By Dawn Gilbertson
Korey Mudd wasn’t fazed by the cleaning crew outside his Mexico hotel room when he and his wife returned from the pool. “There was someone wiping down the door and the handles and stuff,” he said. “They asked me if it was my room, and I said, yes.”
The 30-year-old control room operator didn’t grow concerned until a hotel manager and other officials pulled up in a golf cart. They delivered bad news: Mudd’s COVID-19 test, taken that morning at the hotel so he could board his flight home to Michigan under new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rules for international flights to the United States, was positive.
How soon could he pack up and move to another room for mandatory isolation?
An hour later, Mudd was whisked to a new room. His wife, who had tested negative, was given the choice of staying in their casita at El Dorado Casitas Royale or moving into a room next door to his in the quarantine wing. She picked the latter. It was the fifth day of their weeklong honeymoon in Riviera Maya outside Cancun.
Travel to Mexico and other international destinations open to Americans during the coronavirus pandemic took on additional risk when the new CDC guidelines went into effect Jan. 26.
Travelers don’t need a COVID-19 test to fly to Mexico, but they can’t board a flight back to the United States from the country or any international destination without showing a negative test taken no more than three days before departure or proof of recovery from COVID-19.
Test positive, and you can’t fly home until you are cleared by a doctor or provide proof of a negative test. Hotel and airline interpretations of the CDC rules vary, but travelers who’ve been stuck say they were told between 10 and 14 days in isolation.
When the requirement was announced on Jan. 12, travelers rushed to cancel plans or shift their vacation plans to U.S. vacation spots that don’t require COVID-19 tests. But the bookings rebounded as some hotels announced free testing and a free quarantine stay if they tested positive and vaccination rates have increased. (A vaccination does not currently exempt travelers from the requirement.)
Mudd and plenty of other travelers weighed the risks and packed their bags for Mexico. The new rules went into effect four days before the couple’s flight from Michigan to Cancun. They were married in June and had already delayed their honeymoon because of the pandemic.
“Ultimately, we had pushed it off so many times already, we decided we were going to go ahead and go for it,” he said. They wish they hadn’t. The positive test stranded him in Mexico for nine nights longer than planned. “It would have been better just to stay home, for sure, unfortunately,” he said.
Mexico tourism and hotel officials say the rate of positive tests among travelers since the new testing requirement went into effect is minimal. The Grand at Moon Palace, a luxury all-inclusive resort in Cancun, has had no more than 10 cases, according to Cesar Fallardi, director of operations. Together with sister Palace Resorts, the rate is 0.4% he said. “It’s nothing, honestly, nothing,” he said.
In Los Cabos, another popular beach destination in Mexico, Pueblo Bonito’s five resorts have had 23 positive results out of 8,196 tests, according to marketing director Mary Van Den Heuvel.
For a recent reporting trip to Cancun, I tested negative at my all-inclusive resort and boarded my flight with no problems. (I also took a test a couple days before the trip as a precaution.) Still, the topic of stranded travelers came up during a U.S. House aviation subcommittee meeting on March 2.
Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky recounted the story of an unnamed constituent who went to Cabo San Lucas and tested positive. She was asymptomatic and took two more tests to be sure the initial result was correct. The family was told to stop testing and wait for 14 days, when they would be eligible to get a doctor’s note to fly home if they had no COVID-19 symptoms. “But they couldn’t get a doctor in Mexico to sign off on that,” Massie said.
The family ended up flying to Tijuana, Mexico, walking across the border to San Diego and flying back to Kentucky from there, he said, repeating a story he had shared on Twitter in February.
Mudd and two other American vacationers who tested positive while on vacation in Mexico this year, but didn’t become sick or symptomatic, shared their stories with USA TODAY. Mudd and his wife, Alisha, were having a blast in Mexico before their honeymoon came to a premature end. They spent one day deep-sea fishing, catching red snapper, yellow tail snapper and bonita. They donated the fish to the crew.
They zip lined and swam in caves in an adventure park and hung out at their all-inclusive resort, El Dorado Casitas Royale by Karisma. The day Korey Mudd tested positive for COVID-19 they were supposed to meet up with friends from Michigan they had unexpectedly run into on their trip.
His first thought on hearing the results: “That can’t be right because I felt fine, no symptoms. We had been being, I thought, pretty careful.” They wore masks and religiously used hand sanitizer, he said.
Mudd was tested again when he got to his new room, a standard hotel room with a balcony but no private pool like the casita they booked. The second test was a PCR test, which is considered more accurate than the rapid test he took earlier in the day for free at the hotel. The results took a couple days, but the outcome was the same: COVID-19 positive.
His reaction to the honeymoon vacation mishap: “I can’t believe this is happening.”
The hotel initially told him he had to stay until he tested negative, which freaked Mudd out since people who get the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can test positive long after they’ve recovered from the virus. “We had been on the CDC website, and we knew that wasn’t what our government was asking,” he said.
