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Coronavirus thwarts student spring break travel plans

February 28, 2020

Jingyi Zhou ’22 was planning to return home to Beijing over spring break to celebrate her 21st birthday with friends and family. She had booked her ticket during winter break, before the extent of the COVID-19 virus outbreak in China had been revealed. At least, she hoped, it wouldn’t be as serious as the 2003 SARS outbreak.

“I booked the flight and hoped everything was going to be fine, but as soon as I arrived at Bowdoin—and I remember it was January 22—I was calling my mom and my mom said, there’s a chance that my flight will be cancelled because the virus just spread out in China, and Beijing is actually a dangerous place to go,” said Zhou.

In early February, Zhou received notice from United Airlines that her flights had been cancelled, as well as all flights into and out of Beijing, Chengdu, Hong Kong and Shanghai until April 24. The notice came after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global health emergency on January 30 and the U.S. government introduced travel restrictions on February 8, barring entry by non-U.S. citizens who had visited China (excluding Hong Kong and Macau) in the 14 days before arriving in the U.S..

With cases confirmed in four dozen countries so far and economic activity stagnant, causing stock prices to tumble for the sixth day in a row, coronavirus has reached near pandemic effects. The virus has impacted Bowdoin’s campus as well. Many students, the majority international, are now finding their travel plans thwarted by the worldwide outbreak.

Spring break, which for students begins March 6 and lasts until March 23, is a popular time to travel home, especially for international students who often do not return home for the shorter fall and Thanksgiving breaks. This year, however, plans made weeks ago had to be cancelled or quickly changed in response to travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. government—and it is likely that more restrictions will be put in place in the weeks to come.

Though spread of the virus in China seems to have slowed since it first appeared in December, new cases have been detected elsewhere. As of Thursday evening, 78,824 cases have been confirmed in mainland China, and in South Korea 2,022 cases have been confirmed, the second highest number. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending travelers avoid all “nonessential travel” to these countries.

Hundreds of cases have also been confirmed in Europe and the Middle East, with the most in Italy and Iran, and cases have begun to appear in North and South America as well. At least 2,800 people have died from the virus so far.

The rapid spread of the virus is causing more problems for students who are trying to rearrange their travel plans. After she learned she would not be able to return to Beijing, Zhou made plans to visit friends and family in the United Kingdom, but even now, that plan does not seem entirely safe.

“I closely track these numbers to see if there’s any growth. If there’s a huge increase in one day [in Europe], then I would probably choose to stay [on campus],” she said. “But the thing I worry [about] the most is not, [whether] my flight is going to get cancelled. It’s that when I arrive in the U.K., the outbreak starts, and I can’t come back to Bowdoin.”

Due to the travel restrictions already in place, Bowdoin will allow affected students to stay on campus and provide housing and dining services.

Khoa Khuong ’04, associate dean of upperclass students and adviser to international students, has been in contact with students whose travel plans home have been affected by coronavirus. He reiterated that he wanted “to make sure that we have resources to accommodate for this travel ban or potential travel bans.”

“One of the things we do is we offer campus housing for spring break,” said Khuong. “Normally your meal plans are not in effect during spring break, but because of [the virus], we’re paying for meals for the entire break, regardless of students’ aid level.”

Jiun Kim ’19, who lives in Gangneung, South Korea, was glad to hear about the school’s arrangements since he will be unable to go home over break.

“In terms of accommodations, I think the school is doing really good,” said Kim. Still, he expressed disappointment for missing time with family and friends, as well as potential career opportunities.

“I was going to apply to a few companies in Korea [for summer internships] because during spring break I could do on-site interviews, but now I can’t,” he noted.

Shuhao Liu ’22, also from Beijing, had already bought his tickets to return home for spring break by the time he returned to Bowdoin in January. Like Zhou, he learned in early February that he would not be able to make that trip.

He reached out to a friend who lives in the Bahamas, who, in turn, invited Liu to spend the break with him. Though touched by the generosity of his friend and hopeful that he won’t have to stay on campus for two weeks, Liu is still hesitant about traveling internationally, even to a country where no cases of the virus have been confirmed.

“First of all, obviously, being at an airport, being on a plane, that adds on to the risk of being exposed to it,” he said. “And also the potential of me, as an international traveler, a non-US citizen going outside of the borders, and then coming back to the states … for all we know, the U.S. government might impose new restrictions on that. And if that might be the case, I don’t think it’s worth it for me to go anywhere.”

Risk of new travel restrictions between now and the end of spring break dissuaded Rose Xi ’22 from traveling home to Tokyo where she intended to renew her student visa. Slightly more than 200 cases have been confirmed in Japan, and the U.S. State Department has issued a Level Two travel advisory for the country. Though no travel restriction has been introduced for people coming into the U.S. from Japan, Xi said she can foresee that happening.

“I don’t want to go back to get my U.S. visa renewed but then I can’t come back and finish the rest of the semester,” she said. “I’d rather play it safe and stay here.”

As for her visa, she is hoping she can mail her passport back to Japan to get it renewed remotely. But if that doesn’t work?

“I don’t know. I’ll figure something out.”

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