Stay or go? U.S. expats debate whether returning makes them ‘a vector for the virus’

Long flights and lost jobs weighed against familiar faces and high-end health care

American Eric Stevenson-Gonzalez faced the same difficult choice as many expats: stay in Spain and wait out the coronavirus pandemic, or come back to the United States.

Stevenson-Gonzalez never intended to live longterm in Spain, which sits only behind Italy in Europe with 19,980 confirmed cases and more than 1,000 deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.

But a master’s program led to teaching English, which eventually became translating, and now he’s nearing his 16th year in the country. He married his wife in 2010, and before this crisis struck, the couple had begun the green card process to move to the U.S. Now that’s in limbo.

According to the Instituto Nacional de Estadistica, 55,639 Americans lived in Spain as of July, varying from students studying abroad to improve their Spanish to those who moved for professional reasons.

“During my last year of college, I was freaking out about what to do with the rest of my life,” said Taegan Dennis, a first-year English teacher. “I thought that going to Spain would give me the mental space to reevaluate my professional and educational future.” 

But starting March 14, life changed for Dennis and everyone else in the country. A few days after suspending school, the government shut down everything except supermarkets, pharmacies and other essentials. 

A man in Madrid, Spain, wears a mask while quarantined. (Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez/Unsplash)

American residents in Spain generally fall two camps: Those determined to stay and those who have decided to leave.

Dennis said her decision to remain was clear.

“If I were to go back, I would’ve been a vector for the virus,” she said. 

While she has insurance in the U.S., she has family members who are uninsured or on public insurance and some who are immunocompromised. There is a large elderly population in her permanent home, Tallahassee, Florida. But she is also not confident she could find work in a U.S. economy disrupted by the disease.

In an announcement last week, the U.S. Department of State urged citizens who live abroad to stay where they are.

Arancha González Laya, the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, said during a press conference they are working with foreign governments to create safe returns for their citizens living abroad.

“You’re welcome in Spain, but if you are here you have to obey the restrictions on the movement of people that we have introduced for all citizens in Spain,” she said.

Others shared similar concerns about transmission and work as Dennis, but have still had to leave. 

“Welp, that was a hot mess,” said Analia Mireles, a now-former Fulbright scholar, about her journey home. 

Mireles waited for two hours in Madrid’s airport for baggage check and for four hours in Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport’s customs shoulder-to-shoulder with other fliers.

Master Sgt. William Hohman, of the Maryland Air National Guard, waits at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on March 17 for cruise ship passengers who have been quarantined. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Chris Schepers/U.S. Air National Guard)

She missed her connecting flight because of the wait at Dallas-Fort Worth, one of the 14 airports approved to receive international flights. Upon her eventual arrival, the only screening for the virus she received was a questionnaire and an inquiry about her well-being. Now she is quarantined in her childhood bedroom in Nashville, Tennessee.

As for Stevenson-Gonzalez, his most pressing concerns reside in Spain: his wife and his in-laws, as well as the fate of the country he now considers his home. 

His main task is supporting his wife as she cares for her parents, who are elderly and thus more vulnerable to the virus. He hopes his experience warns his family in the U.S. and the country as a whole to take the threat seriously. 

“You notice the difference in perspectives of it. For us, it was a span of two days, and everything turned completely upside down,” he said. “For them, it seems like they’re still seeing it a little bit from afar, like we did with China and then from not so far with Italy. You want to give them good advice that they need, and you hope that some of it gets through to them.”