Our family has been traveling full-time since August 2019. We have three young children – 4-year-old twins and an 18-month-old baby.
Our trip abruptly ended two months early in Italy when we chose to come back to the US due to the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy and around the world.
I am having a hard time wrapping my brain around our experience and the state of the world now. My hope in writing this is twofold: First, I need an outlet to process and sort through what happened and to assure myself that we made the best decisions in the midst the worst situation. Second, I hope that you can learn from our experience in Italy. I want you to imagine your life, your town, your grocery store, your outdoor spaces. Because it will be, if it’s not already.
COVID-19 Cases in Italy and Lucca
For some context on “what the heck were we thinking” when we went to Italy and to put into perspective the enormous change that occurred in only 17 days, here are the numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Italy and Lucca from the time we arrived until the time we left Italy. These numbers refer to the province of Lucca (population 380,000), not the city of Lucca (population 88,000).
- March 1 – Arrived in Italy: 2,036 cases in Italy / 1 case in Lucca
- March 5 – Arrived in Lucca: 3,858 cases in Italy / 8 cases in Lucca
- March 9 – Country-wide lockdown: 9,172 cases in Italy / 37 cases in Lucca
- March 13 – All non-essential stores close: 17,660 cases in Italy / 79 cases in Lucca
- March 18 – Departed Italy: 35,072 cases in Italy / 230 cases in Lucca
Quarantined in Lucca, Italy
We arrived in Lucca, Italy on March 5th after spending five days in a strangely sleepy Rome. We had planned to be there for four weeks and had paid our Airbnb upfront for the month. At the time, the northern region of Italy (Lombardy, Milan, etc.) was ablaze with cases (about 2,000) and many restrictions on citizens and businesses were in place, but the rest of the country had remained relatively safe and open. People were still moving forward with plans to travel to Italy having adjusted their schedules to omit the north. We felt comfortable yet cautious moving forward with our plans. We were already in motion when we heard that schools nation-wide were closing.
We never expected the entire country of Italy to go into lockdown. We assumed there would always be time to make plans and get out if needed. We felt safe in the small town of Lucca and in our little neighborhood.
Having been in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia during the onset of the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, we were already practiced obsessively good hygiene and were well-versed in what would soon be known as “social distancing.” We spent the first few days in Lucca enjoying its gorgeous outdoor spaces, eating pizza and gelato, but also prioritizing Luca’s naps and spending a lot of time at home. Places and events like museums, archeological sites, movie theaters, libraries, clubs, concerts, etc. closed on March 8th, three days after our arrival, the first country-wide swoop of closures.
With little to do and an uncertain future, we decided to go to our next scheduled stop early and booked tickets to fly to Croatia that weekend. We had already gone to sleep on March 9th when the Italian government announced the country-wide quarantine. I awoke to texts from friends in the States at 2AM wondering what the announcement meant for us. I went into panic mode. I sprung out of bed and began thinking through how I was going to pack up all of our stuff so that we could leave in the morning. I called the US Embassy and Air France to move up our flight, quickly realizing that 2AM is not a business hour. Once we got in contact with the Embassy later that day, we were sent to a call center in the US. The woman repeatedly told me to “follow the instructions of the local government,” and offered nothing else. By the time we would leave Italy, the US Embassy would be reduced to bare bones, emergency staffing only. We never attempted calling again.
The next few days were really confusing. The rules of the lockdown were ambiguous and left a lot of room for interpretation, and we didn’t have anyone in Italy to talk to. The main regulations of the country-wide quarantine were:
- Stay mostly inside your home
- One person from a family for grocery shopping.
- Restaurants and stores close by 6PM
- Maintain a one-meter distance from other people
- No congregating
- Exercise is allowed
- No travel outside municipalities except for work, caring for a family member, or “essential travel,” which also afforded tourists the ability to return home.
In an Instagram post I detailed the vibe of the city, which honestly didn’t feel much different than the days prior.
“When the day started in Lucca it was just like any other day. People were outside walking with purpose and for leisure. Conversations were happening, some at a distance that seem to be respecting the meter rule. Lots of phone calls. Three people with masks. Shops (souvenir, hair salons, clothing, etc.), restaurants, and (this part is important) gelaterias were open. Signs were in windows of shops stating how many people are allowed inside at a time to respect the meter-rule. No one appeared to be panicking. We expect that more rules will be created and enforced as the week goes on.”@threeweewanderers on Instagram
We felt like we were being really responsible with our outdoor time. We had stopped going to playgrounds after a two-year-old girl from Lucca contracted the virus and it chilled us to the bone. We only went for a walk and runaround on the wall for less than an hour day. Police were patrolling the streets and the wall. If people congregated, they were told by the police to go home. We were never stopped though we always felt anxious that we were doing something wrong. We didn’t have anyone local to talk to or a true sense of what was going on there and how people were responding to the regulations. We were isolated, lonely, and vulnerable.
