Antigua is open for travel — but this group hit some major snags after testing positive for COVID-19
International borders are beginning to reopen around the world. But in many cases, procedures for crossing them remain a mystery — even for U.S. travelers returning home to the United States.
Related: Antigua open to tourists again
Katie Snyder and seven friends recently returned to the U.S. from a trip to Antigua. But instead of connecting through to LaGuardia, per their American Airlines flight itinerary, the travelers found themselves detained June 25, in Miami International Airport (MIA) by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), along with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials.
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Here's what happened:
Snyder, a photographer based in Bucks County, PA, has faced a rough few months. She didn't qualify for a stimulus check, nor did she receive a small business loan. But she did have one bright spot to look forward to: A group trip to Antigua and Barbuda in June, booked more than a year in advance with her boyfriend, his sister and brother-in-law, and two other couples who were close friends.
Related: Barbados will reopen to Americans in mid-July
"We were originally planning to go to Grenada," Snyder told TPG, "but the country's borders weren't open at the time of travel." The group's travel agent pointed out that neighboring Caribbean nation Antigua and Barbuda was open to U.S. tourists for their travel dates, so the group decided to pivot their plans there instead. Each couple paid between $4,000 to $4,500 for their portion of the trip. (While Snyder did not purchase travel insurance for her trip, it's likely that a standard insurance plan would not have covered disruptions caused by coronavirus anyway.)
Related: 16 destinations Americans can visit again
All seemed well upon the travelers' arrival at the V.C. Bird International Airport (ANU) in Antigua late in the evening of June 19. Snyder and her group knew that Antigua has rigorous COVID-19 screening protocols in place for visitors, and the group submitted to screening and testing procedures. Local officials checked everyone's temperatures using handheld thermometers, and two out of the eight travelers in Snyder's party were singled out for COVID-19 testing: Tamie, a teacher, and Lisa, a nurse, both submitted to nasal swab tests.
Related: 4 Caribbean ports to explore in a day, including Antigua
According to Snyder, Antigian officials told the party that the two friends, who come from different households, were selected for testing because of their occupations and their actions leading up to the trip. Based on Antigua's current travel advisory, the testing process is at the discretion of local officials.
Screening took about an hour and a half, Snyder told TPG, and the travelers departed Antigua's main airport close to 2 a.m. From there, they met a country-sanctioned driver service to get them to the Airbnb where they planned to rest for a few hours until check-in time at the Sandals Grande Antigua Resort in St. Johns, Antigua. They were able to check into the property without incident.
The next four days were idyllic, Snyder told TPG. "We were allowed to travel all over the island even while we waited for the results of our coronavirus tests. [Antigua] was beautiful, and the employees and people were so welcoming."
While there, Snyder noticed that the only people wearing face masks were Sandals employees.
Everything changed for the party on the evening of Wednesday, June 24, when local authorities informed Tamie and Lisa around 9 p.m. that both women had tested positive for COVID-19.
"[Antigua officials] called to tell us the news, then asked all eight of us to quarantine for 14 days," Snyder said. "Shortly after, they lowered the requirement to seven days."
Instead of quarantining in the country, Snyder's party chose to leave Antigua and fly back to the United States the next day on their scheduled flight. She described a Sandals staffer as reacting positively to this news, saying the staff members were supportive of the travelers' decision to return home. So Snyder and her companions attempted to get guidance from U.S. officials before heading to the airport the next day.
She told TPG that a member of her travel party was able to reach someone at a U.S. embassy, although the travelers do not know what department ultimately authorized their travel. According to Snyder's fellow traveler, the official assured the travelers that if they followed CDC guidelines, they "would be fine" and that U.S. officials would ensure that everything was taken care of at the Antigua airport, including notifying American Airlines.
However, the "green light" response the travelers received is inconsistent with stated policy that airlines cannot accept travelers who are known to be positive for COVID-19, as outlined in Antigua's travel advisory as well as the CDC's COVID-19 guidelines and Do Not Board protocol.
Before they departed the resort, an on-staff nurse at Sandals told the friends that the airport had been alerted to their arrival. The departing travelers were also given N95 masks and hand sanitizer by Sandals staff.
Indeed, when the party arrived at the airport, local officials were waiting for them. "[They] were pulling us aside to make sure we were distanced from everyone," Snyder told TPG, and everyone was offered even more hand sanitizer. "But other than that, nothing happened," she said. "We checked in, then waited in the terminal for 90 minutes."
