When rumors about flight cancellations and travel restrictions began, a quandary arose for many international students, including me. Should I stay, separated indefinitely from my home and family in the Netherlands, or leave for home, separated indefinitely from school during my senior year?

Just days after the U.S. announced a ban on travel from 26 European nations, including the Netherlands, on March 17, I chose the latter. 

I packed my belongings, stuffed as much food as possible into my bags and drove to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) with my mother. We were armed with masks, sunglasses, hand sanitizer and gloves. 

SFO was almost deserted, with closed shops marking the way to mostly empty terminals. There wasn’t even a line at security — a phenomenon I hadn’t seen in seven years. 

The only crowd I saw was at our gate; snippets of Dutch confirmed my prediction that the hundreds of passengers were not excited tourists but anxious Dutch citizens on their way home.

Everyone was wearing a mask, and many passengers added gloves and glasses. Every food item was double-wrapped in plastic, and airport personnel kept their distance.

My flight was one of the last to leave SFO for Amsterdam. We were fortunate that tickets were available and we could afford the 25% price increase. While I sympathized with those unable to be with their families, I also prepared for the worst in the Netherlands, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, after seeing the near-apocalyptic SFO and following Dutch news. 

In a television address on March 16, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte explained that the government’s approach is to control the coronavirus as much as possible and prevent nursing homes, home care services, hospitals and intensive care units from becoming overwhelmed.

Protective measures apply until May 19. 

Contact-based industries, such as hair and nail salons, are closed, as are museums, casinos, gyms, sports clubs and theaters. Restaurants and cafes remain open only for delivery and takeout. 

Universities are closed. National exams are canceled. Primary and secondary schools and childcare centers are open only for the children of parents working in health care, law enforcement, public transport or the fire service. 

Every event requiring a permit is banned until September 1; nearly all others are banned until May 19. The few exceptions still face restrictions. Funerals, marriage ceremonies and religious or ideological gatherings can’t exceed 30 people, and meetings required by law, such as those of the States-General (our Senate and House of Representatives), can’t exceed 100 people. King’s Day, the national holiday on April 27, was canceled.

Most supermarkets require customers to use carts to force distance between shoppers, and each has established its own maximum occupancy. They face mandatory closures if they do not comply with hygiene measures or social distancing. 

On the 30-minute drive from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam to my village of Blaricum, I noticed empty highways leading to quiet streets. Even the bikers, so characteristic of Dutch life, were gone.

All over the highways and city streets in the Netherlands are illuminated signs that read, “Stay home! Only together will we control the coronavirus.” (Photo by Schep)

Every day, I’m reminded of the recommended distance from others — 1.5 meters (about five feet) — by store placards, billboards, LED displays on highways or the sides of buildings, radio broadcasts, television advertisements and more. 

During one hour-long drive, I saw seven signs about coronavirus precautions, not counting those placed by non-government organizations.

My local supermarket, bakery, pharmacy, bookstore and florist and some clothing stores remain open. 

Most village shops are small, so I can only enter if no more than two or three other people are inside. In the afternoon, lines of shoppers 1.5 meters apart fill the streets. 

Luckily, many customers maintain distance voluntarily, though I’ve witnessed a pharmacist resort to shooing shoppers out of the store with a pamphlet when they crowded the entrance. Even in a 40-person line at an asparagus farm, customers automatically stood meters apart. In other ways, though, the “intelligent” lockdown, as Rutte described it, feels invisible. 

As of April 3, all Dutch travelers returning from America, among other high-risk areas, must complete a health screening form. Non-essential travel from outside the European Union is banned. 

Still, many returned to the Netherlands before that ruling, including me. I quarantined myself but entered the Netherlands without even being tested. There aren’t any travel restrictions within the country, despite some provinces reporting over a hundred more infections than others. 

Gatherings in public of three or more people are punishable by a fine of up to 350 euros (about $383) per person if members aren’t 1.5 meters apart. Companies that don’t provide 1.5 meters of space between workers can be fined up to 4,000 euros (about $4,375). However, there are no police roaming the streets of my village to ensure compliance. 

In my neighborhood, children play in schoolyards every day, often unsupervised and certainly not 1.5 meters apart at all times. Teenagers still bike around town, and the elderly get fresh air by walking on the moors.

After a month in the Netherlands, I’ve noticed food shortages in supermarkets have disappeared, and the streets are filling up again. On a recent sunny day, families and friends ate ice cream in the park as if the quarantine already had been lifted.

From April 29, those under 18 can play at sports clubs again; municipalities can even decide to completely open sports clubs. On May 11, childcare centers and primary schools will reopen, though children will only attend school every other day with class sizes cut in half. Secondary schools will resume on June 2. 

Mayors can introduce local emergency legislation, order the closure of specific locations or impose new fines, but I haven’t seen any specialized laws or fines in my area.

My village’s most publicized tragedy isn’t a death toll, but a Vincent Van Gogh painting, “Parsonage Garden at Neunen in Spring,” stolen from a museum after it had closed. The country’s biggest panic over a commodity hasn’t involved toilet paper or canned beans, but the marijuana supply at now-closed shops. After long lines of consumers formed in cities within hours, shops were allowed to implement takeout services to combat the anticipated rise of illegal dealers. 

A sign at a museum in Schep’s village of Blaricum reminds people to be kind to each other and visit its website about upcoming exhibits. (Photo by Schep)

This attitude reflects another strategy encouraged by Rutte: herd immunity.

On March 16, Rutte said he hopes to develop immunity to the coronavirus in the Netherlands by allowing large numbers to contract the illness at a controlled pace.

Ideally, this protects vulnerable groups, avoids a complete shutdown during a new outbreak and protects the Dutch economy. 

Still, some experts worry that the coronavirus has also caused fatalities among patients under 60, and there is insufficient data to know if infection provides immunity. 

According to the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), as of April 21, the Netherlands had 34,134 confirmed cases, 729 new cases in the past 24 hours, 3,916 deaths and 165 new deaths in the past 24 hours. 

The statistics in the past days indicate the virus is spreading slower than it would without protective measures, RIVM said. In addition, the number of hospitalized and deceased patients has consistently declined since late March and early April, respectively. 

However, as of April 21, the Netherlands ranked ninth globally in deaths per million (299), according to Worldometer. The United States ranked 14th. 

I plan to return to California when flights are safe and available, either to resume classes at Country Day or to collect the belongings I had to leave behind. That could be soon, but if there’s anything these past few weeks have taught us, it’s that no one really knows what will happen next. 

My frantic efforts to cram my existence into a few suitcases may have been my last moments in California until this summer, or beyond. The day head of high school Brooke Wells told us Country Day was moving to online learning likely was my final day on campus. 

—By Héloïse Schep

Originally published in the April 28 edition of the Octagon.

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