A Bayfield family scheduled two dream vacations for March, one in California, the other in New Zealand. Then, the nation’s response to the viral illness COVID-19 ramped up.
One half of the family, Trista Conroy and her daughter, Cadance Schmidt, a Bayfield student, might not be able to leave New Zealand – for 30 days.
Before the family left March 11, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the virus a public health emergency. When they left, the official advice was to wash hands and wear masks in airports to prevent the virus’ spread.
Since then, the United States declared a national emergency and airlines have canceled thousands of flights. New Zealand, with over 100 cases of COVID-19, is moving into a higher emergency response level that could lock the country down with Conroy and Schmidt on the island.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Americans avoid nonessential travel to Australia and 10 other countries because of the virus’ spread Tuesday, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
“I’m feeling very, very stressed,” Conroy said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald.
Conroy said the couple did not expect the response to the virus to escalate as quickly as it did. They had too much money tied up in prepaid activities there. The country survived the Swine Flu, or H1N1 virus, without shutting down. The family thought it would be OK.
“It was that mindset that the whole world has never really shut down. It’s not going to shut down over a flu,” she said. “In 72 hours, I felt, it just exploded into what we’re in now.”
The other half of the family started its trip to California to see Disneyland, which promptly shut down after they arrived, said Devin Conroy, a Durango Police Department officer. They stayed a few days then cut their vacation short.
On the other side of the planet, the mother and daughter started hearing the federal government talk about travel restrictions, lockdowns and closing borders. Colorado and local entities issued emergency declarations. Restaurants, bars and schools closed.
Conroy and Schmidt flew from Auckland, on New Zealand’s north island, to Queenstown on the south island. When they arrived, their flight back to Auckland was canceled.
The family, with Trista in New Zealand and her husband, Devin, in Colorado, scrambled to find a return flight (while managing a 19-hour time difference).
Days later, they returned to Auckland. Then they received a notification from United Airlines saying one leg of their return journey home was canceled.
“The worst part is that our San Francisco flight – that we were supposed to be on, that we had seats on, that we were told was canceled – flew out that day,” Trista Conroy said. “We could have avoided all of this.”
They tried to reschedule the flight, but the airlines had overbooked planes leaving more than 50 people on the standby list. They weren’t selected for boarding. They tried to call customer service but faced four- to five-hour wait times.
They last had a flight scheduled mere hours before New Zealand planned to increase its virus response Wednesday night (Tuesday in Colorado).
A United Airlines customer service agent said the airline has not begun scheduling trips after the Wednesday flight, Devin Conroy said.
“She’s like, ‘It could be 30-plus days until we start looking at flights again to bring people back,’” Conroy said.
“If we don’t make that flight, we’re on lockdown for 30 days in New Zealand,” Trista Conroy said.
Her main concern is child care and financial strain on the family. She might miss six weeks of work. Devin Conroy has cared for their 7-month-old baby, but he will have to start working evenings and weekends soon. With day care centers closed, they are relying on friends for child care.
“That means she’s going to be shuffled between multiple households with everything that’s going on. ... That is probably stressing me out the most,” Trista Conroy said.
Devin Conroy wants to reunite the family as soon as possible.
“So we don’t have to stress about what’s happening overseas. We can focus on our family unit and at least support each other through this,” he said.