Palacio de Gobierno del Presidente del Perù
Juan A. Benson
The booming economy at the start of 2020 seemed like the perfect time to launch the menswear apparel brand, Potro, that I have been working on for the past three years. And on the evening of March 9, I set off for Lima, Peru, with a business partner, Juan Benson. I scheduled two weeks’ worth of meetings and appointments with local factories that produce some of the finest cotton in the world. Over the past two years, I had been working with them virtually and was thrilled to be meeting these clients face-to-face for the first time.
Upon arrival in Peru, we checked into the JW Marriott in the Miraflores district of Lima. The following day, I remember waking up and feeling rejuvenated and enthusiastic to start working. On March 11, we relocated to the more modest Casa Suyay (also in Miraflores), an old mansion that was converted into a hotel and embodies all the Peruvian charm one could ask for. I had a slight concern that the rooms were cooled by fans and not air-conditioners, but the hotel seemed just perfect otherwise.
The author during a quiet moment in Lima, Perù.
Juan A. Benson
That same day, we met up with Potro’s third partner, fashion designer Diego Yamashiro, and had a series of meetings. With news of coronavirus and social distancing now ubiquitous, we gave one another space during our appointments and bumped elbows instead of shaking hands.
COVID-19 Closure signs placed on many store fronts throughout Lima, Perù
Juan A. Benson
Four days later, it was clear that the health concerns were getting progressively worse in Lima. I attended mass at the local Catholic church. During the service when parishioners are traditionally asked to shake hands (as a sign of peace); not one person in the congregation had reached out a hand, including myself. There was fear. Subsequently, at the end of mass, the priest made an announcement to the clergy and parishioners that all churches from this point on would be closed indefinitely as a precaution to slow the pandemic. It felt so odd and scary to be hearing this news—especially in a foreign country.
The following day, Monday, March 16, we set out to visit another factory. We noticed that the roads had very few cars and the freeway had been blocked off by the military. The factory we were visiting was in a remote location, where most of the clothing factories in Lima are located. We eventually arrived down an old dirt road that was completely desolate.
Unlike a previous visit, however, there weren’t any factory workers present and the machines were not running. The factory was closed. We met with the manager, who explained that the factory would not re-open for at least two more weeks. By the time we returned to the hotel, it was clear that the conditions in Peru were becoming far more serious.
Heavy Police Presence in Lima, Perù
The police and military presence were more visible by the day. All foreigners were informed to have a passport on us at all times—and we were often stopped by the authorities while on a short walk to see the Pacific Ocean. Aside from a few taxis, Ubers and buses, not many cars were on the road. In fact, if caught driving without proper documents and reason, Peruvians were subject to fines and possible jail time. Peruvian president Martin Vizcarra had made forceful statements about the lockdown we were about to face. Foreigners who hadn’t been able to book a flight by March 15 were no longer permitted to leave the country.
And so we were stranded in Peru with no way to get home to New York.
Potro founders Joseph DeAcetis, Co-founder Diego Yamashiro and co-founder Juan Benson in happier … [+]
We immediately contacted the State Department and completed the necessary forms to put our names on a list of citizens looking to be repatriated to the United States. In addition, we went to the American Embassy to discuss our options. We were given additional forms to complete in hopes of being permitted to depart for the United States. I tweeted journalists from CNN, FOX and ABC news requesting help to no avail. I even tweeted President Trump. We received no replies from any of the above.
Strong Military Presence throughout Lima, Perù
Juan A. Benson
More than two weeks after our arrival, there are now roughly 12 ex-pats at the Casa Suyay. Each day, we look forward to meeting in the breakfast room and lobby. If one of us tests positive for COVID-19, then I assume all of us will have it because we have been together prior to the lockdown.
We have tried to make the best of being stranded, but even our meager attempts at normalcy are fraught with peril. A few nights ago, we decided to have an American Idol night where each guest would sing a song. I started by crooning Elton John’s “Your Song.” After me, a French guest sang a famous Jacques Brel song called “Dans le Port D’Amsterdam.” Once his song was finished, flashing police lights were seen outside the hotel. All of us ran up to our respective rooms. The police took pictures of Casa Suyay and gave the hotel a hefty fine for allowing such a gathering.
Since then, we have been confined to our rooms all day long, aside from a walk to the local supermarket to buy groceries, which is the highlight of each day. The hotel sent out news rules to each guest and more strict guidelines to adhere to or risk being removed from the property.
Sunset in Miraflores Perù along with 8pm curfew
Juan A. Benson
On Wednesday, March 25, we returned to the embassy for an update about our situation. This time we were greeted by a Peruvian police officer and informed that the U.S. Embassy was closed. The embassy set up tents outside its building in the morning and asked us to come back later in the week for more information.
At this point, we are demoralized and no longer feel confident that we will return home anytime soon. As of March 26, this country of some 32 million people has 580 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 7 deaths. So the state of emergency has been extended to April 12. The Peruvian people are kind and we feel safe—and I know that the State Department is helping to repatriate some Americans who have been stranded in Peru. But we are not among them.