Minnesotan stranded in Guatemala after country seals border to contain COVID-19 outbreak

Andrew Jacot, a St. Paul architect, is stranded in Guatemala after the country's president sealed the borders because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Andrew Jacot

Andrew Jacot, a St. Paul architect and travel junkie, is currently stranded in Guatemala after the country’s president abruptly announced Monday that he would be sealing the nation’s borders for at least two weeks.

“From tomorrow, we will be cut off from the rest of the world,” President Alejandro Giammattei said in a national televised address. Like many world leaders, Giammattei said extreme measures are needed to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“As someone who is stuck here, that just puts a huge rock in your stomach,” Jacot, 32, said Wednesday from his guest house at an Antigua hotel. 

According to the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, there are 3,000 tourists currently in the country, with few options to leave. Guatemalan officials say they are working to help tourists leave the country but are struggling to reach them. 

U.S. State Department officials said they are monitoring travel conditions in countries like Guatemala as well as others like Peru and Morocco where a number of Minnesotans are also stranded.

“We are aware the governments of several countries have announced suspension of air travel. We are considering all options to assist U.S. citizens in these countries,” a State Department spokeswoman said in an email. “We are continuously assessing travel conditions in all areas affected by COVID-19, and will continue to update our travel advisories and safety information for U.S. travelers as situations evolve.”

Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith on Tuesday wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging his department implement plans to bring home Americans who are wishing to return.

“I understand that there are significant legal, personnel, and logistical challenges involved in extricating U.S. citizens during this time of global crisis,” Smith wrote. “I strongly urge the State Department to take swift and decisive action to ensure all U.S. citizens that wish to return home to the U.S. are able do so immediately.

Jacot recounted his travel nightmare to the Reformer by phone Wednesday morning, saying he tried desperately to leave the country before the borders were closed. His story illustrates the hazards of managing a pandemic that does not respect borders.

After American Airlines on Saturday cancelled his flight home, Jacot rebooked through Delta, but that flight was also cancelled. He made a last-ditch effort to leave the country before the border closure, racing to Guatemala City after buying a $1,000 plane ticket to leave Tuesday at 6 a.m. 

He arrived at the airport around 4 a.m. only to find a dystopian scene. The airport was closed and airport employees turned away travelers from behind closed doors saying no flights would be leaving, he said.

He then tried to make a run for the Guatemala-Belize border, hoping to leave through that country. But after further research, he learned Belize has also closed all ports of entry for all except cargo.

The actions to close the country off came about 12 hours from when the president first announced the decision, Jacot said. “When things started to happen, they happened super fast,” he said. 

He said that his original travel plans were to fly to Nepal but he changed his mind given its proximity to China, so he settled on Guatemala, arriving in the Central American country nine days ago. 

Early in his trip, there was little concern about COVID-19, which has quickly spread throughout the world and led to travel restrictions announced by U.S. and European officials. But in the past few days, a sense of urgency has taken hold: People are wearing masks and keeping their distance. 

For now, he has decided to stay in Antigua, a tourist destination about an hour from the airport by car, he said. His efforts to get information or help from  the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala has been met by automated recordings redirecting him to their website. 

Early on Wednesday, he called the office of U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, hoping to get help. The Reformer learned McCollum’s office is also trying to assist other Minnesotans, including Jacot, and is monitoring the situation. 

Sen. Tina Smith sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week, alerting him that her office has been in contact with numerous Minnesotans trapped in countries that have closed their borders, leaving them with no access to commercial flights. Smith said in a statement that the number of U.S. citizens needing State Department assistance will likely grow.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.