Islanders visiting Italy seek way home
Two Salt Spring residents have found themselves caught in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy, which has just been declared the new epicentre of a virus that has reached global pandemic status.
Heidi Crouse and her 17-year-old son Seth are part-way through what was supposed to be a month-long trip to Europe, and are now trying to get a flight home to Canada. The hotel they are staying in has remained open to accommodate them but would like to close Thursday, as the Italian government imposed travel bans, banned public events and closed schools across much of the country this week.
“We’re trying to make the best of it. I’m surprisingly good — usually I stress out a lot,” Crouse told the Driftwood on a phone call from Florence. “In some ways it’s wonderful to be in a beautiful city that normally would be so crowded. It would never happen normally. So here we are.”
As of Wednesday Italy had reported more than 10,000 cases of COVID-19, with 827 deaths. The outbreak started in the Lombardy region, of which Milan is the capital city. But when the Crouses first started planning the visit last fall, COVID-19 was an unknown threat.
Attending the 18th birthday party for a beloved international student billet at his home in Milan was the impetus for the trip. The mother and son pair was then going to meet up with a Gulf Islands Secondary School trip that Heidi’s husband/Seth’s dad Dean Crouse was leading, and then continue to London to see family members.
“We thought, this is close to spring break, Dean’s class was going to Florence and we had family in England — it’s all lining up to be perfect,” Crouse said. “So I took Seth out of school and said, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s have fun.’”
With Seth in Grade 11 in the French Immersion stream, the Crouses started their European trip in Paris. They were immediately impacted by the virus, although the outbreak was at lesser levels. They waited for hours in the rain to get into the Louvre on the same day that workers walked out. Museum administrators failed to declare the facility closed and let people wait in line.
The next stop was the French part of Switzerland, where they had a lovely three days and were kind of out of touch with the news. Then Crouse received a phone call from their former billet letting them know that things were getting worse, but that they could still visit. She checked the Canadian government website several times to find travel was still deemed fine with the normal precautions.
“So we went, and Edoardo’s family was so amazing. They took us right out of Milan to their place in the Italian Alps,” Crouse said.
Heading back to Milan after the birthday celebration, though, the family was aware that a quarantine was about to be announced for the Lombardy region. The Crouses took a train to the Cinque Terre region the next morning. Once there they were told to try to get somewhere with an airport, so they proceeded to Florence. They arrived there on Tuesday, March 10.
With the GISS trip to Italy and Greece already cancelled by that point, Crouse had been planning to fly to London early. Then she got word that she would not be able to see her family member there, who happens to be an emergency room doctor.
The hope now is to get to Rome and find a flight home to Canada, although tickets are going for around $4,000 and it’s still not clear what insurance will cover for the cancelled flights. The Driftwood will be staying in touch for an update on their situation.
In related news, Gulf Islands School District superintendent Scott Benwell reported at the March 11 school board meeting that in addition to the Italy/Greece trip being cancelled, the planned GISS music trip to Cuba and a day trip to Seattle for international students are also not happening. The GISS Improv team will still be allowed to go to national championships in Ottawa in May.