Mom of 2 affected by Peruvian border closure 'relieved' to be back in US

"The Americans from our original hotel group that evacuated with us are still stuck in Cusco. Some of them have young kids there."

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/ Source: TODAY
By Terri Peters

Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 18, 2020.

Update: Linda Scruggs and her partner, Mike Rustici, were able to return to the U.S. on Saturday, March 21, nearly one week after the Peruvian government announced that the country's borders would be closing due to coronavirus concerns.

The couple arrived back in the U.S. via a chartered flight from Lima to Miami, Florida, which was organized by their tour company, but cost more than $700 per ticket for the pair.

Linda Scruggs and her partner, Mike Rustici, arrived back in the U.S. on March 21, via a chartered flight from Lima to Miami.Linda Scruggs

"To be clear, our flight was through no assistance from the U.S. government," Scruggs told TODAY Parents. "The State Department sent emails the same day stating how they urged U.S. citizens to contact their airlines. But airlines are not flying, so it leads to these dead ends where Americans stuck in Peru feel disheartened and discouraged."

When they arrived at the Lima airport for their flight home, Scruggs says the situation was tense, with members of the crowd pushing toward the gate, desperate to get on their flight.

"The analogy being used outside the gate was that it was like trying to get on a lifeboat on the Titanic," Scruggs recalled. "As a mom with two young kids, along with Mike who also has two kids, we are relieved and grateful ... we also feel torn because the Americans from our original hotel group that evacuated with us are still stuck in Cusco. Some of them have young kids there."

"As a mom and nurse, what happens to those with medications that run out, or to kids and parents who are rationing food because the police and military are tightening security?"

According to an updated statement on the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru's website, approximately 500 Americans have departed Peru since the border closure last week.

"The U.S. Embassy in Lima continues to coordinate closely with the Peruvian government on all options for U.S. citizens to depart the country and are arranging charter aircraft," the statement reads. "The embassy is working with Peruvian authorities to ensure smooth transit for confirmed passengers within quarantine protocols."

When Linda Scruggs and her partner, Mike Rustici, booked a spring break trip to Peru, they began training for a four-day hike to Machu Picchu, an ancient city in the Andes Mountains.

But after the couple went to bed early on the night of Sunday, March 15, to rest up for their journey, Peru President Martín Vizcarra announced that Peruvian borders would close at 11:59 p.m. on Monday, March 16 due to the spread of coronavirus.

Linda Scruggs and her partner, Mike Rustici, touring Sacred Valley, Peru just hours before the announcement was made that the country was closing borders and going into lockdown due to coronavirus.Linda Scruggs

Things got chaotic quickly, Scruggs said.

"We got a knock on our hotel door that there was an emergency message for all hotel guests," Scruggs told TODAY Parents via email. "When we got up and went to the lobby, all of the guests were talking and frantically trying to call airlines, but I quickly realized it was pointless as all airlines were cancelling flights."

The U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru issued a statement on their website on March 16, warning that on the evening of March 15, the Peruvian government declared a state of emergency calling for 15 days of mandatory quarantine. The only exemptions for movement are to obtain food or medical care.

"All borders (land, air, and maritime) will be closed as of 11:59 p.m. on March 16," the statement reads. "American Citizens with flights into or out of Peru should contact their airlines to discuss options for rescheduling. If travelers are unable to rebook their flights to the United States or another port of entry, they should make arrangements for lodging in Peru for the duration of the quarantine period."

For Scruggs, who also writes and shares about parenting on social media as @unboxedmom, and the estimated hundreds of U.S. citizens who are now unable to leave Peru, the situation is complicated and, at times, feels unsafe. Scruggs said that the general manager of their hotel in Sacred Valley initially told guests they'd be able to remain at the hotel at no cost until they were able to get out of the country. Later, they were told they'd be sent away from the hotel in taxis.

