NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jonathan Niu got to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport five hours early on Friday, not least because he had a lot of luggage to check for his flight to his native China: He was hauling back boxes filled with hundreds of face masks.
His mother and father, both in their 70s, came to visit him in New York about five months ago, their first trip there in 20 years. In the interim, a new coronavirus has emerged in China and become a fast-spreading global health crisis, prompting foreign governments to fly their citizens out of the country.
Niu was among those who were traveling against the tide along with his parents, who missed their home after months away.
“Now it’s time to go back,” said Niu, 44, who moved to the United States more than 20 years ago and lives in Manhattan, where he works in finance.
The family remembers past virus outbreaks, including severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and survived them, he said. He thought the U.S. State Department was wise to warn Americans against nonessential travel to China because of the epidemic, which has infected nearly 10,000 people. But he wanted to shepherd his parents home.
Even so, Niu’s father seemed relaxed ahead of his flight on China Eastern Airlines from Terminal 1. He smiled broadly, urging a reporter to immediately book a flight to China as well.
His mother had been less sure. “She was so nervous, she couldn’t get any sleep,” Niu said.
After arriving, Niu said he planned to make sure his parents’ home in Hefei, capital of the eastern province of Anhui, was well stocked with groceries and other supplies. He would then settle in and stay with them for a month or two in a sort of self-imposed quarantine before returning to New York.
“It’s like a zombie movie,” Niu said, although he imagined he might venture outside to a nearby store if he really needed to. “I’ve downloaded a lot of movies on my iPad.”
Niu figured he would cheer up his parents’ neighbors by sharing some of his supply of face masks and drop off some at a nearby hospital.
“Everybody’s panicking there,” he said. “People can’t get the masks.” The stash cost him about $400.
He had also packed five or so masks in his carry-on luggage, thinking he would hand them to his seatmates on the plane.
Almost everyone waiting on line to check in to flights to Shanghai and Beijing at Terminal 1 on Friday were Chinese citizens returning home after a U.S. vacation or work trip.
Linda Xu, 40, had visited New York with her young son and daughter and her husband, and was bracing to be mostly confined with them indoors in their home in Beijing.
“We need to stay home,” she said, her voice muffled by a mask.
“No school,” said Shawn Xu, her 11-year-old son, seeming pleased.
Two Americans in the line declined to answer questions about their trip. Four other Americans said they were connecting in Shanghai to other flights to Thailand or the Philippines and had no plans to leave the airport in China.
All the airline staff at check-in desks wore face masks, as did about half of the passengers waiting in line. An employee for China Eastern Airlines at one of the desks said the masks had become mandatory for staff members in the last couple of days.
After most passengers had checked in, two China Eastern flight attendants stood waiting on the terminal floor, their faces mostly hidden by masks. Another employee soon dashed over, bearing three boxes filled with another 150 face masks, which the attendants dropped in a plastic bag before turning to head toward the plane.
Reporting by Jonathan Allen; writing by Bill Tarrant; editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis