BEIJING – As the U.S. evacuates some Americans out of the Chinese city hardest-hit by a viral outbreak, many like Doug Perez are opting to stay.
It’s not that he’s unconcerned. Perez and his girlfriend have hunkered down in their apartment for days. They’ve argued. They’ve fretted over missed food deliveries. They’ve dubbed their Labrador, Chubby, “Apocalypse Dog,” venturing out for short walks on deserted streets only after fitting him with a mask.
But Perez won’t leave because his girlfriend, who is Chinese, wouldn't be allowed on the plane.
“A lot of foreigners are stuck here,” the 28-year-old San Francisco native said. “There is no way on Earth many of us, including myself, are going to leave our loved ones.”
As China rolls out containment measures unprecedented in modern history, locking down more than 50 million people in 17 cities, foreigners are trapped in the quarantine zone as well.
A charter flight evacuating as many as 240 Americans, including diplomats and their families, left Wuhan early Wednesday en route to Alaska for refueling then California. The State Department official who confirmed the flight's departure spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
But Americans in Wuhan estimate there are more than a thousand U.S. citizens in the city, meaning most will be left behind.
“It’s like a sinking ship,” Perez said.
The day the lockdown was announced, Perez and his girlfriend got in a fight — “a plate was destroyed” — over whether to venture to a supermarket to buy food. His girlfriend, who doesn’t want to be named, won the argument, and the couple began ordering food online. The streets went quiet. They stay in every night, spending hours a day on social media checking up on the latest news and fielding calls from worried relatives.
On Monday evening, guards barred him from leaving his apartment compound, leaving him wondering what’s next.
“That's kind of dawned on me, like how bad this could get,” Perez said. “Who knows what will be next week. Will it be police, will it be soldiers? Will we physically not be able to leave our building?”
Japan, South Korea, France and other wealthy governments are also planning evacuations. But for many from other countries, there are no plans for evacuations at all, leaving them totally stranded.
Another American, who declined to be identified out of fear of online and government harassment, said she was choosing to stay behind because she has a cough and was told she would likely be quarantined at the Wuhan airport by Chinese authorities.
But for Priscilla Dickey, 35, from South Burlington, Vermont, trying to get on the plane was a no-brainer because of her 8-year-old daughter, Hermione, who she worries could be vulnerable to the virus. On Monday afternoon, the consulate phoned Dickey and told her she and her daughter had seats.
After packing a bag with three shirts and a pair of pants, Dickey stayed up until two in the morning trying to figure out how she would get to the airport amid a transportation shutdown. She “stress cleaned” her apartment in the morning, she said, before getting in an airport-bound car, waves of emotion washing over her.
“I was feeling guilt,” Dickey said, speaking by phone on her way to the airport. “Excitement, guilt, stress — all of it.”
Dickey plans to stay with relatives in the Cincinnati area after a 3- to 14-day quarantine, she says, adding that she was “very grateful” to be leaving.
Meanwhile, Perez is still mulling whether to venture to a supermarket, weighing the risks of getting infected.
But despite the worsening conditions, Perez says there are moments of hope. On Monday evening, residents set off fireworks, and cries of “Go Wuhan!” echoed around his apartment compound.
Perez joined in, shouting “We are all Wuhan people!” His girlfriend cheered and his dog barked, making them feel they were “all in this together.”
“We needed that,” Perez said. “It lifted us up a bit and gave us some hope.”
Associated Press journalist Matthew Lee contributed from Washington.