It was set up as a trip of a lifetime.
Roland and Leslie Weir were in search of a destination for their annual vacation.
Roland, a longtime history buff, was celebrating his 50th birthday this year, so the Weirs wanted something special.
“He’s a fan of Roman history,” Leslie said, “so we picked Italy.”
The Iola couple spent 10 days in Italy, visiting Rome, La Spezia, Florence and Venice as part of their excursion.
It also gave the Weirs a bird’s-eye view of history in the making; one that appears to be repeating itself a few weeks later in the United States.
When they arrived in Rome the morning of Feb. 18, there were only three confirmed cases of COVID-19, the unique coronavirus recently declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization.
By the time they left the country nine days later, the number of infected in Italy had exploded to 650 cases. (It has since grown exponentially since then to more than 15,000 infections as of Thursday — and more than 1,000 deaths.)
A similar timeline is taking shape back home in the U.S., where health experts predict millions of Americans eventually will become infected.
“Who knows what’s going to happen,” Roland said. “We may have gotten lucky and not caught it there, only to come home and catch it here.”
THE WEIRS typically schedule their annual vacation trips to late winter.
Roland coaches the Crest High School Lancer baseball team, and with practices starting in March, February vacations are ideal, Leslie explained.
A trip to Italy was appealing in more ways than one. This time of year is considered the “slow” season for travel to Italy and other parts of Europe, so expenses would be lower and crowds smaller.
And because they usually travel in the heart of the cold and flu season, the Weirs already were accustomed to taking precautions for health, Leslie noted.
“We’re always prepared for things like that; hand sanitizer gel, wipes,” she said. “We know people generally are sicker this time of year.”
THE WEIRS arrived in Rome to see a still-bustling crowd of tourists.
By then, word of coronavirus had begun to emerge, particularly for Leslie, who works as a nurse at Heartland Meadows, a residential care facility in Iola.
Paying attention to health news is her pastime. “I see red flags when others might not,” she said.
The Weirs took several precautions endorsed by medical professionals. They avoided large crowds, and especially kept their distance from anyone appearing unhealthy.
“The weather was great; the crowds in Rome were probably typical,” she said. “There were still a lot of people walking around. Nobody was worried. I didn’t see a lot of facemasks. It was just a normal business day. All the shops were open, all the monuments were open.”
Three days later, the Weirs headed about 260 miles north to La Spezia, the coastal city known for its museums and storied military history.
It was there Roland and Leslie started hearing about other COVID-19 cases popping up, almost exclusively in northern Italy — where they were headed next.
They traveled next to Florence, which still had crowds, but with more folks wearing facemasks.
“By this time, we started receiving messages on Facebook,” Leslie said. “‘Are you guys OK? Are you going to get quarantined?’ That’s when I started getting nervous.”
A call to the American embassy assuaged their fears, but also raised other questions.
“They put us on a watch list, took our contact information and we let them know where we were traveling,” Roland said. “They recommended we do proper things, like keep our hands washed, what they’re telling people now.
“And they told us to finish our trip.”
If something changed, the Weirs were told, the embassy would be in touch.
And they also were directed to reach out to the Centers for Disease Control — “something very unusual,” Leslie recalled.
The CDC contact told the Weirs to continue their normal schedule as well.
Still, Leslie was unconvinced. “We really did not want to get stuck in quarantine,” she said.
She reached out to her travel agent.
Because there were no other travel restrictions, the Weirs were not permitted to find alternate routes home, without paying for it themselves.
They reached out anyway, reserving flights to Paris, then back home, just in case.
“We decided that if Venice got closed, it didn’t matter how much it cost,” she said. “We were getting out of there.”
The danger of being quarantined was more than a matter of inconvenience, she explained. If a person is quarantined with somebody already infected, the chances grow ever more likely everyone in the room will get sick.
OTHER travelers apparently shared their concerns.
By the time the Weirs reached Venice — one of Europe’s top tourist destinations — they saw a ghost town.
