As vaccination rates shot up this spring and summer, family reunions abounded. Vaccinated parents saw their adult children again; aunts and uncles met nieces and nephews born during the coronavirus pandemic; and grandparents hugged their grandchildren for the first time in more than a year.
For the family of Michelle Lopez, that joy of reuniting still is on the horizon.
Her husband, Raider, has family in Cuba, where COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed and international travelers are required to follow strict quarantine protocols. That means going back to see them isn't on the table.
“He hasn’t seen his mom in almost two years,” said Lopez, who is executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center. “Every time there’s a family celebration, for a birthday, Mother’s Day, I know it hurts him to not be able to be there.”
As vaccines have allowed life in Berkshire County to return to a relative normal, with restaurant dining, weddings and Fourth of July gatherings, some residents with family across international borders have yet to experience that glee of post-vaccine reunions.
Some cannot return because their home countries still have significant restrictions, including mandated quarantines, while others worry about the major COVID-19 outbreaks, significant variant presence and low vaccination rates.
In most cases, travel, technically, is possible, but practically infeasible: Costly quarantine arrangements, long interruptions to work, and fear of infecting unvaccinated family all have deterred Berkshire County residents from visiting their family, a year-and-a-half into the worldwide pandemic.
For Lopez and her family, traveling to Cuba would mean a week quarantined in a hotel room. That would suck up more than half the time they could take anyway, since she has limited paid time off and her husband has none, she said.
As U.S. citizens, she added, they also would be required to quarantine in an international chain hotel, rather than the typical government-run hotels, which would be expensive.
Cases in the country have skyrocketed, so, Lopez and her husband are sticking to Zoom and phone calls for now.
“We understand,” she said. “They have to protect the population, and the medical system is great, but it’s easily overwhelmed because it’s an island. We understand the health protections. It’s just sad.”
Checking on compliance
For Krista Stamas, the separation from her family has been aggravating. They live just a few hundred miles away, in Ontario.
“We can’t go back if there’s a quarantine,” she said. “We don’t have the time.”
Stamas, a Canadian immigrant to the Berkshires, returned once to see her family during the pandemic, so she could have her parents around when she gave birth.
To make the trip, she had to book a rental for their two-week full quarantine; if they had stayed at a friend or family member’s house, their hosts would have been forced to quarantine, too. Each day, she says, authorities called to make sure they were following the rules, even checking in with her 6-year-old son.
The trip was worth the effort, especially at a time when everybody was working remotely. But, now that Massachusetts has opened back up, she and her husband cannot find an extra two weeks, on top of regular vacation time, that they would need to make the trip.
“There's no way my family's going to go do that again,” she said. “It cost us so much money, and it’s so much time.”
As of Monday, the Canadian government began to allow some exemptions for vaccinated travelers, but unvaccinated children still are required to quarantine. Stamas and her family still are waiting, hoping that the rules change before school starts in the fall, which will complicate travel plans further.
“My family hasn't seen their granddaughter since she was born,” she said. “It sucks.”
Long road ends for some
For others, the long road is nearly over.
Lorena Dus, who works with Lopez at the Berkshire Immigrant Center, has family in her home country of Venezuela, as well as in neighboring Colombia. She usually travels to Colombia to see them at least once a year, but she has not been back since early 2020.
Last winter, she booked a trip to see her niece turn 3, but when the airline rescheduled her flight, she began to reconsider.
“It would've been too late to celebrate with my niece,” she said. “But, the other thing is that I wasn’t feeling safe. So, I decided to say 'no,' to reschedule for later, when I know we’re vaccinated.”
Dus was less worried about her own health and more concerned about bringing the illness to older relatives, with the virus spreading so widely in the United States and her family in Colombia unvaccinated.
Now, that fear largely has been lifted off her shoulders. Even though she and her mother in Colombia are vaccinated fully, she plans to take a lot of precautions to protect unvaccinated family members — and she knows not to take the trip for granted.
“I feel lucky that I’m fully vaccinated, that I’m healthy and that I can go there,” she said. “I now have a niece growing so far away from me, and I just want her to know me.”
In her conversations with other immigrants about travel, including Berkshire Immigrant Center clients, Dus has been shocked to find just how many returned home throughout the pandemic. She even knows someone who traveled to Brazil in the middle of that country’s COVID-19 surge.
But, she does not judge them. If she had kids in another country, she says, she almost certainly would have taken that plane during the winter surge, regardless of the risk.
“It’s a personal decision,” she said. “I hope it’s not taken lightly. But, you don't know what's moving other people to take the risk.”