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Making it safely home: Living and working in Costa Rica for the winter, Jeannie Coates makes her way back to Galena


GALENA–On March 23, as Jeannie Coates made her way through deserted airports at Dallas-Fort Worth and then in Madison, Wis., she was grateful to the airline employees who were there, making sure she was able to return home from Costa Rica, where she’d been living and working at a spa as a massage therapist during the winter months.

“I made sure I thanked every airline employee I came in contact with,” said Coates.

The empty airports, with no lines to get through customs and airport employees, all wearing face masks, really brought the COVID-19 pandemic into perspective for Coates, who just days earlier was planning to ride out the storm in the Central American country where she’d been since January.

Coates attended massage therapy school in Costa Rica eight years ago and now works seasonally in Door County, Wis. She typically spends the winter months in Montana, but decided this year to try Costa Rica instead. The experience was wonderful, and then everything changed.

The spa and yoga center closed even before Costa Rica declared a national emergency on March 10. There were about 12 confirmed COVID-19 cases at the time, but none of them were in the area where Coates was living, so she felt it would probably be safer to stay put; the last place she wanted to be was an airport. Her visa, which was up in mid-April, was extended, as were those of all foreigners, to May 16.

Then, the situation escalated over a two-day period. The number of virus cases spiked from 12 to 113.

The national government left the decisions to close beaches and restaurants up to local governments, and grocery stores remained open. It’s incredibly hot in Costa Rica at this time of year, and Coates was living without air conditioning. She wasn’t sure if she could stand being quarantined in the heat, so she was rethinking her decision to stay. She knew that although the Costa Rican medical system is great, she didn’t want to risk the possibility of taking away a ventilator from someone there in need.

And then, a text from a friend, sharing part of an address from the U.S. State Department announcing that U.S. citizens in foreign countries needed to return home immediately or expect to remain indefinitely, sealed the deal on Friday, March 20.

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“That was a really weird feeling,” said Coates of the panicky feeling learning that all flights would be shut down by Monday. “I had no idea. . .I’m really thankful for my friends.”

Coates booked her flight for Sunday. She left Liberia, Costa Rica, on Sunday, only to learn a couple days later that American Airlines ended flights to Liberia until early May. Coates was prepared to have her temperature taken at the airport, but that didn’t happen, and she was never directed to return home and quarantine, she said.

People kept their distance and every time a person cleared his or her throat, there was a sense of unease on the plane, Coates said, but the overall mood was definitely more of unity than what she’s experienced in the recent past.

Coates spent the night at the Dallas airport and then flew to Madison, where her mom, Mary Hartman, was waiting outside to drive her back to Galena.

“I was glad to be back,” said Coates, who is self-quarantining for two weeks, despite not being told to do so. “It feels good.”

Upon her return, Coates learned that because people in Costa Rica weren’t heeding the social distancing instructions and beaches and other popular spots were packed with people, the government closed them all.

Coates said that while she was there, the visiting Italians, a large contingent of the tourist population, were really bothered by people not listening to the warnings.

“I’m listening,” said Coates of the seriousness of the situation.