If things had gone to plan, Arnie Fagan would have boarded a plane March 20, bound for the U.S. from Bangkok, Thailand.
He would have taken the quickest route through South Korea, probably stopping in Chicago, arriving in Saint Louis. He needed to deal with business matters and was going to Thailand in three weeks.
He would not have missed his one-year-old daughter’s birthday or her first steps.
But things didn’t go according to plan.
Fagan boarded a plane March 4, bound for the U.S. from Bangkok via Abu Dhabi. He planned to return to Thailand today.
"I saw the (COVID-19) situation in Asia and said ‘Okay, I better get out now because I have to get to the U.S. to do this paperwork,’" Fagan said. "I thought it would be difficult to get to the U.S., but I thought it would be easy to get to Asia. I knew there were outbreaks starting in Japan and Korea … but I figured through Abu Dhabi everything looked clear, so I booked that.
"But then things started to go bad."
Fagan is locally known for his store Cool Stuff, which operated in downtown Columbia until 2012. He retired to Thailand four years ago and met his partner, Vilayvanh Soulinthong, soon after. Their daughter was born March 19, 2019.
"Her Thai name is MaLee," Fagan said, which means Jasmine. "We were just living such a wonderful life … Now I’m stuck and they’re stuck and it’s just breaking my heart."
He wakes up every day in Columbia with a new set of hurdles standing between him and his family.
Last Sunday, Thailand began requiring travelers to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours prior of entering the country – a tough task in light of test shortages worldwide.
On Wednesday, the rules changed again. Now no one can get in. Thailand's prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, barred all foreigners until at least April 30.
And Fagan wouldn’t have been able to get the test anyway. In Missouri, it takes contact with a known or suspected infected person, and noticeable symptoms including coughing, fever or shortness of breath, for a doctor to be able to prescribe a test.
While nearly 25 percent of samples collected for the state’s 10,750 tests so far have been taken by University of Missouri Health Care and Boone Hospital Center, no one can get a test without a doctor’s clearance under state regulations.
The U.S. State Department is cautioning against all international travel, telling citizens to return to the U.S. as quickly as possible "unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite length of time."
The statement indicates there is no knowing when these stringent travel restrictions might end.
"(The pandemic) is just starting and things are changing every day," Fagan said. "I would go there today if I could. That is not possible."
Now, he’s trying to bring his family to Columbia. Fagan said he’s worried about the extent to which the disease is spreading in Thailand as well as the country’s ability to treat people once they become ill.
Official figures, which only reflect cases confirmed by testing, put the number of infections in Thailand at 1,245, with six deaths.
The Center for Disease Control, however, has designated Thailand a Level 3 country, meaning COVID-19 cases are increasing rapidly via community spread. The CDC also says on its website "there may be limited access to adequate medical care in affected areas."
"I just want her (my daughter) to be safe," Fagan said. "I want her to be safe and healthy and my fear is that where she is that is not going to be possible."
But bringing his family here brings its own set of complications. Fagan’s daughter is an American citizen. His partner is not. He and his partner aren’t married and visa services have been suspended at all U.S. consulates. Some emergency services are available, but not necessarily easy to get.
"Under normal circumstances it would be very difficult to get permission for my girlfriend to visit me," Fagan said. "This is not normal circumstances."
Fagan has reached out to both Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville. He said he’s been satisfied with the response he’s gotten so far, but hasn’t received a timeline for how or if either of the politicians can help. He said he wants to be with his family until they can all return safely to Thailand.
"I need someone to hear me and help me solve the problem that I just couldn’t predict," Fagan said.
Fagan’s case is different than most problems Americans stuck abroad are encountering. , but it’s a product of unprecedented regulations on global travel that have stranded hundreds of Americans abroad since mid-March.
Hartzler’s office can’t disclose the specifics of any particular case. However, spokesman Steve Walsh said the office is aware of the challenges constituents are facing.
"During this unprecedented time, tens of thousands of Americans who were traveling abroad were asked to come home at a moment’s notice," Walsh said in a statement. "The Congresswoman’s office has been in touch with many of these constituents and is diligently working with the Department of State to bring them home and unite them with their families."
Meanwhile, Fagan is forced to wait. He calls his partner and daughter often, fills out paperwork and hopes for the best. He knows his is one of many painful situations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Everybody is trying to protect their family and that’s what I’m trying to do," he said.
So, Fagan continues to do what people are doing across America – wait. He waits for the phone to ring, for some good news and for the pandemic to pass so he can see his family again.
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