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"I wanted to be with my family"

Freeporter returns from Spain amid pandemic

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As news of the coronavirus outbreak spread across the world last month, Lindsay Eberhart, 20, of Freeport, was studying in Barcelona, Spain. Despite the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in Spain and a shutdown in Italy, Eberhart remained calm, but unease crept in when President Trump announced on March 11 that travel to the U.S. from most of Europe would be suspended.

Although the travel ban allows U.S. citizens in Europe to return to their homes whenever they wish, Eberhart watched as more and more Americans she knew left for the U.S. After a frightening night of running into people wearing facemasks and empty store shelves, Eberhart bought a ticket and returned to Freeport last Sunday, and is now waiting out a 14-day quarantine. 

“I really wanted to spend more time in Spain, but at least I can be with my family now,” she said.

Eberhart, a junior at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, left for Barcelona in January, having signed on with the Institute for the International Education of Students, which offers programs in Europe and Asia to students from around the world. The program allowed Eberhart to take courses at the IES’s Spanish facility and the University of Barcelona. She also saw it as an opportunity to hone her Spanish language skills. 

Unlike her house in Freeport, the home Eberhart stayed at rarely had the TV on, so she didn’t know how Spain was handling the coronavirus outbreak. She was, however, seeing how the U.S. was beginning to deal with the pandemic through social media. While the people of Barcelona seemed apathetic about the outbreak, Eberhart followed stories about Americans hoarding supplies and hunkering down. 

The reaction worried her and her fellow IES students, but her mother, Teresa Eberhart, a nurse at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, calmed her down. Teresa, 51, said she does not panic and reassured her daughter that all would be fine and she should continue her study abroad. 

“I’m not an alarmist,” Teresa said. “I felt that she would be able to ride it out. We were even going to visit her on April 4.”  

Even as American students began to leave Barcelona, Teresa assured Lindsay that the virus was not a threat to her, as it has a 3 to 4 percent infection mortality rate, and is more dangerous for older adults, according to the World Health Organization. 

Following the travel ban, Lindsay’s roommate took the next flight home. Unsure what to do, Lindsay took a walk to clear her head on March 12. That night, she stopped by a local grocery store, which had rows of empty shelves as people rushed to stockpile supplies, and she bumped into five people wearing facemasks.

“That’s when it got real,” Lindsay said. “It instilled this fear in me. I thought that if things do go south, I wanted to be with my family.” 

She was also worried about putting her host-mother, who was over 60 years old, at risk by going in and out of her house. 

So she left Spain. Her mother agreed with the decision.

“I was never worried about the virus,” Teresa said. “But it’s another thing if she gets stuck abroad with limited resources when she’s trying to study. That’s definitely not an ideal study abroad.” 

As Lindsay was preparing for her flight home on Saturday, the Spanish government declared a state of emergency in response to the pandemic. At press time Wednesday, the virus had spread to more than 5,000 people and killed 200 across Spain. As in the U.S., schools, libraries and museums were closed, along with restaurants and bars.  

“We are prepared for the state of alarm,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said in a TV announcement. “The measures we are taking are drastic and . . . are going to have consequences.” 

Spain’s sudden restrictions caused rumors to swirl about whether Americans would be allowed to leave the country. Lindsay was worried. She was, however, able to return to the U.S.

When she arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport, members of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cleared her and instructed her to place herself under quarantine for 14 days. 

With Lindsay back home, and Teresa and her other daughter working in hospitals, the Eberhart family realized they were all sharing the same level of risk of contracting the virus, but the fact that they were going through it together brought them a sense of peace. Teresa, who has been a nurse for more than 30 years, said family members would avoid direct contact with seniors and other vulnerable populations. She added, again, that the virus didn’t worry her.  

“My family is all right,” Teresa said. “I’ve always taught them to keep clean, so the virus itself is not what I’m afraid of. My fear stems from the fact that everyone is in panic mode and can make irrational decisions that affect all of us.”