The CDC’s policy, revised in December, is that people who have tested positive but have no symptoms can be around others after 10 days have passed since their positive viral test for COVID-19, spokeswoman Caitlin Shockey said.
The El Dorado, which covers the cost of the extended stay for travelers stranded by COVID-19, eventually settled on 10 days after his first test if he had no symptoms. Mudd also called the human resources department for his employer and was happy to find out COVID-19-related absences were covered. “That was actually one of my biggest worries, was work,” he said.
Alisha Mudd wanted to stay with her new husband, even if the only way they could see each other on their balconies was with a makeup mirror wedged high into an opening on the concrete wall separating their balconies. But they didn’t want to risk her testing positive and getting stuck when it was his time to leave, so she flew home as scheduled. (Passengers must show proof of a negative test taken no more than three days before their return flight to the United States, meaning her original test would no longer be valid.)
The CDC’s order on testing for international flights does not preclude spouses and other people who were exposed to a COVID-19 case but tested negative from boarding a flight back to the United States, Shockey said.
In Mexico, Mudd passed the time in his room browsing the internet on his phone (he didn’t bring a laptop on his honeymoon) and watching Discovery Channel on the in-room TV. For food, he ordered hamburgers and other room-service items – its complimentary at all-inclusive resorts and mandatory during isolation. Pushups and squats sufficed for daily exercise.
Alcohol, also complimentary at all-inclusive resorts, was not allowed, something the hotel attributed to doctor’s orders, he said. Alisha Mudd, who was allowed to leave the quarantine wing, brought him back a Dos Equis beer when she was still in Mexico because a manager had said she could bring him drinks as long as she didn’t enter his room.
Hotel security found out and scolded her. “They called her out of her room to tell her,” Mudd said.
Mudd finally left Mexico for Michigan on Feb. 7, nine days later than planned, but not before a major scare at Cancun International Airport. He showed American Airlines agents a doctor’s note saying he had recovered from COVID-19 recently and received a boarding pass.
Before the flight departed, though, a gate agent told him there was a mistake, and he wasn’t allowed to fly. He was escorted back through security, where a manager showed him a laminated sheet of paper saying he wasn’t allowed to fly home until 14 days after his positive test, not 10 days. His wife had called American and other airlines about their policies before booking her husband’s new ticket home and was simply told “we follow CDC guidelines.”
American has since changed its policy from 14 days to 10 days to align with CDC guidelines and other major airlines, spokeswoman Sarah Jantz said. Mudd didn’t want to stay any additional days in Mexico, so he paid for a last-minute rapid test at the airport. It was negative.
He flew home on a later flight.
They have few complaints about how the hotel handled the situation but don’t recommend taking the risk of testing positive on an international trip. “Anybody we know that says they’re going, my wife kind of says, ‘You might want to think twice about it. We had a pretty bad experience,’ ” Mudd said.
Kansas City, Missouri, paralegal Lucia Rooney was considering canceling her Mexico vacation up to a few days before her Jan. 23 flight to Cancun.
The CDC’s new COVID-19 testing requirement would take effect four days before they were due to fly home, and she worried about the risk of testing positive. Rooney can work remotely, but her husband can’t. Their adult daughter was watching their teenage son.
Rooney and her husband were the only two people in their traveling group of six who hadn’t had COVID-19 within the past 90 days and thus were exempt from the testing requirement if they provided a doctor’s note. Her husband had had one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but she hadn’t yet. “I even told my sister-in-law, I don’t want to get stuck in Mexico,” she said.
The couple decided to “go for it” and headed for Riviera Maya. They were impressed by the mask wearing at their hotel by vacationers and workers and were happy the resort wasn’t busy.
“It was pretty easy to stay away from people if you wanted to do that,” she said. “The resort employees were awesome. They were way more vigilant, I would say, generally than people are at home.”
They went scuba diving four times and enjoyed ocean-view dinners with their friends and family. Then Rooney tested positive for COVID-19 two days before their flight home to Kansas City. She didn’t feel sick but wonders if a headache earlier in the trip and seasickness while scuba diving, a regular occurrence, were COVID-19 symptoms. “After the test I actually felt really great,” she said.
Her husband tested negative as did the rest of the members of their group, who decided to take the free rapid tests at the hotel in case their doctors’ notes weren’t accepted by the airline.
Rooney was moved to a new room at El Dorado, becoming Mudd’s neighbor a day after he was transferred there. She, too, paid for a PCR test in her isolation room (about $185), and it was also positive.
Her husband stayed in their casita until he left on their scheduled flight home on Jan. 30. She talked to him and other members of their group from the balcony until they flew home. He tested positive when he returned home and had to quarantine there. “It was really hard to be stuck in a room,” she said. “You could see how beautiful it was outside. Thank God I had a balcony, though, it would have been really awful without that balcony.”
