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Members of Forsyth County church quarantined after overseas trip
Members of Midway United Methodist Church in Forsyth County Hillside UMC in Woodstock are in the midst of a-day quarantine over coronavirus concerns after a trip to Israel and Egypt with stops in Greece and Germany. - photo by For the Forsyth County News

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Members of Midway United Methodist Church in Forsyth County and Hillside UMC in Woodstock had a fairly normal itinerary for a recent trip. A group of nearly 40 churchgoers would check out sites in the Holy Land in Israel and a smaller group would head to Egypt for a couple of days before returning home.

While the plan was typical for those wanting to view historic sites, the timeline coincided with the coronavirus outbreak, meaning all eight members of the smaller group have been in self-quarantine since Monday, March 16.

“Of course, everybody is social distancing right now,” said Midway Pastor Jennie Andone, “so I'm not so sure our experience is a lot different, other than we are not going to go out and sit at a restaurant and are doing all of our work remotely, which a lot of people are doing as well.”

Andone said despite “nightmares” they heard about with other airports, their returning flight to Newark, New Jersey was “the only international flight coming in at that time.”

The quarantine is required by the CDC, who were some of the first people to welcome the group back to the U.S., and one said she even ran into the unexpected, familiar face of one CDC employee when they returned.

“I heard the guy say, 'Is she a pastor?' and he turned out to be a member of a church I had served some years ago at Fayetteville First Methodist, then he was the first person greeting us at Newark, of all places,” Andone said. 

Andone said while the destinations were in Israel and Egypt, the group is being quarantined due to two stops in Europe.

“It was difficult to get flight arrangements, although things hadn't really started in Egypt yet,” she said  “But they flew us through Greece into Cairo, and we had a long layover in Greece. Then, they got us an early flight two days early, and that took us through Frankfurt, again with a layover. That's why we ended up in quarantine because we had been in those two countries of Greece and Germany on our return.”

Before even leaving on the trip, some of the travelers had begun hearing chatter about the disease but didn’t think it would touch the area they were visiting. 

“I kind of heard about the virus being in Wuhan, China before we even left,” said Toni Melton, one of the eight to go to Egypt. “I was a little paranoid, but to be honest with you, I just thought it was isolated strictly to that area of China because it didn't seem like we were hearing maybe the full news out of China yet, so I thought, 'OK, well, nothing there. We don't have to worry about it, it doesn't apply to us,' which is naive of course now, but at the time it was somewhat limited.”

Melton said looking back on the trip, there were signs of disruptions to everyday life being caused by the disease. 

“We were having like 12-hour days where pretty much we were pushing hard because we didn't realize at the time the reason they were doing this is they knew the site might very well be closed down there," Melton said. "We really didn't even check the news much, the TV or anything over there, so we were a little oblivious to what was going on back in the states.”

The circumstances of the trip did lead to some unique experiences for the visitors, including some of the most popular sites on the trip being nearly empty.

“Because of what was going on, we ended up not having to wait in lines and being able to spend a lot of time in the Museum of Israel without other crowds,” Andone said. “We went into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on Sunday morning and there was no line, and we were able to stand there in the middle of the church when all the various groups – that church is split up between different denominations that lay claim in different parts – we were standing in the middle when all of their worships started up.”

Andone said that all members of the Egypt trip were checked by the CDC when returning and none had shown any symptoms of the disease. 

Both Andone and Melton said despite the circumstances, they were both glad to have gone on the trip, though Andone said she was concerned for those who had helped them along the way.

“What we were really cognizant of was the fact that these people that were helping us – our bus driver, our tour guide, people that worked with [trip organizer] Educational Opportunities, all the people at the hotels, at the tour sites – all these people, their livelihoods are in jeopardy,” she said, “and they were so helpful to us and helped us have a great trip, and we recognized that we might be the last group they would have for a long time and they might not have income coming in for a little while.”