Aaron Millstein and Angela Park taking in the sights in Lima, Peru before the country closed its borders. (Photo courtesy of Angela Park)

Couple stuck in Peru after abrupt border closure

SF residents among the 1,500 U.S. citizens stuck in country due to coronavirus lockdown

What started out as a vacation inspired by the love of spicy food has turned into a nightmare for a San Francisco couple.

On March 9, Mission district resident Angela Park and her boyfriend Aaron Millstein flew from San Francisco to Lima, Peru for a week-long vacation they had planned since last year. But then on March 15, President Martin Vizcarra of Peru declared a state of emergency and a 15-day quarantine that closed the country’s borders. Foreigners were given 24 hours to evacuate.

Park and Millstein were jogging through a local park when they were stopped by the Lima police and first notified of the quarantine orders. They immediately headed for the airport.

“It was complete chaos,” Park said, adding that the airport was crowded with thousands of desperate international travelers trying to catch the last commercial flights back to their own countries, costing some $3,000 to $6,000 per person. The couple, along with over 1,500 other American travelers, was unable to find flights out in time.

Now they have banded together with other stranded Americans to urge the U.S. government to bring them home. Park started a petition that she hopes will pressure the State Department to extradite the remaining Americans.

“They got caught, they were late with their flights, we gave them a period of time, they didn’t make it, but we’re looking to get them out, probably through the military,” said President Donald Trump Thursday at a press briefing with the Coronavirus Task Force.

Park said there has been little word from the State Department on how or if the U.S. citizens stuck in Peru will be evacuated. In an email sent to some Americans who signed up for a department alert service, the U.S. embassy in Lima said it is coordinating with the Peruvian government to arrange charter aircraft flights. A flight of 264 Americans departed Lima for Washington, DC on Friday and 175 US citizens departed Saturday for Miami. But Park said those flights were only for embassy workers and those that are sick.

”Everyone here is trying to find the balance between what is real news and what is just rumors because there is nothing official,” Park said. “The embassy information is outdated, and they are unresponsive. Anything actionable we have received has been through the airlines or the Peruvian government.”

Angela Park and Aaron Millstein attend a cooking class while in Lima, Peru. (Photo courtesy of Angela Park)

Their trip was originally planned for Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province, an area known for its spicy cuisine. When news started breaking of the growing coronavirus outbreak in January, Park changed plans and headed for South America instead. At the time, only six cases of the virus had been confirmed in Peru, and the U.S. State Department listed the country as a level 2 travel advisory, recommending travelers exercise increased caution due to crime.

“I tend to worry a lot, and I always think it’s better to be safe than sorry but even for me, it didn’t seem like a big risk,” Park said. “Of course, it’s hard to think about in retrospect.”

On Thursday, the State Department raised the global travel advisory to level 4, advising citizens not to travel internationally as countries could close their borders unexpectedly. On Friday, the U.S. embassy in Peru reported there were 263 cases of the virus in the country.

Other countries like Israel, Australia and Mexico have evacuated their citizens out of Peru, leaving many Americans wondering why the U.S. government has not done the same. All international commercial flights have been cancelled, and airlines are only circulating signup documents for travelers to express interest in flights.

But Park and Millstein worry it may be too late. On Saturday the Defense Minister of Peru Walter Martos said the president has ordered that as of Sunday all airports and borders will be closed under much stricter measures and military enforcement. The couple expects the quarantine to extend past April 1, when they were able to book the first available flight back to the U.S.

“We are quite lucky in a relative sense, I think. We are in a main city in a decent apartment, and can afford to stay here a few extra weeks if necessary,” Millstein said. “Some people are in tatters with all the uncertainty, especially since the government here seems to be making a habit of turning our lives upside down every other day.”

Aaron Millstein overlooks the city of Lima, Peru from the balcony of an AirBnB where he and Angela Park have been confined to since the country entered a 15-day quarantine. (Photo courtesy of Angela Park)

Park, who works as a UX designer for a health tech company, is working remotely while in Peru but said the cost of living in an AirBnB for the time being while continuing to pay rent in the Mission is adding up. Millstein is also working remotely for Verily’s Project Baseline, which is conducting testing for COVID-19 in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

“It’s been wild to not only be trapped in Peru because of the virus, but to simultaneously be actively fighting to reduce the damage it can cause back home,” Millstein said.

For now, the couple has no other choice but to wait out the crisis. Between work, the two have stayed inside constantly checking for flight updates, looking on Twitter for responses from Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, or checking daily emails from the office of Sen. Diane Feinstein.

“I keep wondering, should I be even more proactive and do something more, or should I be bunkering down and preparing to be in this for the long haul?” Park said, echoing a sentiment of many within U.S. borders during the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s so hard to choose which one. The uncertainty is what’s difficult.”

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