She and Mudd became quarantine balcony buddies during isolation and shared research on what it was going to take to get home. Rooney’s days went by faster than Mudd’s because she was working remotely. At night, she ran from the balcony to the hotel room door and back for exercise and watched TV.
She enjoyed the room service, trying fish tacos, salads, quesadillas, smoothies and more – all, like her extended stay, for free. Unlike the room service in her initial room at El Dorado, the quarantine room service meals were served in a paper bag. An employee would knock on the door, stand back from it and wait there until it was picked up. After she was done, she put any leftovers outside the door. “I imagine that they were taking the trash and incinerating it like it was toxic waste,” she said.
At the airport, Rooney also ran into issues with American Airlines despite having a doctor’s note that she was cleared and having researched the 10-day requirement extensively, calling airlines and waiting on hold 45 minutes to talk to someone at the CDC.
American didn’t budge, and other airlines had varying policies they said she didn’t meet, so she was forced to take another rapid test at the airport, which was negative. Rooney flew home that day, Super Bowl Sunday, making it back in time to cheer for her Kansas City Chiefs.
Rooney said she doesn’t regret going to Mexico because she didn’t get sick despite testing positive for COVID-19 and didn’t miss work. She estimates the delay cost her $500 for a new airline ticket and additional COVID-19 tests.
Others may not be so lucky, she cautions. “The reality is, if you actually become sick, you’re stuck there indefinitely, honestly,” she said. “I definitely would not go to anywhere out of country if I was high risk or posed a risk of losing my job if I got stuck or had small kids.”
That’s the last good memory real estate broker Antonio Delgado has of his trip to Cabo San Lucas this winter to celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary.
In early February, Delgado and his wife, Shelley, who live outside Houston, hopped in a taxi and headed for shrimp tacos at Taco Guss, their favorite spot. He typically orders four for himself. “Whatever they cook that stuff in is phenomenal,” he said. “We dream about it when we’re not there.”
The couple had just taken the COVID-19 test they needed to board their flight home in a couple days, but the results wouldn’t be ready until that evening. They weren’t concerned about testing positive because they felt fine and are convinced they had the virus more than a year ago, when the entire family was seriously ill with coronavirus symptoms.
Less than 10 minutes after they ordered, a restaurant employee said their hotel called and wanted them back right away.
They decided to walk back to the beachfront Pueblo Bonito Rose instead of taking a taxi. A manager was waiting for them and said “go straight to your room” and wait for a visit from a doctor, Delgado said. The doctor told them he had tested positive, his wife, negative.
Delgado was instantly suspicious they received different results despite sharing a room. “We’re like, wait a minute, this is the first time we’re away, it’s our 20th anniversary, no kids.”
He was given a PCR test, and it came back positive the next night. The dinner plans they had tentatively made for their last night in Cabo, so confident the first test was a false positive, were scuttled. “Of course, I’m heartbroken,” he said. “What in the world? Now I’m thinking I’m stuck here. My wife is going to leave tomorrow.”
He grew more frustrated when a hotel employee called shortly after the test and suggested he sign up for the all-inclusive meal plan, at $220 per day, for his extended stay. He didn’t book the all-inclusive option for his initial stay. “You’re going to be here for 14 days, let’s get it set up,” Delgado said the hotel told him.
He declined the all-inclusive option several times and said he’d do room service and order in groceries. The hotel initially said he couldn’t order in groceries in isolation, he said. He ordered in pizza for the Super Bowl. “It was like they were working to upsell me instead of helping me,” he said.
Pueblo Bonito resorts don’t cover the stays of guests who test positive but offers discounted rates, for all-inclusive or stays without the food and drink plans, and doesn’t try to sell anything when a guest tests positive, spokeswoman Van Den Heuvel said.
Delgado also took issue with the stated 14-day quarantine, noting the requirement was 10 days, and vowed to get tested every day until he tested negative. He said the hotel told him he had to wait nearly a week for another test at the hotel.
He did, but when the doctor said the results would take a couple days, he tried to find another provider with quicker results so he could get home.
The hotel initially wouldn’t let the outside medical professional up to his room, he said, but eventually escorted her up with a security guard. He received the results in a few hours: negative. He made plans to fly home the next day but not before an hourlong conversation on the phone with United Airlines to convince the airline he didn’t need to wait 14 days after his positive test since he subsequently tested negative.
When he cleared immigration and customs in Houston, he rejoiced. “It was like “(The) Shawshank Redemption,” he said, referencing the 1994 prison-escape movie. “I put my hands in the air: Hallelujah, I’m home.”
He took another COVID-19 test in Houston, and it was negative. The extended stay cost him $1,400 in food, hotel, airfare and COVID-19 testing costs and time away from his family, he said. And it cut their vacation short. “We only really got to enjoy four days,” he said.
Delgado wouldn’t risk going to Mexico on another international trip again anytime soon. “Right now, until this (testing) stuff clears up, I’m not leaving my country,” he said.
Credit: USA Today