"They said the property was exposed to the mountains and was a target for groups with machetes who may try and come," explained Scruggs. "Obviously this was terrifying and all of us packed up quickly. We all tried reaching the U.S. Embassy, the hotel staff were trying to reach the embassy as well as their connections within the country and nobody could get in touch with anyone, much less get a response."

Along with 25 other hotel guests, Scruggs and Rustici were transported by taxi to Cusco, a two-hour drive from their original hotel. Scruggs says the area was overcrowded, ill-prepared for the influx of travelers and had limited medical resources, so they decided to leave.

Scruggs and Rustici have four children between them, and are desperate to get back to the U.S. with their families.Linda Scruggs

"Mike and I were the only ones we know of from our group who were able to get on one of the last flights out of Cusco on Monday night to Lima before the midnight lockdown," said Scruggs, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. "We arrived in Lima on Monday night at 11 p.m. and most of the airport was already shutting down — police were outside in force and no taxis or Uber were available."

The couple accepted a ride from an illegal taxi and arrived at their hotel in Lima just 10 minutes before the lockdown went into effect.

Both Scruggs and Rustici are divorced and have two children each. Their kids, who range in age from 8 to 14, are all in the U.S. with their other parents. Scruggs says they decided to take the trip to Peru "knowing the kids were good and set" back at home.

Now, Scruggs and Rustici just want to return to their families.

"At the time, we feel like we made an informed decision, but now knowing the outcome, this has certainly been a learning experience," said Scruggs, who has been reassuring her own kids of her safety through FaceTime. "We realized this was a possibility, but we thought we would have a few days to get out at worst, and also assumed after registering with the embassy prior to our departure there would be some communication and warning so we could take action."

The day before the president of Peru announced the border closure, Scruggs says they went zip-lining and had no indication that the mandatory quarantine was about to be put into place.Linda Scruggs

Scruggs says she and other travelers have formed WhatsApp and Telegram groups for U.S. citizens stuck in Peru, and are trying to stay in touch and get attention and assistance from the U.S. by using the #stuckinperu hashtag on social media.

"As parents, one of the concerns here is the safety — not just for ourselves, but for young adults staying in hostels here who have limited access to food and supplies," said Scruggs. "Stores are closed, everything is shut down and people are being stopped by the police when they try to get to the grocery store that is open."

Scruggs says in the days prior to the border closure, there was no indication that coronavirus had become so severe in Peru that a shutdown was on the horizon.

"Everything was absolutely fine leading up to this and we were enjoying the Peruvian culture," said Scruggs. "Peruvian people we spoke with were appreciative that some tourists were there and no communication from our travel agent, our tour company for the Machu Picchu hike or our hotel indicated this right up until the moment it happened."

The U.S. Embassy in Peru sent auto-reply email from the American Citizen Services division of the embassy when TODAY Parents reached out.

"U.S. citizens in Peru who wish to return to the U.S. before March 30 should change your flights to depart today if possible," it reads. "Flights availability are extremely limited if not unavailable," the email reads. "Contact your air carrier to make changes immediately. If you are unable to change your flight, you will have to make arrangements for accommodations locally."

"While the U.S. government has successfully evacuated many of our citizens in recent weeks, special flights do not reflect our standard practice and should not be relied upon as an option for U.S. citizens abroad who may be impacted by the ongoing spread of COVID-19," the email continues. "U.S. citizens should make plans using commercial travel options."

Scruggs says her motto has always been "travel while you can," but now, as she waits to see how the coming days play out, her concern is getting home to her children and her aging mother, who had a stroke a year ago and is currently locked down in her nursing home facility in New York City.

"As responsible parents, we realize this is a time of uncertainty everywhere, but this was an extreme measure taken so fast that Americans were never actually given a chance to get back home," Scruggs continued. "We are paying for our hotel, food and supplies, and many people are worried about what will happen if this continues to go on, or if security will become more of an issue here if things deteriorate."

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