‘SURREAL,’ ‘DISAPPOINTING,’ ‘OMINOUS’ – AND ‘WE’LL BE BACK’: Quarantined visitors abruptly rounded up, flown out of Longyearbyen late Sunday night

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Brian Cancemi wasn’t experiencing the Svalbard vacation of his dreams, having spent nearly all of it quarantined in an Airbnb rental during the past several days due to the coronavirus quarantine. But the New York resident was content to spend one last night before departing on a flight booked for Monday afternoon, only to get yet another in a series of jolts hitting him and virtually everyone else everywhere in an infinite variety of ways.

“At 8:30 p.m. I checked my e-mail and it said I had to pack immediately and leave at 10 p.m.,” he said standing in the lobby of the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel a few minutes before the bus departed at the announced time.

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Quarantined visitors fill out forms and pick up plane tickets for a flight removing them from Svalbard late Sunday night. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Cancemi, visiting with his brother and another companion, was among about 130 tourists forced to leave Svalbard under a heightened rule that prohibits anyone affected by Norway’s nationwide quarantine from travelling to the archipelago and those already here – whether tourists or residents – to return to the mainland. In a logistics irony, Cancemi’s third companion “who wasn’t even supposed to be here” was with a girlfriend who’s a Norwegian citizen, so they were separated as she is still departing with other residents on Monday.

City officials announced at noon Sunday the plan was for all removals to occur during the next 24 hours for people affected by the 14-day quarantine, which applies to all travellers arriving in Norway from non-Nordic countries since Feb. 27. The accelerated visitor timeline resulted in them being picked up from their hotels (and the Radisson for those in residences), boarding a flight departing Svalbard Airport at about midnight and arriving in Oslo at about 3 a.m. Monday.

“The residents of Longyearbyen regrets the situation that has occurred and we wish you a pleasant journey, we trust that you will be well taken care of in Oslo,” declared a notice posted at about 8 p.m. at the city government’s website announcing the sudden departure. “We welcome you back at another time!”

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Niamh Gormley, left, and Pat Mullin of Dublin hastily fill out required forms in the lobby of the Radisson minutes before a bus takes them to their flight Sunday night. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Those departing from the Radisson hastily filled out mandatory forms before collecting ticket packages containing, among other things, a small roll of chocolates. Surgical masks were work by a scattered few and travellers were handed plastic gloves as they departed, but the more was more sad and accepting than fearful or angry.

“It’s sad to leave too soon,” said Niamh Gormley, a Dublin resident who arrived last Tuesday for a planned weeklong trip and was quarantined two days later in her Airbnb. “But I will be back and I understand the reason for making us leave so soon.”

She said she and her travel companions spent their time in quarantine watching movies and Netflix, like many, but while experiences such as dogsledding didn’t happen they did get in a boat trip to Barentsburg during their first couple of days.

“We got the best trip in at least,” she said.

Cancemi and his travel mates, who also spent their confinement largely watching movies, offered a range of words such as “surreal,” “ominous,” “and “disappointing” to describe their overall experience in Svalbard.

“We feel like we’re being uprooted,” he said. But they definitely are planning to return to Svalbard.

“We have unfinished business here,” Cancemi said.