Canadians scrambling to leave Europe as borders close and flights are suspended

Canadians working or travelling in Europe are rushing to book flights back home as more countries announce plans to close their borders and suspend international air travel in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

David McCulloch, a professional basketball player in a Spanish league, said it only took two days to go from mild concern to trying to return to Canada as soon as possible.

"Wednesday night we were watching a film preparing for a game on Thursday, then a couple hours later the game was cancelled," said McCulloch, who is from Hamilton.

He bought a plane ticket home for the following Wednesday, but soon he exchanged that flight for an even earlier one this Sunday.

"A lot can happen in two days," he said in a phone interview from Lleida, a city about 160 kilometres west of Barcelona.

Spain has reported nearly 6,000 cases of COVID-19, including more than 200 deaths. The country is placing tight restrictions on movements and closing restaurants and other establishments as part of a two-week state of emergency to fight the sharp rise in coronavirus infections.

For Canadians travelling in Poland, it was already too late to make a speedy departure after the country announced it would suspend international trains and flights on Sunday.

Renata Kaniewski, of Ottawa, who travelled to Poland for her mother’s funeral, said the next available flight offered by LOT Polish Airlines is scheduled for March 29. But she said there's no guarantee that flight will happen, as the Polish government has warned international flights could be suspended for longer.

"Right now I am worried about getting back to Canada, even with a new flight ticket for Mar. 29, because the government here in Poland keeps saying the international flights could be delayed even longer," she said.

On Saturday, Ottawa urged Canadians abroad to make their way home as soon as possible while there are still commercial flights available. The government did not say whether it would consider offering repatriation flights to its citizens stranded in European countries.

Some international students in Europe struggled to make sense of the situation as they waited for instruction from their universities back home.

Julia Baird, who is studying at a university near Frankfurt, Germany, as part of a double degree program with Brock University, said it took two days to get a response from Brock about whether or not she should come home.

"Two days doesn't seem like a big deal, but during a pandemic it is," said Baird.

"It put us in a panic because we saw our colleagues leaving, booking flights and we didn't even know whether we had to attend class," Baird said, adding that other schools in the U.S had already instructed their students to return home.

Baird said the university eventually explained that they were trying to craft a uniform response to all students, and she has since decided to book a flight home.

Some Canadians who work and live in Europe and weighing the possibility of continuing to work from their home country.

Spencer Mason, who works in IT in London, said his employer would only allow up to two weeks of telecommuting and he's worried he won't be able to return to England so soon.

"I have a fear that I'm going to be stuck in Canada if I do go home," he said. "Do I want to get stuck in Canada? I don't know."

For Mason, it's a trade-off between navigating a health-care system that he's familiar with in St. Catharines, Ont., and risking his job if he isn't able to return to London. He said he would also have to spend the two weeks at home in self-isolation, under the guidelines of the Canadian public health officials.

Others in Europe pointed to the self-isolation as an inconvenience, but said they were happy to see officials taking the COVID-19 outbreak seriously.

Baird already has her return from Germany planned out: her parents are dropping off a car at the airport, which she'll use to get back to their hometown and immediately self-isolate.

"I would've been more concerned if we just got off a plane and we were left to go through with our normal everyday lives," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 14, 2020.

 

 

Salmaan Farooqui, The Canadian Press