Empty Streets

In the normally crowded parts of Florence, Italy, Texas travelers Lael and Michael O’Brien encountered reduced numbers of other tourists due to rising coronavirus concerns. The couple, who currently lives in Bryan, are under self-quarantine after returning from a study-abroad trip in central Italy. 

Two separate trips abroad earlier this year left two Texas couples with different experiences regarding the coronavirus outbreak. Although one couple is currently under self-quarantine, neither contracted the virus at the center of a global health concern.

El Campoans Linda and LG Raun visited Egypt, Jordan and Israel in January while former El Campo native Lael O’Brien and her husband, Michael, stayed near Florence, Italy in February. The Rauns, who traveled earlier, skirted a majority of the coronavirus concern, but the O’Briens got a closer look at the epidemic’s global impact.

Beginning their trip on Jan. 15, the Rauns were unaware of the coronavirus outbreak, which was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization two weeks later.

“Probably a week into our trip, when we left Egypt and went to Jordan, we saw it in the news,” Linda Raun said.

When the couple reached Jordan, the country closed its borders to Chinese tourists. They did not encounter a lot of people wearing masks, but Raun said their tour guide was concerned about the virus.

“He made sure that we weren’t around any Chinese tour buses and he covered his mouth and had us cover our mouths,” she said.

As of presstime, Egypt has experienced an 80 percent decline in tourist bookings compared to the same time last year, according to the Egyptian Travel Agents Association.

“All three countries, especially Egypt and Jordan, their main economic driver is tourism and I feel really sorry for them,” Raun said.

Just to be safe, the couple avoided large groups of people and visited popular tourist spots outside of busy hours.

“I felt sorry for the Chinese tourists that were there, because people were steering clear of them,” Raun said. “They had not been home, and they didn’t even know about it and I’m sure they didn’t even want to go home.”

Concluding their vacation on Feb. 9, the Rauns flew home without a hitch.

“(Airport security) did ask us if we had flown through or been to China,” Raun said. “As long as you hadn’t gone to China, there was no problem getting back into the U.S., back then.”

About two weeks after the Rauns, the O’Briens left for Italy. Michael O’Brien is a professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, so the couple and a group of students attended a study abroad program in the central Tuscany region.

“Luckily ... it was a small village and it was away from the initial outbreak, (which was) in the Northern part of Italy,” Lael O’Brien said.

Since then, coronavirus concerns have largely remained concentrated in northern Italy. On Sunday, Italian officials restricted movement throughout the country in an effort to keep the virus from spreading.

The first time the group’s trip was affected by the coronavirus outbreak was when a planned three-day excursion to Venice was cancelled after the city was quarantined.

The study abroad trip was planned to last 90 days. Although there were no cases of coronavirus in central Italy, TAMU cancelled the trip on Feb. 29, requiring all students and faculty to return to the U.S.

On the final day of the trip, the group toured Florence, which was not under quarantine.

“Unfortunately, the galleries and the museums were all empty,” O’Brien said. “Restaurants were empty. I know the economy is suffering, even in the area that is not as severe as the northern part.”

The O’Briens did not encounter unusual airport security checks when they returned home, besides being asked if they’d traveled through China. However, upon return, both of the O’Briens’ employers required a 14-day self-quarantine.

“In my particular case, I only work part-time, so my job is secure,” O’Brien, an HEB pharmacist, said. “My husband is able to set up remotely with his students, from home.”

The self-quarantine ends on March 18. So far, the couple hasn’t encountered any problems while under quarantine. They have relied on home delivery for groceries.

“They’re not requiring any face-to-face contact with the delivery people and us, as far as having to touch any iPads or anything like that,” O’Brien said. “We’re able to get our groceries delivered at the doorstep.”

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