Coronavirus turns dream vacation into nightmare cruise

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Antonio Maffei ‘20

The Grand Princess Cruise Ship crosses under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Ian Martin ‘20, Arts & Entertainment Editor

COVID-19 has been the focus of the entire world for the past few months and almost everyone is worried that they may contract the virus. The Coronavirus has spread around the globe like wildfire, and many countries have initiated lockdown protocols to slow its progress.

Fear of the infected has spread even faster than the virus itself, which has led to multiple empty shelves in grocery stories and shortages of items like toilet paper, masks, and cleaning supplies. 

As scary as the virus may be, imagine being stuck in the same place as multiple infected people for 16 days. That is exactly what the passengers of the Grand Princess had to endure just off the coast of San Francisco. 

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 103 people on the ship were confirmed as having contracted the Coronavirus, and two passengers and one crew member have since died. 

The ship set sail from San Francisco on Feb. 21 for a cruise to Hawaii.  After leaving the Hawaiian Islands on Feb. 29, the ship was en route to Ensanada, Mexico, but that stop was canceled after news of a previous passenger’s death.  The ship then began its journey back to San Francisco. 

More than 2,000 passengers on the Grand Princess Cruise were stuck circling in the Bay Area for three days before they were allowed to dock in Oakland on March 9.

The passengers were uneasy being locked away in their cabins.

Valerie Willsea, Grand Princess passenger, recounted, “When you no longer can leave a room, it becomes extremely small. I won’t lie, it wasn’t easy to know we were not wanted back.  The news referred to us as ‘those people’. Having no control of when or what you eat or the ability to walk outside your room felt like prison.”

When you no longer can leave a room, it becomes extremely small.”

— Valerie Willsea, Grand Princess passenger

According to the passengers, the Grand Princess crew did an excellent job keeping people calm, giving clear instructions, and providing the passengers with whatever they needed. However, some information about their situation was withheld from the passengers and they often got more information about their next steps from the news first. Once off the ship, all of the passengers were required to stay at different military bases for a 14 day quarantine.

“One of the largest contingencies of evacuees were housed at the Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield/Suisun City. There were over 600 ‘guests’ housed in three buildings on the Air Base. My wife and I, along with other friends, were in the Main Hotel, on the ground floor of a four story building housing over 450, and another 150 were spread out into two ‘Resident Halls’,” explained Robert Archer, one of the many Grand Princess Cruise passengers.

Travis Air Force Base was hectic for the passengers. Many people lost their composure at the facility and began to panic. Everyone had different ways of dealing with their feelings, but a universal anxiety was building up among the quarantined passengers waiting to return home.

Archer stated, “The first three days was a descent into chaos, followed by two days of semi-controlled chaos, then nine days of managed chaos until release.”

The first three days was a descent into chaos, followed by two days of semi-controlled chaos, then nine days of managed chaos until release.”

— Robert Archer, Grand Princess passenger

According to news reports, the Grand Princess became contaminated when a 71-year-old former passenger tested positive for COVID-19. He later lost his battle with the virus and soon after, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency.

“No one was prepared for this pandemic. Looking back, America was focused on the Grand Princess instead of taking action at home. Knowledge is power,” said Willsea.

Last week, a group of California residents filed suit against the cruise line, alleging negligence. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the lawsuit reads, in part, the cruise line “chose to place profits over people, including the safety of their passengers, crew and the general public.”  It also charges the line with “utter failure to provide even a modicum of care” to those onboard. 

According to Philippine Consul General in San Francisco Henry Bensurto Jr., father of Matthew Bensurto 20, “There were 529 Filipino crew members, and they had been on the ship for five days after the last batch of passengers left. Passengers started departing on March 9, and the bulk of the Filipinos onboard departed on March 14.”

The Consul General added that “91 Filipino crew members are still onboard the ship that is currently located off the coast of LA” and “444 Filipinos have returned home.”

Bensurto was photographed waving the Philippine flag at the ship as it left the Bay Area for Los Angeles. As the ship pulled away, his thoughts were with the remaining crew. 

“I feel for them given their situation. I felt great concern for their families who might be worrying about their safety and health. I also prayed for their safety and eventual repatriation.”

He added, “I also thought of the difficulties and challenges the ship and crew would encounter in terms of  the health and safety requirements they need to comply with before they could be allowed to dock, disembark and be repatriated, either by sea or air, given the real and perceived public health risk cruise ships have come to be associated with.”

I feel for them given their situation. I felt great concern for their families who might be worrying about their safety and health. I also prayed for their safety and eventual repatriation.”

— Henry Bensurto, Philippine Consul General in San Francisco

According to ABC News, on the morning of April 12, “The Grand Princess cruise ship is anchored in the waters 80 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. In a statement, Grand Princess said the ship will remain anchored there for the duration of the global fleet’s pause in operations, which is expected to last until at least mid-May.”

Bensurto said the consulate has been in contact with some of the crew members who returned home through Viber and Facebook, and that they are “relieved to see their families.” 

He continued, “Those who are onboard continue to work as they were deemed healthy by their medical officer onboard. According to those we are in contact with, they are treated well and their concern of course, is when they are going to be repatriated and also their abilities to provide for their families, through their earnings.”

Finally, “We value the cooperation of the shipping company with our government and their good treatment, in general, of Filipino cruise ship employees,” Bensurto said. “The pandemic, however, is something that everyone should be prepared for in terms of necessary social safety netswhether cruise ship employees continue with their employment or they are repatriated back to their countries.”