CORONAVIRUSÂ ONE YEAR LATER: THE GREAT ESCAPE
Those three words may or may not have been spoken out loud by Kerry and Lori Hofer as they hit high gear in an effort to get their family out of the Czech Republic and back to the United States the third week of March last year, but they were no doubt front-of-mind.
A suddenly developing and increasingly urgent public health crisis, the novel coronavirus pandemic, had interrupted a trip of a lifetime two weeks before it was scheduled to end and the Hofer family had just been informed by the United States embassy that they should find their way home as soon as they possibly could. This was Friday the 13th in the month of March in the year 2020.
“OK, we really are done here,” Lori remembers thinking at the time. “This really is over.”
“I was like, ‘OK, I’m looking for plane tickets,” said Kerry, noting the family’s ideal exit strategy was to take a train from the city of Budejovice where they had been living during Lori’s sabbatical at the University of South Bohemia, fly out of Prague and get to Paris. “That’s where we’re supposed to fly out of and, from what I had been reading online, they’ll comp your tickets if you fly out early from the same spot.”
Plus, Lori said, in the event they couldn’t get home, “there are worse places to hold up than in Paris.”
So that was the plan. While Kerry searched for tickets on a laptop around noon that Friday, Lori put their boys, Jamison and Kendric, in the bedroom with laptops while she and the girls, Cadence and Reeslyn, hurried to pack up their things in anticipation of quickly leaving their quarters.
“We packed up two apartments, plus my office, in two hours,” Lori said.
Kerry ended up getting tickets on what was the last flight out of Prague that Friday and the family hurried out of their apartment and onto a bus. That bus ride to the train station remains an emotional moment for the Hofers and one they will never forget.
“Nobody spoke English,” Lori says. “We had all our bags, long faces, kids with American accents, and you could tell that everybody knew these people were trying to get out of the country. It was total non-verbal communication; these looks and feelings that transcend cultural differences and language barriers. It was emotional.”
“That moment was very surreal,” said Kerry. “We didn’t talk about it at the time, but we both commented on it afterward. Usually when you get on a local bus like this, nobody would look at you. Nobody would make eye contact. And we get on there with our four kids and our luggage and everything going on and people are diving out of the way, looking at you in the eyes for the first time. You could tell they knew what was going on. They knew.”
The bus ride to the train station was eerie.
“When you’re packing, you’re doing something,” Lori says. “When we got on there it was just silence. It was an out-of-body experience.”
Lori also notes the significant language barrier they encountered while in Budejovice — much more than when they were in larger cities.
“It was a different feeling being in a place where you couldn’t just ask somebody for help,” she said. “It was such a vulnerable state, so once we got out of that town, and especially once we got on the plane in Prague, it felt a little more like we were home free.”
While Kerry had been lucky to book the last flight out of Prague on Friday, March 13, he had been unsuccessful in securing a flight back to the United States despite several hours of effort.
“You’d call and you’d wait for 15 minutes with United and then it would just hang up,” says Lori.
“And sometimes,” said Kerry, “the automated voice on the other end would be like, ‘The wait line is too long.’ Click.”
But Lori had booked her family an Airbnb in Paris while on the train to Prague so they had someplace to put their feet, and after the Hofers landed in Paris so late on Friday that the United terminal had closed, they piled into a taxi and headed out.
When the family went to bed that night, the game plan was for Kerry to wake up at 6 a.m., go back to the airport, find a United representative and figure out their options. While catching a flight back was the priority, they were OK spending a few days in the capital of France if need be.
“Paris was not shut down at that point,” Lori said. “Everybody was still acting like everything was fine.”
Kerry remembers waking up the next morning and deciding to make a call before heading back to the airport.
“It’s 5:30 in the morning in Paris, France, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to lob a call out there. Maybe the French United number will go right through.’”
Kerry called, was immediately placed on hold, put the phone on speaker and continued to get ready to leave while mentally preparing to navigate himself back to the airport when a woman picked up on the other end.
“What a good feeling,” he said. “I said I was here with my family, explained our situation and she said United was getting people back as soon as they could.”
This came as a relief, particularly after the Hofers had learned that President Trump had earlier misstated that the United States was not allowing anybody back into the country, later clarifying that exclusion did not include citizens of the country.
“I was never worried,” Lori said. “It never seemed logical that the U.S. wouldn’t allow their own citizens back it.”
