We moved our family from the US (Maryland, just in case you didn’t know yet) to Belgium – no big deal. During the COVID-19 pandemic, in July-August 2020 – now we’re talking …
I wrote this post to document our journey. We were (and still are) extremely privileged to have been able to do this, in the conditions we did it. The journey is not over. I’ll update and continue to document it until we fall back into something more “normal” … [long post]
Farewell (sort of)
Maryland – and more specifically the region where we lived (Montgomery County) – was hit hard by COVID-19 (not as hard as many other regions of the US) and many of our friends, neighbors, random encounters were following the basic rules to limit the spread of the disease: wear a mask, practice physical distancing and wash our hands. That made our departure very, very awkward and very, very sad: no hugs, no big parties, no farewell drinks … But we had masked discussions with dear friends, meetings in the street or garden – 6 feet apart, virtual drinks, we told kids not to touch any surfaces or their faces, we moved away from joggers running without masks, … But we made a point to visit all of our kids’ friends at least once before leaving. With virtual school in MCPS since mid-March, it was the first time we saw some of them for real in months!
Movers came and went. They already have a tough job of moving someone else’s belongings. On top, they don’t know if that someone else is sick or not (even asymptomatic). They work hard in an enclosed space. AC can be on, windows can be open; it’s still a closed space where all particles are shuffled around and the air is mostly recycled, not renewed. None of them wore gloves. Most of them wore their masks until the end (a full 12 hours!), mostly the women. All of them came from ethnic backgrounds the most hit by this pandemic. None of them were coughing. All of them were wonderfully kind. Thanks to all of them!
Sleeping away & moving around
We had the luxury to live in a hotel for the last 3 nights in Maryland. It was the middle of Summer holidays but the hotel was deserted. Agreed: we were not in a touristic area. But we also slept in the same hotel when we arrived in Maryland, at exactly the same period of the year (July-August), 4 years ago. Then, it was bustling with tourists, families, kids; this year, we could hear a virtual happy birthday party in a room and sometimes the neighbor’s television. No one came for breakfast. We may have met 3 or 4 people in the lobby – during our entire stay there. The restaurant was closed but instead empty bags and cardboard of take-away food were in front of rooms (another indicator of occupancy: 3 rooms on our floor). The receptionists were also very kind – behind a plexiglass, wearing masks, didn’t touch our magnetic cards when we returned them.
I can repeat the same words about the rental car location: empty. I drove back the rental car (we sold our cars 1-2 weeks before leaving) at Dulles airport, the day of our departure. Dulles airport is not the busiest US airport but it’s Washington’s main airport for long distance flights. The rental car facility was empty. I was the only one returning a car, at that time. I was the only one in the shuttle back to the airport. I chit-chatted with the (masked) shuttle driver through a plastic curtain between him and the cabin. He said this was usually their busiest season (with Thanksgiving) but now it’s worst than anything he ever saw.
Dulles Airport was eerily empty. We expected a temperature check at the airport entrance; it was only at the gate, just before boarding the plane. So: what happens if you have fever but your luggage is already in the plane, you passed security and you already infected everyone waiting with you at the gate? Check-in was done in 5 minutes. Security was passed in a breeze too. We walked empty corridors to our gate. That day, only 3 flights were scheduled to Europe: Brussels, Munich and Vienna.
First contact with contact tracing
Since a week or so, Americans cannot fly to Europe (with exceptions). As Belgians, we still checked with the Embassy in D.C. (it was OK as we were returning home). We filled the Public Health Passenger Locator Form (online version), the first ever encounter with the beginning of a contact tracing system (and it’s the Belgian one, not the US/MD one). In there, we had to fill in who we were, how we were flying to Belgium, where we were seated, where we were going to spend our quarantine:
In case it was forgotten, United crew handed these form at the gate and during the flight.