The famed Carnevale di Venezia! — Italy’s version of Mardi Gras — was supposed to be in full swing. Instead, it had been canceled shortly before they arrived.
“The carnival confetti was everywhere,” she said. “Their lights were still up.”
Shops were vacant, or closed altogether, as were museums.
“They’d put ropes around the churches so you couldn’t enter,” she said.
And the Weirs saw more and more facemasks.
They were greeted at the hotel with a comment from the hotel clerk. “Oh, you’re brave travelers.”
“We don’t really have a choice,” Leslie replied.
The unusual accommodations had some silver linings.
With only a handful of other guests in the hotel, the Weirs were treated almost like royalty, including a free room upgrade.
“We actually felt pretty safe,” Leslie said. “We tried to stay six feet away from everyone. If somebody was coughing, we were moving, but we never saw anybody who was sick.”
The Weirs also had restaurants to themselves for the most part.
“We got really good service,” Roland said.
They visited one eatery about a block from their hotel, and because nobody else was there, the Weirs enjoyed an extended conversation with the owner. The owner had worked there since he was a child, then bought it when the previous owner died.
Had the restaurant been busier, there was no way the Weirs would have been treated to such a personal visit.
“We’d had a lot of great meals, but as far as experience, that was the best,” Roland said.
Boat tours to Venice’s iconic chain of islands were sparsely populated as well, giving the couple a veritable run of the city.
“We did a lot of walking,” Leslie said.
They also rode bicycles frequently; something easier said than done in cities with cobblestone streets.
There was one unfortunate incident in which Leslie crashed her bike into the side of a military vehicle. (Security had been amped up because of a separate issue.)
“They weren’t real happy,” she said sheepishly.
“Thank God for Google Maps,” Roland laughed, noting he was unable to read Italian well enough to learn the local bus schedules. “It was kind of our lifesaver. I don’t know that we would have made it back to our hotel.”
The Weirs had one visit called off because of the coronavirus.
While en route to Venice, they’d hoped to catch up with Nora Gostner, an Italian exchange student who studied her senior year at Iola High School in 2018.
But by the time the couple were in her region, they’d learned Gostner’s college had closed up its campus and sent her home.
In retrospect, the Weirs were grateful for the advent of social media.
Had they done this trip in years past, they likely would have had no prior notice of the coronavirus dangers.
“We would never have known to contact the embassy,” Leslie said. “It really led to safer traveling, and getting info out faster.”
Roland also is hopeful he’ll get back to Europe at some point. (This was their first time ever across the ocean.)
“It was a good trip,” he said. “I wish everybody has a chance to see Italy. It’s a beautiful country, the people are very nice.”
THEIR return still carried questions.
They arrived in Atlanta on their return trip home, bracing for a quarantine order, or at least some form of medical examination.
Instead, they had to answer only a couple of questions.
“They asked where we were coming from,” Roland recalled.
“Italy,” he responded.
“Have you been around sick people?”
“I hope not.”
That was it.
“They weren’t taking our temps, although I’m sure they are doing that now,” Leslie said.
Upon their arrival back in Kansas, the couple took further precautions.
Roland phoned school officials at Crest about whether he should return immediately.
“The superintendent said he trusted my judgment,” Roland said.
Because neither he nor Leslie exhibited any sign of illness they soon went back to work.
It’s now been two weeks since they’ve been home; both still have no visible signs of illness.
The two-week window is important. Health officials said some victims may have been infected as many as 12 days before showing signs of the coronavirus.
Starting this week, Leslie has helped put in place even more precautions at Heartland Meadows. Visitors are screened, and temperatures checked, when they walk in the door.
She’s also setting up for potential quarantines in case any of the residents or staffers are infected.
She noted the infection rates in the United States is largely mirroring what had occurred in Italy, which now is in a nationwide state of emergency.
“I’m sure these cases are going to be multiplying,” she said.