Snyder and her party boarded American Airlines Flight 2405 from Antigua to Miami, the same flight that TPG's Brian Kelly took a few days later to return home to the U.S.
The group trusted the advice given to them by the U.S. embassy staffer, believing that it was safe to return to the U.S.
Welcome to Miami
Upon arrival at Miami International Airport (MIA), Snyder's group was met by a group of CDC and Customs and Border Protection officials wearing protective gear to prevent COVID-19 transmission. “It was very scary [to have] that many people lining the airport waiting for us," Snyder told TPG. "There were people in full-on gear from the CDC."
Officials then led Snyder and the group into a location that she described as an "unsanitary room that looked like a locker room." The group spent a total of three hours undergoing COVID-19 screening.
The travelers were then ushered into a different waiting area after a CBP official repeatedly pushed for them to be given drinking water as well as more space to spread out to avoid further exposure.
"U.S. Customs and Border Protection is following the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines at all ports of entry," a CBP spokesperson told TPG. "If CBP observes an individual who has symptoms of COVID-19 or who otherwise meets the CDC’s COVID-19 screening guidelines, then CBP will refer the individual to the CDC, DHS medical contractors, or local health officials for enhanced health screening. All travelers should heed State Department and CDC travel advisories prior to planning travel."
Snyder criticized the CDC's response in Miami. "They definitely weren’t prepared at all for this situation," she said. "They didn’t have food, water or anything else for us." She also told TPG that it seemed like the CDC was drafting procedures as they went along, and did not appear to have a formalized process in place.
Snyder also told TPG that she had concerns about how the group's COVID-19 tests were handled by CDC staffers. She observed that the CDC official administering tests didn't change gloves between tests administered to each traveler. She also said that, "At one point, he dropped trash, picked it up, and kept going with the same gloves."
Finally, Snyder said that the CDC official combined all of the testing swabs in a single, open plastic bag, then transported it along with the travelers in a single EMT van. As shown in the photo, the bag was placed beside the driver, and the group drove to a medical facility to drop off the swabs. The travelers were then brought to what they were told by their van driver was a CDC-designated hotel partner for handling COVID cases.
Despite some confusion, Snyder said that the Miami Beach police department as well as hotel staff went above and beyond to keep the eight travelers safe and fed. "They were the most calming people this entire time," Snyder said. "They told us we could order food through delivery apps, and the police department kept checking in on us to make sure we had water and food. One of the hotel staffers even ran out and bought us a case of water with his own money."
Sometime Friday, June 26, the test results from the Miami airport COVID-19 test results came back. Confusingly, all eight travelers tested negative for COVID-19 — contradicting the test results from Antigua.
Around 3:30 p.m., the CDC representative came to the hotel to distribute all of the paperwork, including the travelers' test results, and announced that everyone had been taken off of the official "Do Not Board" list, Snyder told TPG. The travelers departed the next morning at 4:30 a.m., landing in Philadelphia (PHL) instead of LaGuardia to avoid New York's new 14-day quarantine requirement for travelers entering from high-risk states.
Snyder hopes that sharing their experience with other travelers will highlight the risks of traveling during this time, despite international borders reopening. "Anyone traveling outside the country needs to know [our experience] might be a possibility," she said
Asked what she would tell friends planning a similar trip, Snyder said she would recommend travelers wait until the coronavirus pandemic settles down further before traveling. "If people really want to take the chance, and with the amount of money you want to spend, wait until you can go and really enjoy it. [Right now], it’s really restrictive and not as fun of an experience as it would be if you just wait a while.”
Still, Snyder is leaving the Caribbean with more good memories than bad ones. "It was beautiful. My boyfriend and I want to go back once things are in the clear – down the road, obviously, not for a while."
Related: A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery
TPG has reached out to the CDC for comment, but had not heard back as of the time of publication. The Antigua tourism board has reached out to the Ministry of Health to inquire about the travelers' situation.
Related: Country by country guide to Caribbean reopening
On June 27, Antigua's Prime Minister Gaston Browne raised newfound concerns over the complexities of admitting tourists to the country in this moment — especially when they test positive for COVID-19. Browne said that the country is rethinking its current entry protocol.
He described scenarios of visitors refusing to be tested, and refusing to follow guidelines when they test positive. He's also worried about a situation where travelers are threatening to sue over the country's policies.
All photos courtesy of Katie Snyder.