Jews in Pittsburgh feel impact of COVID-19 travel upsets
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Jews in Pittsburgh feel impact of COVID-19 travel upsets

Pittsburghers scramble to alter travel plans

Kim Salzman, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s director of Israel and overseas operations, and her family, are feeling the impact of restricted travel in Israel.
Photo provided by Kim Salzman.
Kim Salzman, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s director of Israel and overseas operations, and her family, are feeling the impact of restricted travel in Israel. Photo provided by Kim Salzman.

After two years in Pittsburgh, Ran Inbar is ready to return to his native Israel. But COVID-19 has other ideas.

Inbar, an educator by trade, was set to fly to Israel March 19 to interview for a job as a school principal in Tel Aviv. On March 9, the day Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for all people entering Israel, Inbar cancelled his flight. The interview, instead, was set to take place online.

“The whole world’s just gone crazy,” said Inbar, a husband and father who doesn’t know if his family will need to delay returning to Israel this August after a two-year work assignment in Pennsylvania. “When? Where? Who knows when it will be normal again? We don’t know. There’s no one to ask.”

Inbar isn’t alone. Last week, thousands of Pennsylvanians, including many in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, scrambled to alter travel plans after President Donald Trump restricted international travel and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued warnings against any non-essential travel.

The scope of the impact — both on travelers and the local businesses that depend on fluid air traffic — is tough to measure.

U.S. citizens are not required to register their presence abroad, and federal officials do not maintain comprehensive lists of U.S. citizens residing overseas, a U.S. State Department official told the Chronicle. But the number of Americans abroad may be significant. In the first three quarters of 2019, the most recent data available, people traveled internationally by air from the U.S. nearly 37.8 million times, a 7.5% increase from 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Travel and Tourism Office. While U.S. nationals, for now, are still able to come home, the Department of State advises its citizens to “reconsider” traveling abroad, and many countries throughout the world are taking actions — such as quarantines and border restrictions — that may limit people’s ability to travel.

On March 14, President Donald Trump suggested at a press conference that some U.S. domestic travel could be restricted as well.

Personal stories of canceled trips and diverted adventures spread throughout the Jewish community last week. Bryna Siegel Finer, a Swisshelm Park resident and associate professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, planned to leave March 25 for a conference in Milwaukee.

“I was kind of debating whether to go or not and they just had to cancel,” she said. “It’s because so many people were backing out and all these states of emergency.”

Delta, who Siegel Finer planned to fly from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin next week, announced it would waive the change or cancellation fees associated with the flight but Siegel Finer still got stuck with the bill.

“I realize it’s really minor compared to what a lot of people are going through — but I kind of want my $125 back,” she laughed.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh also was among a spate of organizations that canceled overseas travel plans in the light of the pandemic. The organization postponed a seven-day “alternative spring break” trip to Israel with 11 students from area universities, and restricted staff travel as well, spokesperson Adam Hertzman said.

Kim Salzman, the Federation’s director of Israel and overseas programs, returned to Israel from Pittsburgh Feb. 27, shortly before the imposed self-quarantining there. She travels about three or four times each year between the two locations for her job.

Salzman said the travel restrictions could have an impact on her work, as well as the Partnership2Gether program between Pittsburgh and its Israeli sister city, Karmiel, and sister region, Misgav.

“I think people are doing their best to just protect their families, communities and country while trying to keep a semblance of routine,” Salzman said, speaking by phone from her home in Israel. “When you aren’t able to travel and have face-to-face encounters, that absolutely hinders your mission. But we’re looking at creative ways to connect people virtually and hope this will pass soon.”

She is feeling the impact of restricted movement in a personal way these days: she and her three children are on quarantine until March 22.

“We went to a tennis Purim party last Sunday and someone at the party tested positive for coronavirus so now all of us are in quarantine, which means we can’t leave the house or come into contact with anyone,” she wrote in an email.

The impact on Pennsylvania business in light of flight restrictions also remained unclear last week. The Pennsylvania Office of International Business Development said it has partners in more than 220 counties, many of which face travel restrictions. Exports from Pennsylvania support some 1.6 million jobs. There also are more than 5,100 foreign-owned businesses in Pennsylvania, which employ more than 320,000 workers.

The state’s Department of Community and Economic Development “does not yet have any data that can show an impact of the coronavirus on trade,” said Casey Smith, its communications director. An Allegheny Airport Authority official also declined to quantify the impact on the Pittsburgh International Airport, except to acknowledge fewer passengers were flying.

Inbar, who wants that school principal job in Tel Aviv, trudged on last week.

“(The interview) will go online,” he said. “I’ll still be able to participate.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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