Sat | Mar 28, 2020

Stranded! - As airlines cancel flights, COVID-19 leaves Jamaicans high and dry

Published:Thursday | March 26, 2020 | 12:29 AMLester Hinds/Gleaner Writer

They missed the March 24 deadline to return to Jamaica and now find themselves stranded in an airport in Atlanta, Georgia, as they try to make their way home.

They are seasonal Jamaican hotel workers who normally travel on HB-2 visas to work in various hotels in far-flung United States cities.

With the Jamaican borders now closed as a measure to counter the spread of COVID-19, some 150 seasonal hotel workers are now scrambling to find alternative accommodation because of their inability to get back to Jamaica. Their hotels have closed, and they had to vacate the apartments where they were housed during their work period.

Some of the stranded have found some sort of accommodation with friends and family, but more than 30 of the workers were still at the Atlanta airport on Wednesday trying to get back to the place they call ‘The Rock’.

The workers are employed by hotels in states such as Utah, West Virginia, and Florida on a seasonal basis.

Gina Bernard, who works at a hotel in Panama City, Florida, said that she is booked on a flight back to Florida, where she will stay with her sister.

According to Bernard, she, along with several work colleagues, arrived in Atlanta on Wednesday morning after being told that there would be a flight to take them to Jamaica.

“We were booked on a flight to leave on the 24th for Jamaica, but that flight got cancelled, and we were told that we would be placed on a flight to Jamaica today (March 25), but when we arrived, we were told that Jamaica is closed,” she said.

“We were assured by the airline, Delta, that we would get a flight to Jamaica so we would have made it home,” she said.

Pointing out that she has no choice but to return to Panama City, Bernard disclosed that she would stay with her sister but said that she had no idea where her other co-workers would be housed.

“They will have to rent apartments, but we have no jobs, no income, and [are] running out of money, so there is some difficulty there,” Bernard told The Gleaner.

Jody Brown, who also works with a hotel in Panama City, said that she was booked on a flight leaving Wednesday night back to Panama City.

She got to Atlanta on Tuesday night after being assured, she said, by the airline that she would be able to travel to Jamaica.

“I was booked on a flight to Jamaica but got a notice saying that Jamaica is close,” Brown said. She and her co-workers spent the night in the airport.

Brown said that the situation is surreal because there was a flight leaving for Jamaica that was empty.

Some planes are flying back to Jamaica, with only airline crew, to pick up passengers leaving the island.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that ports would close to incoming passengers last Saturday at 11:59 p.m. but allowed exemptions to some categories of Jamaicans until March 24. The lockdown was effected to curb the threat of the novel coronavirus, which has killed one person and infected at least 26 on the island.

“This is really bad for us. Some are trying to book hotels, others are trying to reach family members while others don’t even know where they are going to stay,” Brown told The Gleaner.

Up to Wednesday afternoon, there were more than 30 Jamaican hotel workers still milling about the airport, pondering their next move.

Jamaica’s consul general to Miami, Oliver Mair, said that he was aware of the situation and was doing everything he could to assist the stranded workers.

“We have representatives on the ground working with them to try and resolve the situation as best we can. We are looking at possibly rerouting them or finding accommodation where possible for them,” he said.

Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton was yesterday unable to provide an update on the Government’s plans in relation to the stranded Jamaicans in Florida.

Tufton was hosting a digital press conference on COVID-19 from his office and fielding questions from journalists.