Gisele Muller Sasso's daughter, Anna, sits between her grandparents Augusto and Noeli Muller.
Gisele Muller Sasso’s daughter, Anna, sits between her grandparents Augusto and Noeli Muller.
(Courtesy of Gisele Muller Sasso)
Civic Life

Long time no see: Santa Cruz County’s international residents welcome loosening of travel restrictions

The U.S. State Department announced earlier this month that international travelers who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will be eligible to enter the United States beginning Nov. 8. Locals who have family abroad are breathing a sigh of relief.

Santa Cruz County residents who’ve been missing their family members that live abroad during the pandemic could soon see their loved ones in person again.

On Oct. 15, the U.S. State Department announced that international travelers who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will be eligible to enter the United States beginning Nov. 8. The announcement followed an update from earlier last week that fully vaccinated people entering the country from Mexico or Canada would be eligible to cross the border around the same time.

Corrections:

6:38 PM, Oct 24, 2021The original version of this story miscredited Giselle Muller Sasso.

Here in Santa Cruz, that could mean a great deal. According to U.S. census data, roughly 18% of the county’s population — 49,000 residents — were born outside of the United States.

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Katharina Ruland came to the U.S. with her husband in 2008, settling in Silicon Valley. The Germany natives moved to Santa Cruz in 2015, and have raised their two sons in Scotts Valley since 2019.

When the pandemic first led to lockdowns locally, Ruland and her family were not particularly worried, believing like many that lockdowns would last for only two to three weeks. However, as time went on, it became clear that it would be challenging to reconnect with both her and her husband’s parents in person.

“During the first half-year to year (of the pandemic), we FaceTimed every day so our children could see their grandparents,” she said. “We already have this challenge of not being able to see each other that often, so we basically relied on FaceTime.”

in September, it’s been two years since my parents were here. Even though they talk on FaceTime, it’s almost like the connection is a little lost.

Gisele Muller Sasso and her husband, both Brazil natives, also relied heavily on FaceTime to keep in touch with their parents during the pandemic. Their parents had commonly visited California at least once annually, and Muller Faffo’s mother-in-law was actually visiting during the initial lockdown.

“She couldn’t go back home — she ended up staying in the U.S. for two months instead of the originally planned three weeks,” she said.

Muller Sasso felt fairly emotional in the uncertainty of when she could see her family again, and likened the time to feeling almost “stranded.”

“You take for granted certain things — you really feel sad, but there’s nothing you can do, and a lot of people are going through exactly the same thing,” she said.

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Fortunately, Muller Sasso and Ruland were able to connect with a larger group of international transplants in the Santa Cruz area, to keep a sense of community while loved ones were so far away. In connecting with one another, Ruland noted that she was able to live vicariously through some, as restrictions loosened and family members came to California.

“A few friends have family in South America and were able to see their parents already,” she said. “It made me kind of live through them, and find joy when they finally saw their parents again. My children felt joyful too, to see other grandparents.”

Both Ruland and Muller Sasso continued FaceTiming and messaging with their families abroad, but Muller Sasso’s 6-year-old daughter became burnt out from the screen time. With the prolonged nature of the pandemic, it became clearer that they needed to plan for an eventual in-person reunion, whenever that could occur.

“In September, it’s been two years since my parents were here,” said Muller Sasso. “Even though they talk on FaceTime, it’s almost like the connection is a little lost.”

Ruland and her family were frustrated by how long the vaccination rollout took in Germany, as she and her husband received their vaccinations in the states months ahead of their respective parents, all of whom are over 60. Her parents received their vaccinations in June, which led to some ideas to travel during the summer break.

However, as Ruland said, with her children being ineligible for vaccination and the high COVID-19 case numbers in Germany, they didn’t feel comfortable with the risk.

Now, after last seeing one another in person in 2019, Ruland and her family will host her parents for three-and-a-half weeks this November.

“There’s obviously still a risk involved, not only flu season but also a breakthrough infection while traveling, but I feel, for us after 24 months, everyone is ready to take that risk,” she said.

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For Muller Sasso, timing is still up in the air. While her parents are vaccinated, they are awaiting visa approvals, which have been delayed due to worker shortages in the embassy and consulate.

“Everything is delayed, so there’s nothing we can do,” she said. “They’re ready to go, vaccinated and all of that, but now they need the bureaucracy side of it...as soon as they have the approval, we’ll get the tickets for them to come.”

An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage of the county’s population that is foreign-born.