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Five Bozeman Men Stuck In Dubai Due To COVID-19 Travel Restrictions

Two people hold a can of pepsi and a piece of cake.
Drake Phillips
This was the meal received by Drake Phillips at Dubai International Airport after waiting 14 hours.

Update 03/27/30 at 12:30 P.M.: U.S. Sen. Steve Daines's office said in a press release the five men from Bozeman were on a flight back to Montana with help from the American Embassy and General Consul in Dubai.

Five men from Bozeman are among 300 people stuck at the Dubai International Airport after all flights were cancelled indefinitely. The group of friends has spent a week and a half trying to return to the U.S. from a spring break trip to the Philippines. They and their families say they had zero luck using the U.S. State Department’s recommended services for travellers in emergency situations.

Drake Phillips says he and the other travelers are waiting in a terminal with just scraps of information.

“They just keep saying that we’re waiting to hear from people, waiting to hear from people,” Phillips says.

“But we don’t know what we’re waiting to hear. We don’t know if we’re waiting to hear that they’re giving us visas; we don’t know if we’re waiting to hear there’s a flight; we don’t know if we’re waiting to know if we have to book hotel rooms.”

Phillips says they were told they might be quarantined in the airport for two weeks.

“Even the people that are here, the employees that seem to be the ones who know what’s going on, they said that when they came to work last night, they were expecting the airport to be completely empty, and they were as surprised as we were with the situation and had little to no knowledge on what to do,” Phillips says.

At noon Wednesday, Phillips sent YPR a WhatsApp message saying they had just found out a military chartered flight for American citizens was not going to accept passengers from the Dubai airport because they had not yet been tested for COVID-19.

“We’re just continuing to be at the mercy of governments and agencies that are not doing anything to help us, it seems,” Phillips says.

The hard stop in Dubai follows more than a week of trying to leave the Philippines where the group had been vacationing.

Phillips says on Mar. 15, they found out from their AirBnB host in the Philippines — not the U.S. government — that the country was going into a lock-down. They caught the last ferry leaving the island where they had been staying and drove four or five hours to the city of Cebu.

From there, Phillips says they spent eight days in a hotel trying to get flights back to the U.S.

“By the time it’s all said and done, we have booked and had cancelled, I think, up to 10 to 12 flights over the course of all this,” Phillips says.

Now, after what was supposed to be a layover in Dubai, he says it’s unclear how long they’ll remain there. He says people have been scrounging for cardboard and styrofoam to sleep on and all the shops and eateries have shut down.

“They did just bring in our first hot meal. We’ve been here about 14, 15 hours,” Phillips says.

He doesn’t know when or if another hot meal will come.

Phillips says throughout this whole ordeal, they haven’t received any helpful information from the airlines, U.S. Embassy or State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which they had signed up for to get updates about safety and traveling.

Another person in the group, Eli Herman, wrote in a Facebook Post Tuesday that they had called both the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. State Department over 100 times. After communicating with “robot after robot,” he said it “had become almost unbearingly frustrating.” Herman said they managed to talk to a human being on three separate occasions, each saying the friends from Bozeman should make their best efforts to get home and that if it became impossible to get out, the State Department would help.

“During that entire time, the State Department was a no-show,” Mike Phillips, Drake’s dad says.

Mike Phillips says the last flight from Cebu to Dubai seemed like a good option because it’s one of the busiest international airports in the world. He says the information they had found online said the airport would remain open until midnight, Mar. 26. When that turned out not to be the case, he says they realized they were running out of options.

Mike Phillips is a state senator and conservation scientist in Bozeman. Tuesday afternoon, he called Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines, Congressman Greg Gianforte and Governor Steve Bullock. Several Montana families have done the same for their loved ones on the Norwegian Jewel Cruise ship, in Morocco, Peru and elsewhere.

Bullock issued an advisory March 19 that Montanans travelling internationally should self-quarantine for 14 days.

Phillips says he is grateful to Montana’s leaders for acting quickly and using their authority to lean on the State Department.

“We understand now that the State Department through the Embassy in Dubai is building a variety of ways, several approaches for getting the boys moving, either if not to the United States, at least to a European airport that is still servicing international flights,” Mike Phillips says.

Drake Phillips says he and his friends recognize that being American and having family with connections, as well as the financial means to help pay for last minute flights has put them in a better situation than a lot of the travelers they’ve met.

“There’s a large prayer going on now in the Dubai airport so I can’t really talk anymore, but that’s just something that I wanted to make known as well is that privilege has played a huge role in our situation, and it could have been a lot worse had we not been in the state that we were,” Phillips says.