Cristina Allala and Michael Mawoad's dream tour of Italy was supposed to be more than just the inside of a hotel room.
But two days after Christmas, five days into their trip, they both tested positive for COVID-19. Hours later, a medical team in hazmat-like medical suits whisked them away from their hotel in Florence in an ambulance.
Now the North Texas couple, who are fully vaccinated, are waiting in a cramped hotel room in the mountain city of Montecatini Terme for word from the Italian government or U.S. Embassy officials about what happens next.
"It's like we're incarcerated; there's no other way I can describe it," said Allala, a 33-year-old dentist from DeSoto. "We asked what would happen if we just left, and they said they would call the police."
The couple's calls to US consular offices in Italy have gone unreturned, and attempts to clarify their situation with Italian authorities are lost in translation or ignored, Allala said.
Tourism-dependent countries such as Italy and hundreds of other global destinations have eagerly been waiting for international travel to return after 21 months of pandemic downturn. Airlines and hotels have planned grand reopenings, only to pull back amid another surge in COVID-19 cases, such as the omicron variant that has swept across the globe this month.
Allala and Mawoad provide a cautionary tale of the quandary tourists could find themselves when travelling abroad. Negative tests, vaccines and face masks only do so much to protect from the pervasive virus. And once abroad, tourists are often at the mercy of the national governments where they are vacationing. Travel and airline groups have called for more uniform rules internationally in regard to testing, travel bans and quarantine, but COVID-19 is still being handled on a country-by-country basis.
Early in the pandemic, tourists faced a similar issue when countries suddenly shut down borders and international flights ceased, leaving expatriates stranded.
Now American tourists have to make sure they are healthy to get back on planes coming back into the US. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention requires Americans and foreign nationals to have a negative test within one day of travelling back into the country. Australia requires travellers to provide a negative test (or proof they have recently recovered from COVID) before they board their flight.
"Unfortunately it's pretty common for someone to get COVID-19 while travelling, especially for people that are gone for longer and on trips to see family," said Sudeep Shah, a travel agent and owner of Travel King in Plano. "The only thing we can really tell people is to find a hotel and stick it out for 10 or 14 days. Try to find a hotel in a big city where you can have food delivered."
Every country has its own rules about quarantining with a COVID-19 infection, he said. In the US, for instance, medical and travel authorities aren't really tracking the status of travellers.
In some places, tourists have to cover their own hotel costs or are put in specific hotels with other COVID-19 patients. In some places, they are essentially locked in their rooms, Shah said.
Still, millions of tourists have ventured abroad and taken the risk, assuming that vaccinations would help mitigate exposure to COVID-19. And airlines and airports are eager to get tourists abroad, too. In recent months, Turkish Airlines, Iberia Airlines and Finnair have announced new routes to Turkey, Spain and Finland from DFW International Airport.
Italy, one of the early countries to experience a surge in COVID-19 cases in March of 2021, takes extreme measures when foreign tourists are diagnosed with COVID-19, forcing them into 10 days of government-sponsored quarantine.
The US Department of State did not return a request for comment on Allala's and Mawoad's situation.
The State Department's website says that "US citizens who choose to travel internationally may encounter mandatory COVID-19 testing requirements, quarantines, travel restrictions, and closed borders. Foreign governments in any country may implement restrictions with little notice. If you do travel internationally, be sure to make contingency plans as your trip may be severely disrupted and it may be difficult to arrange travel back to the United States."
In fact, the website for the US Embassy in Italy said that the office of the US Consular General in Florence has been closed "for health and safety reasons," and it didn't respond to a request for further information.
Allala is a dentist who has had her hands in the mouths of hundreds of patients during the duration of the pandemic without contracting the virus.
"We must have gotten it in Rome," Allala said. "It's the only place I can think of."
Allala said she took an at-home COVID-19 test on Monday after she had a cough and runny nose. It came back positive for both Allala and her boyfriend, Mawoad, a 36-year-old automotive software salesman. They alerted the hotel in Florence of their diagnosis.
A few hours later, Italian medical officials escorted Allala and Mawoad out of the hotel and into an ambulance, which took them about an hour away to a small hotel in Montecatini Terme, a city of 20,000 east of Pisa known for its mineral springs and architecture.
All they've seen of the town is from their hotel-room balcony.
"There are other people with COVID here," Allala said. "I can hear them through the walls."
Although their symptoms have been mild, Allala and Mawoad are still experiencing coughing, congestion, headaches and an upset stomach. They haven't had access to any medical treatment or even basic items such as cough drops and sports drinks for hydration.
Italy's government is paying for the hotel and food, but the food it provides leaves a lot to be desired.
"The food is bad," she said. "The best I can describe it as is cafeteria food, something that was frozen then heated and stuck under a hot lamp for hours."
The city doesn't have grocery delivery, but a local Burger King was able to deliver burgers, she said.
Allala has been begging restaurants that do deliver to bring five or six large cups of Powerade.
Their room is little more than a queen-sized bed and a bathroom, although it does have a balcony. They have begged the hotel to let them pay for a larger room but have been rejected.
"We haven't been able to do laundry," she said. "They told us to do it in the sink."
Allala said her at-home COVID test, purchased at a local market, is the only verification that the couple has COVID-19. They are still waiting for an official PCR test. Their quarantine is supposed to end 10 days from the day they get that PCR test, followed by a negative test.
But Allala is unsure what happens if she isn't tested by Italian medical authorities.
They are scheduled to fly home January 5.
"We haven't cancelled our flight home yet because we haven't heard anything yet, and we don't know what's going on," she said. "We're just sitting here waiting."
See also: Europe is becoming a mess for travellers