Restrictions on foreign travel due to COVID-19 trapped more than three dozen New Hampshire residents in other countries, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-NH, said Wednesday.
During a telephone interview, Hassan said she’s currently working with 20 of these citizens and is assisting 16 from other states to get either a commercial or government-sponsored flight back to America.
“Some people from other states haven’t been able to hook up with their member of Congress so folks we are helping let them know we’re glad to assist them as well if we can,” Hassan said.
Peru had the most significant dilemma for Americans when, in mid-March, leaders in that country imposed without warning a full quarantine that prevented nearly 2,000 Americans from getting home.
Late Wednesday, Hassan said she got word one New Hampshire resident had managed to board a flight from Cuzco to the capital of Lima that will lead to a connecting flight back to the United States.
“The underlying issue in Peru where we got the first six out was the fact that they were under a full quarantine. What complicates things is that when you are in a rural part of that nation and there is no mass transportation then you lack even the ability to get to an airport,” said Hassan, a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
These travelers have ranged from students studying abroad to tourists who came to visit the Inca ruins in Machu Picchu.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, also D-NH, has also worked on this matter as the only woman in the Senate on both the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.
Last week, Shaheen spoke personally with Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun about the issue.
A letter from the entire state’s delegation Wednesday urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to create a comprehensive repatriation plan for all those who are stranded as soon as possible.
“The Department must also facilitate the safe and immediate transport of Americans located in rural or isolated areas of Peru, to Lima,” said the letter.
“While we understand this is a rapidly evolving situation with many moving pieces, it is necessary that the repatriation of U.S. citizens remains the top priority of the department.”
Many countries posed travel risks
In the past few weeks these cases have cropped up in several countries including Morocco, Colombia, India, Haiti, Egypt, Kuwait, Tunisia and Honduras.
“In Cuzco Peru, another difficult issue was that the airstrip there is at such an elevation that our country’s pilots were not cleared to land there,” Hassan said.
“So we had to work with pilots from other countries to assist the State Department in this mission.”
In another case, Hassan said she just learned a cruise ship with some New Hampshire residents on it was off the coast of Uruguay and would soon dock and lead to their safe return home.
“It’s a complicated country by country specific situation; sometimes it’s a matter of working with the local embassy official and other times we have had to network with the State Department,” Hassan said.
Last week, President Donald Trump said he was working on getting Americans out of Peru though he said it was their fault they had gotten stuck.
“They got caught, they were late with their flights, we gave them a period of time, they didn’t make it, but we’re looking to get them out probably through the military,” Trump said during a briefing on COVID-19.
Criticism for slow initial response
Several congressional leaders in both political parties were critical of the State Department for moving too slowly to deal with this problem.
“It is fair to say that at the outset of this issue more than a week ago the response from the State Department was that we didn’t see a plan in place,” Hassan said.
“There wasn’t an awareness that this would require kind of an all-tools-in-the-toolbox approach to get this done.”
Hassan said the agency’s posture has since gotten more robust.
“It has taken consistent pressure from not only elected officials in D.C. but also elected officials in other parts of the country,” Hassan said.
“My sense from my staff is that we are seeing a great deal more urgency from the State Department and that’s been encouraging.”
Hassan urged residents to reach out to her office with any travel concerns.
“If anyone out there has family that is abroad and they are concerned about their return, don’t hesitate to call our office at 603-622-2204,” Hassan added.
“All of our in-state staff is working remotely now so the call could go to voicemail, but I assure you someone will be getting back to you shortly.”