WILLMAR — The world seemed to change in the blink of an eye. Shawn and Debbie Mueske had been enjoying a spring break trip to Madrid and Valencia, Spain. For the first half of the week, everything was fine. Then, as they were having lunch at a restaurant March 13, it wasn't.
"All of a sudden the people running the place got very nervous and scared," said Shawn Mueske, biology instructor at Ridgewater College and a Willmar City Council member. "Everything shut down, it happened instantly."
Mueske told his story over a Facebook video call from the comforts of his home in Willmar, where he and his wife are self-quarantining for 14 days.
"We're still feeling fine, absolutely," Mueske said.
As the Mueskes were enjoying the scenery, museums and restaurants in the country, COVID-19 was spreading rapidly through Spain. This was especially true in Madrid, where the Mueskes would spend several days. According to Johns Hopkins University and Medicine, Spain was reporting nearly 40,000 cases of COVID-19, fourth highest in the world on March 24. There have been 2,800 deaths and 3,794 have reportedly recovered.
"It is now being called the epicenter of the disease," Mueske said.
The Mueskes' Spanish vacation began March 7. They were visiting a friend who teaches English in Madrid. Prior to leaving, Mueske said his wife did wonder if they should cancel the trip. Mueske thought it would be OK, as numbers in Madrid were still low at the time.
Through most of their trip, as they traveled in Madrid, Toledo and Valencia, everything was still wide open. Restaurants and museums were welcoming patrons and there were very few signs of what was to come. The Mueskes had a great time visiting many of Spain's top attractions and had the opportunity to experience its famous cuisine.
"They eat a lot of cephalopods, Spain. We were eating octopus, squid and cuttlefish," Mueske said.
It wasn't until they arrived in Valencia on March 11 that things started to change, but slowly. A major festival called Falles, which celebrates Saint Joseph, had been canceled. The large Falla statues, that are created for the festival and usually burned at the end, were all standing in the open, covered in plastic. Despite the shutdown of the festival, restaurants and museums were still open. There was still no word from the Spanish government.
"We thought it was weird, they canceled the celebration," Mueske said.
The travelers were not unaware of what was happening in Madrid. Mueske's work colleague found out his school program had been shut down and that cases were increasing.
"We knew when we were in Valencia, Madrid was exploding, there was major disease spread," Mueske said. "There was this beginning of a feeling that things might not be working out here."
At the same time President Donald Trump was restricting travel to the United States from most of Europe, to try and curtail the rapid spread of COVID-19. That decision caused the Mueskes to leave Valencia early and get back to Madrid, so they could be sure they could get to the airport a few days later.
The train back to Madrid was completely different from the trip to Valencia. As a precaution, Mueske had packed some face masks and the group wore them all the way back to Madrid.
"That train ride was very nervous," Mueske said.
Once back in Madrid, the Mueskes had to change their travel plans. Americans returning home from Europe now had to fly into 12 specific airports, which did not include Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The Mueskes would now fly from Madrid to Atlanta, go through a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health screening and then be allowed to fly to Minneapolis.
On their last day in Spain, the Mueskes spent most of the day at their friend's apartment, though they did venture out to get groceries.
"There was a lot of fear in people's faces," Mueske said, and the shelves were picked over as people stocked up before the country was put on lockdown.
The airport on March 15 was unsettling to say the least. All the workers at the airport were wearing masks and gloves, and the Mueskes kept their masks on the entire time they were traveling. Once you got to your gate, you had to stay there, Mueske said.
"People felt better because you were going home," Mueske said, though the plane ride was less than relaxing, with many people coughing. "We left the masks on the entire flight."
In Atlanta, the Mueskes avoided the mess that occurred in Chicago at O'Hare International Airport, where travelers waited for hours to get their luggage and go through customs and health screenings.
"We got very lucky our flights were through Atlanta," Mueske said. "For us, it was very quick."
However, once they entered the general public, it seemed like nothing was wrong. People were still going about their lives, most taking no extra precautions, a lot like it was in Spain prior to it being shut down.
"Because we still had masks on, people gave us a wide area to walk through," Mueske said.
Even now, over a week later, it has only gotten worse in Madrid. Mueske said police officers are keeping people from leaving their homes, only allowing one person from a home to go grocery shopping.
"They are slowing moving to a police state," Mueske said.
Mueske believes it is possible that what is happening in Spain and Italy can easily happen here, especially if preventive measures are not taken and followed. COVID-19 can easily overwhelm the health care system and with it the rest of society.
"It was very scary. Watching that collapse from that restaurant in Valencia, from that moment on," Mueske said. "It was very scary behind those lines. It happened literally in the span of a few hours. It went from laissez-faire to totally shut down."
The couple is definitely happy to be home. With three kids, they were worried about getting stuck overseas. Now they are just waiting for the last week of their quarantine to pass and hope they continue to be illness-free.
While most of their trip to Spain was great, the Mueskes will probably always remember the last few days of that trip, when they found themselves in the middle of a global health emergency.
"It turned out to be much more of an adventure than it should have been," Mueske said.