MEXICO CITY — Local authorities in a popular tourist destination in Ecuador prevented a plane from landing by blocking an airport runway with more than a dozen vehicles, as fears over the coronavirus spread.
In a video taken from on board a helicopter that flew over the runway, cars, trucks, and motorcycles can be seen strategically placed on the asphalt, preventing any landings.
The mayor of Guayaquil, Cynthia Viteri, defended the decision to block a plane that was flying to Ecuador in an attempt to repatriate Spaniards who had been stranded there after travel bans were put in place.
“How is it possible that you were going to permit this crew to stay in the city with the most coronavirus cases?” Viteri asked during a virtual press conference, referring to the country’s government. “It’s criminal.”
According to Viteri, the flight, operated by Iberia, had originated in Madrid and was due to pick up Spaniards in Guayaquil.
On Thursday, Viteri announced that she herself had also tested positive for the coronavirus.
“To my beloved children, who are finding out about this right now, don’t come home, little ones,” she said in a video posted to Twitter.
Of the 260 reported COVID-19 cases in Ecuador as of Thursday, 114 are in Guayaquil, which is the country’s largest city and main port. President Lenín Moreno has decreed a state of emergency, closing Ecuador’s borders to all foreign travelers and declaring a nighttime curfew.
The incident in Guayaquil’s airport has created tension within Ecuador’s government. The Ministry of Transportation and Public Works issued a statement criticizing Viteri’s actions, saying it made it difficult to get foreign travelers out of the country.
Minister of Transport Gabriel Martínez said only cargo planes and empty aircraft to pick up stranded foreigners are currently allowed into the country.
The Iberia flight was empty except for 11 crew members and was scheduled to pick up about 150 passengers. A KLM flight was also unable to make a scheduled stop in Guayaquil to pick up 190 people.
Martínez said it was essential for public health to allow these planes to repatriate people. “If those passengers stay in Guayaquil, or Quito, they can get sick and they will use up health services that we need for Ecuadorians,” said Martínez.
Both flights were diverted to Quito, the capital city. Martínez posted videos of the two aircraft, empty except for the crew and pilots, some of whom were wearing face masks and gloves.
Ecuador’s prosecutor’s office said it was investigating the episode.
It’s not the first time authorities have shut down an airport runway to block incoming aircraft. Earlier this week, El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, said he was trying to prevent a flight from Mexico City from landing. On board there were 12 passengers who had tested positive, according to Bukele.