the department issued an unprecedented worldwide advisory one week ago, urging all U.S. citizens to "reconsider travel" overseas until further notice.

That's left travelers like Stephanie Goldberger, one of dozens of Americans stranded in Peru, furious with U.S. officials and desperate for help to get home.

The U.S. Embassy in Lima "has given us no help so far," Goldberger said, stuck in the capital after the government closed all international borders and halted any travel between provinces, just before Goldberger arrived from Cusco, the ancient Incan capital popular with tourists. She said she has food and a place to wait out the two-week lock-down, but it's unclear if it will last longer than that -- with severe restrictions in place for now.

In dozens of alerts since the outbreak started, the State Department has warned through its local U.S. embassies that governments may enact travel restrictions on short notice.

"We are forbidden from stepping out of our hostel. One guy walked outside this morning, and he is not allowed to re-enter. Those are the rules of our hostel during quarantine, so police came and he could not retrieve his items inside," she said -- later adding that he was eventually allowed back inside.

In a small handful of cases, the local U.S. Embassy has assisted in an evacuation, chartering a flight out. U.S. staff and their families, Peace Corps volunteers, and any private citizen who signed up could join an evacuation flight Tuesday from Moldova, which shut all car, train, and commercial air travel in and out of the country. The embassy in Uzbekistan said Tuesday that it was also "determining the availability of a commercial flight" to evacuate Americans, requesting any citizens in the country who wish to depart to message them.

But many of the State Department's alerts for countries around the world have warned travelers should "have evacuation plans that do not rely on U.S. government assistance."

PHOTO: Passengers from the cruise ship Grand Princess board a chartered flight at Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif. March 11, 2020.
Passengers from the cruise ship Grand Princess board a chartered flight at Oakland International Airport in Oakland, Calif. March 11, 2020.
Kate Munsch/Reuters

"You see our travel advisories as they go out, trying to make sure they're in step with the latest data sets we have not only in each country, but in every province, county, township, so we're articulating them properly so that Americans make good decisions about whether they should or should not travel," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday.

Generally, the U.S. government does not evacuate private citizens, urging them instead to take commercial flights while they remain available. In addition to Morocco, the U.S. embassies in Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Serbia have all now urged Americans to take commercial flights out before borders are shut.

But the coronavirus travel restrictions often come suddenly, with a U.S. warning too late to be helpful. The embassy in Peru issued an alert just hours before borders closed Tuesday and pointed travelers to "their airlines to discuss options for rescheduling." In the meantime, it advised, "they should make arrangements for lodging in Peru for the duration of the quarantine period."

For Goldberger, it's also frustrating to see other countries like Israel and Argentina evacuate their citizens, while the embassy has been largely unresponsive. The U.S. Embassy told her to sign up for its alerts through its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP, but she hasn't received any messages since she did, she said.

That doesn't mean there won't be other evacuation flights. A State Department spokesperson told ABC News, "We are aware the governments of several countries have announced suspension of air travel. 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."

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For Sarajane and Art, the tour company they are traveling with, Overseas Adventure Travel, has been in touch with the U.S. Embassy in Rabat, Morocco's capital. A spokesperson for OAT told ABC News they expect to get their approximately 150 travelers in Morocco now out of the country within four to five days.

It's unclear how that will happen. Morocco's government will shut down all commercial air travel after Thursday, when the last of 30 emergency flights permitted to leave the country will ferry out European and American tourists to London and some European Union cities, according to the embassy.

Art told ABC News they have not been given any updates or instructed to prepare to travel Thursday. The U.S. Embassy said only they "are considering all options to assist U.S. citizens who wish to depart" in a statement Wednesday, requesting travelers enroll in the local STEP program for the latest updates.

"We all think someone should step up to the plate and charter some planes to resolve this," Art said in an email, adding later, "4-5 days is better than some of the worst case scenarios some of us have envisioned, but it will not be easy."

For now, they have been watching the last flights out of Marrakesh from the roof of their hotel, or riad, where they still have good food and toilet paper.

ABC News' Rachel Katz contributed to this report.

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