As the coronavirus spread across China in the first two months of 2020, it seemed like a very distant concern for people in Italy.
“Everybody was talking about it, but just in the sense that everybody in the world was talking about it. The sense was, ‘Oh but we’re in Europe, it’s not going to affect us,’ ” Tyler Uthus Westfall, an American Olympic hopeful in slalom kayaking who was training in Ivrea, Italy, tells PEOPLE.
Then, over the weekend, the number of coronavirus cases in Italy suddenly soared.
“We got wind that there were a couple of cases in Italy, a small outbreak, and we were like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy,’ ” Westfall says. “And then a couple days later it was 50 cases, and then 150 cases.”
In a little under a week, Italy went from having just three confirmed cases of coronavirus to 374 cases as of Feb. 26, largely centered in the Lombardy region of northern Italy which contains the major manufacturing city and tourist hub of Milan.
Ivrea, where Westfall was living and training, is about an hour northwest of Milan, and he admits that he still was not too concerned until he learned that the city’s famed annual carnevale — called the Battle of the Oranges — would be cut short due to the spread of the virus.
“We started walking around the city and all of the officials were wearing masks. And that’s when we realized it was a bigger deal,” Westfall says. “If something was going to spread, the carnevale would be the perfect place for that to happen. People are throwing oranges at each other from their hands to people’s faces, and rolling around in oranges on the ground, and sharing drinking and food, and there are thousands of people in this tiny town that normally doesn’t see this many people at all in super close quarters.”
Although Westfall and his training partner, Devin McEwan, were supposed to stay in the country until March 3, they decided to rebook their flights to leave Feb. 25, out of fear that they would be quarantined if they stayed any longer.
“If I got quarantined for two weeks I wouldn’t be able to train, and that would be very bad right before the [Olympic] trials in May,” he says. “The health factor was a part of it, I can’t get sick right now, but I also knew that as a healthy adult I would likely just have flu-like symptoms. I was just trying to get out of dodge before I get stuck there. I couldn’t risk it.”
Westfall and McEwan are not the only Americans experiencing a change of plans.
About four and a half hours southeast of Ivrea, in Florence, hundreds of study abroad students from Syracuse, Elon and New York Universities also learned that they needed to immediately head back to the U.S. after the colleges decided to shut down their programs.
“Everyone is really upset and shocked,” Rachel Wurzburger, a 20-year-old junior at Syracuse in the college’s Florence program, tells PEOPLE. “There are a lot of students who don’t agree with the decision and there were a lot of tears shed at the meeting we had where they announced that the program would be shut down.”
RELATED VIDEO: Global Efforts Against the Spread of the Coronavirus Continue to Take Place
Wurzburger says “everything in Florence is pretty normal,” with just one confirmed case of coronavirus in the city, but she thinks Syracuse was concerned that students would be stuck in the country if the coronavirus spread continues.
“I think that it was a concern that we wouldn’t be able to leave Florence if they waited too long to make a choice depending on how bad the outbreak here gets,” she says.
Wurzburger is heading back to the U.S. on Sunday, several months before her study abroad program was supposed to end, and expects to be given the option of either returning to the upstate New York campus for the rest of the semester or finishing her classes online.
“Obviously, it would be a risk for us to stay here, but there has only been one confirmed case in Florence, so it feels like the decision was a little dramatic almost,” she says. “To my friends and I studying here, it feels like we just lost an opportunity that would have helped us to grow and an experience that is truly once in a lifetime.”
And Westfall, meanwhile, is wondering if his kayaking season will go on as planned. After U.S. Olympic trials in May, the first World Cup is planned for June in Ivrea and the Tokyo games are becoming a question mark.
“It’ll be interesting to see if the World Cup still happens,” he says. “We don’t know anything about how this is going to play out, so it’s all just a waiting game.”