Jake Roers was supposed to be in the middle of a semester immersed in Italian art, food and culture. Instead, the 22-year-old Winona State University senior flew back to Minnesota on Friday, his trip canceled over concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.
“I went to study to get to see as much of Europe as I could and I didn’t get close,” he said after returning to Bloomington after only one month abroad. “Obviously there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Minnesota State indefinitely suspended all international trips for students and faculty at Winona State and its 36 other community colleges and universities — joining a growing list of Minnesota colleges, universities and high schools that are canceling trips because of the coronavirus.
At the University of Minnesota, all student programs in Italy, South Korea and China have been suspended for the spring semester, affecting about 170 students. St. Catherine University in St. Paul canceled all global trips, which nixed about 30 students’ two-week trips to Peru and Cuba. And at Minnesota State University, Mankato — the largest in Minnesota State’s system — 167 students had their trips abroad canceled; five were already in Italy or South Korea and had to return to home.
“It is paramount that we ensure the safety and security of our students, faculty, and staff,” Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra said in a statement, adding that the system was taking the steps “out of an abundance of caution” and will continue to work with the state health department to monitor the situation.
On Friday, state health officials reported Minnesota’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus. Cases and deaths have been reported elsewhere in the U.S. and in a number of countries including Italy, Iran, South Korea and China.
On Tuesday, two U students were self-quarantined after arriving from Europe, where they had been in close contact with a traveler who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness the virus causes.
After returning home Friday, Roers and another Winona State student will be self-quarantined for two weeks.
“Obviously I’m a little nervous,” he said about the possibility of having COVID-19. “I would not like to be one of the first [cases in Minnesota].”
He’s also out the money he spent on the trip and will spend his final semester of college studying online.
His mother, Sarah Roers, is just disappointed her son’s first trip to Europe was quashed.
“It’s sad for him and all the students,” she said. “It’s Italy — why wouldn’t you go there?”
At Minnesota State University, Mankato, Matt Cecil, the interim provost of the 14,000-student university, said they’re working with students to help them financially with the canceled plans.
“Their well-being is our top concern,” Cecil said, adding that, if the outbreak subsides, they will work with students on rescheduling trips. “We are waiting and hoping things don’t get too bad.”
Last week, the University of St. Thomas ordered more than 60 students and staff from its spring programs in Rome to return home over concern of the spreading coronavirus; the students have also been asked to isolate themselves for two weeks to take precautions.
At St. Paul Academy and Summit School, the private high school canceled a spring break trip to China that about 25 students were planning to take next week and is still reviewing whether to cancel a trip to Spain and Germany. Most K-12 schools are drafting response plans to respond to the outreach but none are planning to close at this point.
At the U, some students were scrambling to revise personal travel plans.
Third-year student Rachel Linzbach was supposed to meet a friend in Shanghai during spring break, but she canceled the trip and will travel to New Orleans instead.
“This is something that it’s kind of in the back of my mind and like it needs to be approached with caution,” she said.
Nicole Zhang, an international student at the U, said she canceled her plans to go to Chicago after her parents, who live in Qinhuangdao, China, were worried about her going through a transportation hub. Her parents live in a coastal city, which Zhang said is smaller than others, making her worry less about her parents’ wellness. Instead of Chicago, Zhang is going on a trip to Duluth with friends.
“I’m a little bit worried about this, but not so much,” Zhang said.
U senior Emelia Rieder, who is studying abroad in Dublin, said she had planned to visit Milan with her boyfriend during her spring break but is now going to Paris instead.
She said she spent a lot of money canceling and rebooking flights, but she isn’t too worried about the virus or being sent home.
“It’s kind of a relief going somewhere else, but it’s just really frustrating having to pay to change the flights when I already booked them,” Rieder said.
In Minnesota, demand for travel from Minnesota to China dropped 50% since early January, according to Hopper, a travel app that analyzed flight search demand from Minnesota. Americans should avoid all nonessential travel to China, Iran, South Korea and Italy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but experts say travel to other places may be fine if travelers prepare for the possibility of getting sick on a trip.
Caitlin Anderson, (firstname.lastname@example.org) a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune, contributed to this report.