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Smith: Sonoma County residents among thousands of Americans stuck in Morocco

There are worse places in the world to be stranded than Morocco.

Still, Sonoma County's Gayle Guynup and Gerry Schultz and hundreds of other Americans stuck in the storied North African kingdom would love to come home, and to not feel abandoned by their own government.

“It's crazy because we see all the people from other countries being put on what they're calling repatriation flights - except Americans,” Schultz said Wednesday by phone from Marrakech. “I don't even want to say what that means to me.”

The Occidental resident is in Morocco with the California Redwood Chorale that she founded. She and a tour guide and about 20 singers and family members, nearly all from Sonoma County, became stranded when Morocco suspended international travel Sunday because of the global outbreak of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Guynup, the retired Sonoma County judge, is in Morocco with a friend from Marin County and was in Marrakech until the director of their tour advised them to get to larger Casablanca. Guynup said by phone from the Novotel Hotel that the American Consulate and Embassy in Morocco issued no travel alerts to visiting Americans and so far have shown little interest in responding to requests for help to get home.

“It's just shameful,” the Santa Rosa resident said. “Air France is still getting people out,” she noted, but nearly all those passengers are French nationals.

Guynup recounted in an email to friends in Santa Rosa that tour guides in Morocco report that “Turkey, Egypt, France and Great Britain have been flying their citizens out.” But when she and about 80 other stranded Americans walked Tuesday to the U.S. Consul in Casablanca, “they wouldn't even come out.”

The hotel where the Americans are staying is just “three or four blocks” from the U.S. Consul General's office. She said it's terrible that the office wouldn't send someone to meet with the stuck U.S. citizens.

Guynup, who is married to Santa Rosa attorney and former congressman Doug Bosco, is part of a group of about 200 people, mostly Americans, who went to Morocco with the same tour company, Gate 1 Travel. Bosco is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Guynup said the Casablanca hotel where they are had closed but reopened at the request of their tour guide.

Guynup said she and the others are grateful to the hotel for taking them in, and for charging them just $50 a day, down from the usual $200, and for providing them meal service at a 40% discount.

Schultz said the response of the U.S. Embassy in Morocco to appeals by Americans for help leaving the country is, “We're working on it.”

Schultz and her tour leader, Paige Betten of Vermont, and their fellow travelers with the chorale group are holed up at Marrakech's elegant and expansive Palm Plaza Hotel.

Betten came on the phone to say, “If you can imagine a hotel with 400 rooms and we are occupying 12.”

As in California and elsewhere, efforts to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 are causing one business after another to shut in Morocco.

Said Betten, of the travel company Music Contact International, “All the restaurants are closed. All the monuments and the public places are closed.” Operators of the hotel the chorale is staying at want to shut down, she said.

About 150 miles north in seaside Casablanca, Guynup said it's not so bad, being stranded there. But because of the mass closures of businesses, “it's not as though you can stop into a bathroom or find a place to eat. It's shut down, just as I'm sure it is there.”

Guynup and her friend and travel buddy, Mary Van Zomeren of San Rafael, were in Marrakech when they learned Saturday that Morocco was going to cancel all international flights the next day. The pair went to the airport in Marrakech to find chaos.

“There were no services, there were no tickets being sold. There was no information,” Guynup said.

She and Van Zomeren returned to their hotel in Marrakech and immediately were advised by their tour guide to get to the airport in Casablanca. After a 3½-hour cab ride Monday, the pair was in Casablanca and hoping to hear that all the Americans who gathered there would soon be airlifted out.

That didn't happen. Guynup and Van Zomeren had no choice but to hunker down in Casablanca.

Morocco, with a population of nearly 37 million, not many fewer than California, has at this point reported only 37 cases of infection by the virus, and one related death. To counter the spread of the disease in his country, King Mohammed VI ordered the creation of a $1 billion fund to upgrade the health care infrastructure and assist vulnerable sectors of the economy.

On Wednesday, Guynup and her friend, Van Zomeren, weren't sensing any danger of contracting the virus in Casablanca.

“It's still a healthy place to be as far as I'm concerned. I don't think any of us are concerned about our health or safety,” Guynup said.

Both she and Schultz, who don't know each other but were attempting to connect by phone or email Wednesday after being told of one another by The Press Democrat, said that when they left Sonoma County for Morocco earlier this month they perceived no threat of a pandemic-triggered suspension of air travel there.

Guynup and Van Zomeren planned to stay only in Morocco. The California Redwood Chorale intended to perform and sightsee both there and in Portugal.

Betten, the singers' tour guide, said that as soon as word came of Portugal announcing measures to counter the pandemic, a stop in that country was scrubbed.

The chorale did perform in Marrakech, but for the most part to audiences greatly thinned by the pandemic. At the group's performance at the Church of the Holy Martyrs, Betten said, “The priest was happy, but there were very few people because the Mass was canceled.”

While idled in Morocco, the Sonoma County residents are working to connect with people back in the U.S. who might help them arrange for a flight home.

Guynup has reached out through friends in Santa Rosa to Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who was working to arrange a talk with U.S. Ambassador to Morocco David Fischer. Fischer, a Michigan car dealer who donated an estimated $250,000 to President Donald Trump's inauguration fund, was sworn in just in mid-January.

“We are waiting to hear the results of Mike's conversation with the ambassador,” Guynup said.

From Marrakech, chorale tour leader Retten said she has reached out to American leaders that include her U.S. senator, Bernie Sanders, and to California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

While they eagerly await word that they soon will be able to fly home, the stranded Sonoma County residents endeavor to make the best of their situation.

Said the chorale's Schultz, “We have had the best time, the most delicious food, encountered the sweetest people, seen the most beautiful scenery.” But she is ready to be back home.

Guynup and Van Zomeren on Wednesday took a 10-mile walk around largely shuttered Casablanca.

A shimmer of good news: Said Guynup, “One of few businesses open here are the newsstands. Unfortunately, I can't read the headlines.”

You can contact Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

The Press Democrat wants to know what stories you see emerging and what you're experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at coronavirus@pressdemocrat.com.

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