Flying in times of coronavirus
We were expecting an empty plane but about 50-60 people flew with us: about 25-30 in business class and 25-30 in economy class. Passengers in economy could practice more physical distancing than the ones in business! Besides everyone wearing masks and a somewhat reduced service, the flight was not very different than during non-pandemic times. All passengers (and crew members) wore masks, some passengers also wore face shields. Physical distancing was difficult to enforce while walking in the aisles. That was not an issue for the kids who already planned since a long time to binge watch any super hero or Harry Potter series that would be available 😉
Getting tested in Belgium
We landed on time. In Brussels Airport, Passenger Locator forms were checked before anything else (there was again a possibility to fill then in). Temperature was checked again (there were warnings we could be tested on the spot too). Forms were handed over to the border police, checked at the same time as our passports/IDs. After a quick nap at the place where we chose to quarantine ourselves, we discovered 2 messages on our phones. The first message told us we were coming back from a red zone (we knew that already) and announced we had to take a COVID-19 test. The second message was a digital prescription/code to show at the testing facility. How did we
Finding a testing facility is easy: most major hospitals have a testing facility, in addition to a myriad of labs. But for us who were quarantining in a part of Brussels we didn’t know, it was a bit more complex: without car, where can we go by foot? I found this document for asymptomatic patients (this one for symptomatic patients). A quick question to @CrisiscenterBE on Twitter and I’m shown this list of all testing sites. Nothing fancy: it’s just a list, one has to find out 1) which center is close-by and 2) what is the procedure to get tested.
A quick look and we are close to the site of Iris Sud / Etterbeek. They had a page with directions and opening hours but when I called, the new site was at Molière-Longchamps (not as close). Since then (August, 6th), they updated the web page. We reached at 12.15, there were already about 25 people in the queue. We waited about 2.5 hours, fortunately the street has shade from the trees. This is about 6 minutes per person (per test), it’s quite a feature!
Testing itself is pretty straightforward: you enter (1 by 1, 1 child per adult if necessary but not the whole family of 4), give your ID card (they just need your National Identification Number) and, if you don’t have any prescription, the doctor (who will also take the sample) will sign one for you.
Here is the silly part: a day before our departure, the Belgian government added a digital Passenger Locator Form. I assumed the phone message we received came from this form (or they went fast! to encode our paper form). The prescription number received by phone message seems useless: the triage center did a new prescription anyway. And I learned from my sister (working in another hospital) that they were notified to make sure to have a paper prescription for all tests. So the digital prescription doesn’t seem to have any value for the moment. It’s OK: the doctor on site can write one paper version for you.
The main problem was the children’s test: although the doctor was OK to take the sample from our kids, the site cannot officially process children. We were advised to either go to Saint-Pierre hospital or have an appointment with our family doctor who will then direct us (with a prescription) to the relevant testing site. The issue is that, having been in Belgium since a few days only, and being in quarantine, we couldn’t contact our former family doctor yet … So we decided that either one of us (parents) is positive and we’ll try to test the kids – or if we are both negative, kids should probably be negative too (as they are only with us all the time, for the moment).
After these admin steps, the test is done very quickly: one sample in the throat, one sample in the nose. All in all, from the beginning of the admin steps to the end of the test, we were out in 5-10 minutes maximum. We were told our results will come by phone if we are positive and by post in any case, within 72 hours (3 business days) …
Waiting for the results, you can watch this small video made by a local television crew that was on site at the same time 😀 (see if you can find me)
Update on August 11, 2020:
So we waited for results coming via regular mail. But after 3 business days, nothing came. It may be because we live in a temporary place (without proper letterbox but with a message for the postman). Anyway, after a short fight to install the Belgian eID card reader, I connected to https://www.masante.belgique.be. There, you have to look a bit but you can quickly find where results are … We are negative!!!
Results were available since August 7 – so they came after 1 day (or 27 hours exactly). It works! Wearing a mask, avoiding crowded space when possible and washing hands regularly seemed to brought us safely from the US to Belgium!