Flights on United were filled up for that Saturday so the Hofers ended up booking a return flight through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport the following day — the first flight out of Paris.
“By 6:30 a.m., we had a game plan,” said Kerry.
“And we enjoyed Paris the rest of the day,” said Lori.
But they weren’t home free. Later Saturday, after enjoying a trip to the zoo and to see Notre Dame, the Hofers learned that Paris was shutting down all non-essential businesses at 10 that night, “and we had hired a car,” said Lori. “I didn’t want to depend on the bus the morning. I was very worried about making sure we got to the airport on time.”
Lori said prayers went out throughout the night that the car would show up in the morning, which it did, right on time, at 6 a.m.
“I almost hugged the driver,” she said.
It was Saturday night, when the Hofers were wondering if their car would come, that pictures started making their way across social medial showing thousands of people clogging the terminals at O’Hare — the very airport they would be flying through the next day.
“We were concerned,” said Lori, who remembers another family on the flight from Paris to Chicago, “and we’re grabbing waters from the flight attendant, and extra sandwiches, ready for a six-hour line with our kids, expecting the worst.”
But Lori also remembers being glad those photos of a crowded O’Hare were going viral, “hoping they would respond and do something about it, and I do believe that’s what happened.”
Indeed, when the Hofers walked off the plane and into the airport, it was strangely quiet, with the mobile barriers that had been set up to corral the people through oddly empty.
“You could tell they were set up for tens of thousands of people,” Lori said. “It was an answer to prayer.”
The Hofers were screened at O’Hare — temp check and brief questionnaire — and the kids were even asked specifically if they had previously taken ibuprofen or Tylenol. When they were given the all-clear to get on the final leg of their journey, they boarded the plane for their 80-minute flight to Sioux Falls Regional exhausted.
“We had been traveling for 20 hours with the time change; we were just zombies,” Lori said. “The kids and I had all fallen asleep on the floor of the O’Hare airport and Kerry had to stay awake so we wouldn’t miss our plane.”
“I kept setting alarms on my phone,” Kerry said.
The Hofers landed in Sioux Falls shortly before 10 p.m. Sunday, March 15 — amazingly, all their bags arrived with them — and returned to their home west of Freeman shortly after 11 p.m.
“It felt familiar and wonderful,” said Lori. “We had never been away from our home for that long.”
The Hofers self-quarantined for the next two weeks out of concern for others and their community and never did test positive for COVID-19 — not until later, anyway. Lori tested positive at the end of September after picking it up from her work at Mt. Marty, meaning a second two-week quarantine for the family while she had to continue to teach her business classes remotely and help her children with the studies while Kerry was out combining.
Reeslyn then tested positive the first week of December, meaning another quarantine for the family.
Cadence, the oldest of the four children, ended up with five quarantines because of exposure and close contacts at school.
“I will say this,” Lori said, “fleeing a country — getting our family out was much easier than quarantining as many times as we have. People say how hard it is to live like that — yeah, it is.”
Kerry and Lori say the hospitality they received from friends and family during that initial quarantine upon returning was beyond touching and something they won’t ever forget, much like their unpredictable five-week excursion to Europe.
Lori got the majority of her sabbatical finished before they had to leave and the family had played the role of tourist quite well in those first weeks of February. But there are lessons learned that transcend the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and experiences of Europe that they might even remember better than trying to book a flight home or wondering if their car was going to show up.
“I really learned how wonderful life is when you enjoy the ride — when you go into something with the right mindset, that we are going to enjoy whatever life throws at you,” Lori said. “That mind space and headspace take you a long way in life. We really tried to teach our kids all along that life can throw you some nasty curveballs sometimes and it’s about how you respond.
So what else?
“That people are good,” Lori continued. “Let people know when you are struggling; they cannot be there for you if you don’t.
“And prayer is incredibly powerful. Getting back ended up being pretty easy and I’m pretty sure it’s because we had hundreds of people praying for us.”
For Kerry, not unlike Lori, the trip to Europe revealed the good in people.
“We were treated very well by all different cultures we came across,” he said, noting especially the kindness from the youth across Europe. “There was promise and hope that came from different eyes and different ways of seeing things. I was overwhelmed by how we were treated and how well our kids were treated by people of different cultures.”
“Learn to expect the best from people,” Lori says, “and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”