SHANGHAI—Hundreds of Americans were preparing to fly out of Wuhan, bound for California, as fears grew at the epicenter of China’s health crisis. But more U.S. citizens aren’t leaving, having failed to secure a seat on the single U.S.-bound flight—or decided to ride out the emergency where they are.
A State Department evacuation flight promised relief for a segment of Wuhan’s roughly 1,000 Americans, as a lockdown triggered by a coronavirus outbreak turned the focus to the dangers of contagion and a long quarantine in China’s eighth-most-populous city. Roads, restaurants and many shops in Wuhan, a city of 11 million, are now shut as China tries to contain the virus.
A U.S. charter jet was expected to arrive at Wuhan’s closed airport on Tuesday and quickly depart for the U.S., ferrying 230 or so U.S. diplomats, their family members and an “extremely limited” number of private citizens back to the U.S., according to a State Department notice and passengers who have been in contact with the U.S. Embassy in China. The flight is intended primarily to evacuate staff of the U.S. Consulate in Wuhan during a temporary shutdown of the diplomatic mission.
The plane will land in Ontario, Calif., a city about one hour east of Los Angeles, a State Department spokeswoman said Monday. She added that all travelers would be screened for symptoms before departing. During a refueling stop in Anchorage, passengers will disembark into a terminal closed to the general public and receive another health screening before continuing on to California, said Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer.
Medics will be on the flight, Dr. Zink said. If a passenger shows symptoms between Wuhan and Anchorage, health officials will determine what to do on a case-by-case basis, she said, adding that Anchorage hospitals were prepared to treat any ill passengers.
Vermont native Priscilla Dickie, 35 years old, and her 8-year-old daughter have seats—but she wasn’t sure how she would get to the airport, around 20 miles away, with almost all Wuhan transport shut down. “I have secured a seat, but the problem is transportation,” she said. Ms. Dickie figured she saw only one car on the roads on Sunday.
Benjamin Wilson is hunkering down. Mr. Wilson, who is from Louisiana and father to a 7-year-old girl, is married to a Wuhan native. The plane wasn’t taking Chinese nationals.
“I would consider sending my daughter, if that were an option,” he said. “But I wouldn’t leave my wife. But if my wife and daughter could travel together, then absolutely yes.”
Wuhan, a transportation hub in central China, is often compared with Chicago, but lacks the comforts that many American expatriates enjoy in more affluent Beijing and Shanghai. Many expatriates are accustomed to traveling to more developed cities for routine medical treatment.
A sprawling metropolis straddling the banks of the Yangtze River, Wuhan is at heart a factory town—what the Chinese government classifies as a second-tier city. Budweiser beer has been brewed there since 1995.
“It’s got the size of New York, but the personality of a backwater town. We always say, it’s country come to town,” said James Dickie, who was married to Priscilla and lived in Wuhan for five years.
Many of the U.S. citizens now in Wuhan and elsewhere across hard-hit Hubei province had flown in to the city before the lockdown to celebrate Saturday’s Lunar New Year with family. Many had heard about a virus, but figured that it was mild and under control.
“When I went to sleep at 10 p.m., everything was normal,” said Rong Shuo, a 38-year-old lawyer and American citizen who arrived in Wuhan last week from her home in San Jose, Calif. On Thursday morning, “when I woke up at 5 a.m., the city was in shutdown mode,” she said. Abruptly announced citywide blockades were under way.
Some Americans said that remaining in Wuhan with loved ones seemed like a safer prospect than getting on an airplane full of people who could be sick or carrying the virus—and who are expecting to face quarantine once they land in the U.S.
“As of right now, my dad is adamant about staying where he is,” said a Brandeis University student who had failed to coax her father back from Wuhan after he flew there for business. “He’s worried about getting sick from people on the plane and potentially bringing it back to us.”
The desperation of some Americans to get out was illustrated by a flood of calls to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after a weekend report about an evacuation being planned for Sunday was published in The Wall Street Journal, according to a person familiar with the situation and several people who made the calls.
A State Department spokesperson declined to confirm the destination of the flight or whether the passengers would be quarantined upon arrival. “We have been in contact with potential passengers regarding logistics and anticipated screening procedures,” the spokesperson said.
While the timeline has shifted repeatedly, word of brewing evacuation plans set off a scramble for information that Americans said was complicated by their own language challenges, local internet controls, limited information from the embassy and the Lunar New Year holidays.
“All my friends in the U.S. were saying, ‘You’ve got to get on that plane,’” said Carrie Wang, a Wuhan native who lives near Phoenix and arrived in China last week to spend the holiday with her family.
The computer company executive said she emailed the embassy in an effort to secure a spot but also knew her odds weren’t good, with just one flight planned.
By Monday night she hadn’t heard anything, so she resigned herself to a shut-in life, with enough food to last a couple of weeks. “I’m with my family and I could work,” she said. “I might treat this as an extended overseas trip.”
Mr. Wilson, the Louisiana native, is doing his best to keep his family safe. When he steps outdoors in Wuhan, he wears gloves, a rain jacket and pants on top of his regular clothing, and a mask over his mouth. He touches as little as possible and is buying only food that comes wrapped in plastic. When he returns home, he wipes everything down in antibacterial soap. The mask goes in the trash.
“I’m not scared to go outside,” he said. “I’m just trying to minimize exposure to other people.”