Staff Member Recalls Italian Outbreak

Greg Wilkins Recounts his Time in Europe During the Beginning of the Pandemic

If there is one good thing that has come of COVID-19, it is the stories that will go down in history. The stories of the 2020 worldwide pandemic that will be told to the students of a history classroom and the grandchildren of those who lived through it. 

Although such stories are difficult when they are experienced first hand, they become the most interesting to tell, and the most desired to be heard.

One story in particular is that of Greg Wilkins, the associate director of Minnesota State University, Mankato’s Centennial Student Union.

Wilkins, an avid traveler, traveled to Italy in March to volunteer in Venice. The city was still recovering from the great flood of 2019, and Wilkins was ready to help out.

Despite COVID-19 being at its peak around the world, he was determined to continue his trip. 

“I knew that the country was having challenges because I saw the news,” says Wilkins. “But I was still going to go.”

When asked why, Wilkins said, “I had done all of this research, bought my tickets and housing, and had everything planned.”

Italy had been set in his agenda for a while, and he was not going to let all of his hard work go to waste.

“My friends thought I was crazy,” says Wilkins. “But that didn’t stop me.”

He packed his bags, got on the plane and headed to Florence, Italy. 

Instead of being greeted by the hustle and bustle of a vibrant city, Wilkins arrived to a Presidential Decree that was hammered to the front door of his hostel.

“The day that I arrived was the day they shut down,” Wilkins said.

Tourist destinations began closing doors, so Wilkins was unable to visit.

“My heart sank,” he said. 

However, he did not regret his decision to go to Italy.

“I told myself that I was going to seize the moment,” he said. “I was in a period of history that was going to be life changing.”

His positivity continued for the rest of his trip despite drawbacks. Within the first three days, all of Florence was quiet.

“The city is normally full of people, but there was no one,” says Wilkins. “It was like the zombie apocalypse.”

Restaurants, churches, cathedrals, hotels, hostels, shopping centers — all were closed.

“At my hostel, the owner gave me the keys to the estate and I was the only one there.” Wilkin says. “A three-story building, and I was all alone.”

The surrounding areas of his hostel were home to Red Cross tents containing body bags of the deceased.

“Everything was just desolate,” says Wilkins. “It was the most eerie thing in the world.”

The streets of Florence remained empty during his visit, including the world famous Ponte Vecchio bridge, where locals and tourists alike normally crowd.

“Every once in a while, I would see a vespa with someone on it going to the grocery store or to the hospital because they were sick,” Wilkin says.

Other than that, the streets were being patrolled by the police and the military.

“You couldn’t be out on the streets unless you had a special government pass,” says Wilkins. “So I had befriended all of the military men that were in their tanks.”

He doesn’t speak Italian, but he spoke some Spanish and English to those in the military.

“They figured out at that point that I was just a tourist trying to get around,” says Wilkins. “Since I was a part of the neighborhood, they allowed me to go through parts of the city without ever being stopped.”

With permission to roam the streets, Wilkins toured the city.

He noticed magazine and newspaper stands full of products, but no one was there except the owner and his dog.

He managed to snap a few photographs of the newspaper headlines regarding the pandemic at each one.

He also entered a church during a time of prayer.

“I would sit down and pretend that I’m praying while I actually just looked at pretty things,” says Wilkins.

Wilkins adds, “it was truly an experience.”

A few days later, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. was closing its borders and its citizens had to be back by March 13 if they wanted to reenter the country.

“At that point, I had to find a way to get home.” says Wilkins.

He tried contacting airlines via Facebook but didn’t get a response. He then called the airport and was put on a 12-hour hold.

At 3 a.m. Wilkins grew impatient and went to bed. He figured he would deal with the issue in the morning. When he woke up, he decided to walk to the airport. 

“As I was walking, the police stopped me,” Wilkins says. “They asked me what was up and then realized quickly that I wasn’t Italian and they let me go.”

He walked another five blocks before he was stopped again by authorities. This time, by the military in their tank.

“They got out and they talked to me,” says Wilkins. “They spoke some English so I described to them what I was trying to do.”

After explaining his situation, the men in the military informed Wilkins of a cable car running through the city that would get him directly to the airport. Relieved by the news, he bought a ticket. He followed the social distancing guidelines on the cable car until he arrived at the airport.

“When I got there, the airport was surrounded by military tanks and the police,” says Wilkins. “There was also a steady stream of tourists with rolling bags all just trying to get out of the country.”

He got in line behind the others. The line itself was long, especially with everyone remaining six feet apart.

He waited in line until it was his turn to be helped.

When he finally spoke to someone, they informed him all flights to Amsterdam were fully booked.

“The next day and the day after that, all of the flights were booked as well,” says Wilkins.

The next flight available was Friday, March 13, the last day U.S. citizens could return to the country.

“Luckily enough, there was one seat left and I took it,” Wilkins says. “The funny thing is, there were so many people trying to get out of the country that they ran out of tickets so they had to handwrite me one.”

He held onto his handwritten ticket and returned to his hostel for the next two days.

When he got back, he told the police patrolling the front of his hostel what his plans were and they advised him to get out of the walled-in part of the city to explore more of Florence. 

For the remainder of his trip, that’s exactly what he did. 

“I did a lot of walking and exploring one end of the city to the next,” says Wilkins. “I made the most of it.”

At the end of his final two days, he left his hostel a thank you note and some famous Italian candy to show his gratitude.

“I left the key on the reception desk with the note and candy,” says Wilkins. “I knew that once I closed that door, there was no looking back.”

Wilkins adds, “I just had to hope everything would work out.”

Luckily for him, it did.

“Once I got to the airport, everyone was social distancing and the military was still there,” says Wilkins.

In Italy, in order to get on the plane, passengers must take a bus to the tarmac. 

“Normally, you could get everyone onto the plane in one to two busses,” Wilkins says. “But because of social distancing, it took us six to eight busses.”

“The funny thing is,” Wilkins adds, “we had to follow all of these rules at the airport and on the bus, but once we got on the airplane, there were no rules.”

According to Wilkins, passengers just crammed into the plane.

Once he landed in Amsterdam, he noticed the airport was packed with college students from all over the world.

“All of their study abroad programs were cancelled and they were being sent home immediately,” says Wilkins about the college students. “Some students had three hour notice while others were awoken and told that they had to go.”

According to Wilkins, some students were taking the news well while others were shaken up and in tears.

Wilkins says he’ll never forget his experience.

When asked how he would compare the way Italy reacted to COVID-19 to the U.S. response, he said Italy handled it with more diligence.

“In Italy, people immediately followed social distancing guidelines and everyone was masked from the start,” he says. “Everybody knew somebody that either had COVID-19 or died from it.”

Because of that, Italians took the pandemic seriously.

“The people honored and respected it,” Wilkins says. “They were civil, had a lot of regard for the lives of others, and knew the seriousness of what was transpiring.”

Once Italy’s President declared a nationwide lockdown, the citizens abided. 

“People locked themselves in and quarantined,” says Wilkins. “Hence why they became stir crazy and went on their balconies and started singing.”

According to Wilkins, people in Italy would go out onto their balconies every day and sing songs with one other.

“It happened every day and it was amazing,” says Wilkins, happy to have witnessed it.

He admired how Italians turned something negative into a positive.

“They created their own happiness,” says Wilkins. “It was inspiring.”

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