By Kate Holton
LONDON – For over a year Bhavna Patel has watched her first grandchild grow via FaceTime, talking to him in New York every day while the U.S. travel restrictions prevented her from making the trip from London.
On Monday she is threatening to dance down the aisle of the British Airways plane that will take her to finally meet him, as the United States lifts COVID-19 restrictions that have barred much of the world from entering for over 20 months.
Already she is too excited to sleep, counting down the days, hours and minutes, and wants the world to know of her news. She would also like to wear a large hat announcing that she is about to meet her grandson, Kai.
“I wake up in the night and think: are we really going?” she told Reuters in her home in south London, throwing her hands in the air with excitement. “It’ll just be amazing to hold him.”
The unprecedented restrictions have prevented loved ones and foreign workers from reuniting with families, attending weddings, saying goodbye at funerals, and greeting new babies.
Patel’s son Kushal moved to New York more than six years ago and his most recent visit back, in 2019, is a distant memory. He FaceTimed his family from the hospital in New York to introduce his son and had been urging them to book tickets the second the borders reopened.
For his mother, the hardest part about the separation was not knowing when it would end, and questions from well-meaning friends asking when she would meet her grandson.
“It’s that question, it really takes something out of you,” she said, blinking back tears and looking at photos of her family in New York. “It’s like putting a nail in the heart and knocking. And now I can say: Look, I’m going!”
Patel and her daughter Bindiya will be on BA001, the first New York-bound BA flight leaving Heathrow on Monday, when the U.S. reopens to fully vaccinated international visitors.
The British flag carrier is marking the reopening of the Europe-to-U.S. route with a first flight reserved for friends and families separated during the pandemic, taking royal family photographer Chris Floyd along to capture the moment.
Such is the importance to European airlines of the transatlantic route, BA and Virgin Atlantic are hoping to send two jets down Heathrow’s twin runways for a synchronised takeoff, weather permitting.
On BA001, Bindiya will be carrying the British Cadbury’s chocolate her brother has missed. She wonders how Kai will react when he sees his family “in 3D” for the first time.
“It’s a real pinch-me moment,” she said at their home, where balloons still celebrate Kai’s birthday in October.
Restrictions on non-U.S. citizens were first imposed on air travellers from China in January 2020 by then-President Donald Trump and extended to dozens of other countries afterwards.
Bhavna Patel said she would be thinking of all the other families around the world who have not yet had the chance to reunite. She is also worried that an 8-hour flight will feel far too long.
“I don’t think counting days is enough, not days, it’s hours, minutes,” she said. “I want to meet him. Monday is too late, that’s how I feel.”
(Reporting by Kate Holton; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Collett-White)