Beginning with the initial lockdown, only one person per family was allowed to go grocery shopping at a time. We shopped exclusively at the small chain store inside the city walls close to our apartment. There was a larger store 15 minutes away on the outside of the walls but carrying groceries from there was difficult for one person to do. There was also a lot more people in and out of that store and we wanted to limit our exposure. The floor was marked with tape every meter, a visual of the distance you needed to maintain from one another. Our store was always fully stocked, and we never had an issue buying anything that we wanted. Justin and I and traded off days and looked forward to grocery shopping because it meant we could spend time outside of the house. After a few days we made the decision to go to the store as little as possible to limit our exposure but to also do our part to protect the workers from as much exposure.
In the days following the initial lockdown on March 9th, our feelings about staying in Italy ebbed and flowed. We felt pretty safe in Lucca. There were only 37 cases in the province at this point (1 in 10,000 people). We were able to play outside on the city walls (a park that encircled the older part of the city). Grocery stores had food and toilet paper, as people in the US were panic buying and hoarding. We had accommodation that was paid for and the assurance of free health care. We’d wake up every morning and panic, but by the end of the day we questioned our decision to leave Italy entirely.
Beginning March 11th, time moved very quickly. Doors closed one after another. Italy was crumbling and grasping at straws to protect itself, as were we.
On March 11th we felt we no longer even had the option to leave Italy. We discovered that we would need to do a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a facility in Croatia, which was obviously not an option. Within hours of that discovery, our flight from Florence to Paris was canceled anyway. The following day, we purchased a ticket back the US for March 22nd. In hindsight, that was way too far in advance to make plans.
We settled in for eleven more days of quarantine. We leaned into our outdoor time, the routine with kids, staying positive. Up to this point, our life remained relatively unaffected except for the dark cloud of uncertainty, the constant nagging of our germy children, and the unceasing compulsion to clean our hands.
On March 13th, the government ordered that only essential stores remain open and the next day our flight to the US was canceled. On March 15th, the outdoor space that was the ray of hope in our day was closed because it drew too many people outside and together. We were responsible; we stayed away from people; we didn’t stay out long. We did everything we thought was right, but too many people were doing the same thing and making allowances as they saw fit. People were becoming complacent, restless, and less willing to follow the rules. Our measured, respectful use of the space had contributed to the problem.
Our Airbnb host, who had been completely MIA up until this conversation when I reached out to her, messaged, “Just to let you know you can go out the building on the street Just for 10 minutes maybe 2 for time.” We started using taking out the trash as our outdoor time. We had to carry a form listing our personal information and verifying that we had a purpose to being outside. It felt bleak and hopeless. I cried to Justin, “We have to get out. You have to get us out” behind the closed doors of our room. We booked a flight to Colorado on March 16th that would depart two days later and hoped it was enough time before the next shoe would drop.
Shoes did continue to drop. In the days since we left, the Italian military was deployed to enforce the lockdown in the northern region and all non-essential production in the country has ceased to protect the workers (please note that this does not include food or medical production).
We left Lucca at 4AM on the morning of March 18th and arrived home-ish in Colorado thirty hours later. We documented our journey home and our experience at the airports on our Instagram stories and you can find a highlight real “COVID19” on our profile.
The Lessons We Carry with Us
Was it a mistake going to Italy? Probably. We rationalized and minimized – It won’t happen to us. They won’t lockdown an entire country. There will always be flights if we need them. Lucca is small and we will be safe. – We greatly underestimated the pace at which things would move and how challenging it would be to leave. Airlines like British Airways canceled all flights in and out of Italy without any notice. This acceleration took place in many parts of the world. We have friends that went to Peru, which at the time seemed very safe and untouched by COVID-19. They are now sitting in a hotel room for the foreseeable future after Peru closed its borders. This situation is unstable, fast-moving, and highly unpredictable. It is beyond our control and does not operate within the realms of our expectations.
Coming back to the US felt like stepping back in time. The airport in New York felt like the Twilight Zone, with little-to-no people behaving in a way that seemed to reflect the state of our world. Even people in masks got pushy when I created a lot of space in a line. The flight attendants on our domestic flight were still friendly and not required to wear masks, gloves, and somber faces like their colleagues from the Italian airlines. Our own circle on social media seemed on-board with social distancing and protecting our most vulnerable, but at the time of our arrival the concept was basically a social movement, not a government mandate. There are still so many cars on the road; it looks and sounds busy on the streets. In Italy, I would run to the window when I heard a person walking or a car driving past. I am jealous that people are enjoying nature because it’s “not canceled…” yet.
Our Italian quarantine was a glimpse of the future in the US (if you’re not already in a shelter in place area). We hope that our story can inform your present. You can make choices for yourselves now, or maybe our government, or state/local governments will make them for you in the near term. Our experience doesn’t make it easier for us to stomach the new way of life in the US or the quarantine we face together now.
Wash your hands, stay home, donate your PPE, be generous, be well, and don’t lose heart. ~ Love, The Kueppers
I am not going to go into the science and severity of the Coronavirus. It’s not my expertise, though I hope that it’s apparent that we take it very seriously and are deeply worried. Here are some sources that we trust to learn more about COVID-19:
- New York Times Newsletter – Coronavirus Briefing
- Global Cases Map by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins
- Peter Attia’s podcasts covering COVID-19
My girlfriend in Spain wrote an incredibly poignant piece on their reality in Spain which has the third highest death toll in the world (after China and Italy) and is also on lockdown.