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Despite coronavirus fears, it's business as usual for gay cruise

Atlantis travel company is continuing its cruise service amid public health warnings over COVID-19, and some passengers say they’re unable to get a refund.

Editor's note: The Atlantis cruise written about below that was set to depart on March 21 has been canceled.

Nili Steiner saved up for almost a year to celebrate her 50th birthday on Atlantis, a cruise line popular with LGBTQ passengers. Steiner and her girlfriend were set to depart from San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 21, where they would sail to the Caribbean islands of St. Martin, Bonaire and Curacao before heading back to Puerto Rico a week later. It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime, and Steiner worked double overtime to put away every penny she could, with the tickets totaling $2,400.

“We are newly engaged, and so this was going to be our celebratory engagement cruise,” Steiner told NBC News. “She just got this fabulous new job, I just bought a house, and all these beautiful things are happening to us. It just meant so much for us to have this wonderful vacation.”

But Steiner and dozens of other customers may have to eat those costs after Atlantis declined to offer refunds to the vast majority of its passengers who no longer want to board the ship amid fears of an outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Luis Masters, the administrator of a Facebook page for passengers on the cruise, said “at least 50” customers have requested the company reimburse their fares after the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory on Sunday warning Americans, particularly those with “underlying health conditions,” not to travel on cruise ships.

Masters, who was planning to go on the cruise with his husband, said Atlantis has advised passengers that they will not be refunding tickets “because the date for any type of cancellations has passed already.” The company, which charters its ships through Miami-based Celebrity Cruises, states on its website that passengers are unable to cancel tickets within 60 days of the departure date. The Puerto Rico cruise leaves in just over a week.

“It makes me feel not appreciated, like they don’t really care about their customers,” Masters told NBC News. “It feels like Atlantis is just looking out for the bottom line, their profits, and how much money they could lose.”

"They are completely overlooking the CDC, the World Health Organization and state governors asking folks not to congregate with more than 250 people."

Luis Masters

Celebrity Cruises, on the other hand, has updated its policy to allow those scheduled to sail before August to change their sail date up to 48 hours in advance of their departure for a “Future Cruise Credit.” A number of cruise lines, including Viking, Avalon Waterways and Disney Cruise Line, have halted their service amid pandemic fears.

Following news that Disneyland would be shutting down for the remainder of the month and that sports leagues like the NBA, NHL and MLB were delaying or suspending their seasons, Atlantis sent an email on Thursday stating that the ship will sail as planned and only four groups of people would be offered reimbursement. These are individuals from outside the U.S. who are unable to get to San Juan because of travel restrictions; older people; those with a history of respiratory illnesses; and medical professionals who regularly meet with patients.

“We’re aware that many of you are concerned about COVID-19 and want to assure you that your health and safety are of paramount importance with both Celebrity and Atlantis,” the company said, adding that “there has not been a single case of COVID-19 onboard a Celebrity or Royal Caribbean ship, either passengers or crew.”

Atlantis’ guidelines would leave Julian Sottovia unable to cancel his trip, which puts him in the position of having to choose between using the $3,000 tickets and his family’s health. Sottovia serves as a caregiver for his elderly mother, who is going through cancer treatments and has a history of respiratory illnesses. If he boards the Atlantis cruise next Saturday, he could risk exposing her to novel coronavirus when he returns from the cruise and potentially endanger her life.

Even if his mother doesn’t contract the virus, Sottovia said that being forced to self-quarantine for two weeks after his trip — the recommended period for those potentially exposed to coronavirus — would further complicate her treatment.

“It was easy for me to arrange for one week of somebody filling in for me, but if I'm stuck in quarantine for 14 days, it would be very difficult,” he told NBC News.

Jim Cone, the vice president of marketing at Atlantis, pledged that the company would work with individuals who fall outside the four affected groups on “a case-by-case basis.”

“We have contacted most of these guests already, but if they fall into one of these groups, they should contact Atlantis directly to make the appropriate accommodations for them,” he said in a statement to the news site LGBTQ Nation, which was copied almost word-for-word from the email sent to customers.

Sottovia had already attempted to call Atlantis and plead his case, but he said no one responded to his inquiries. “It was very hard to get through,” he said. “They would not answer the phone. I left I don’t know how many messages with them, and no one ever got back to you," he said of his experience.

Others said they are receiving extremely mixed messages from Atlantis regarding their cancellation policy. Steiner claimed a representative with Atlantis said that customers who were upset about not receiving refunds should have purchased travel insurance, which costs around 40 percent as much as the price of the actual ticket.

A call to the customer service line of Travelex, the travel insurance company recommended by Atlantis, revealed that just one offered policy, the “Cancel for Any Reason” option, would potentially cover a pandemic or the fear of a pandemic. And even then, it would be at the discretion of the company’s “claims department” as to whether they’d reimburse any of the cost, with 75 percent being the maximum.

"If we are scared about a global pandemic of epic proportions, we should not be forced to go on this cruise because we don’t want to lose the money."

Nili Steiner

Many believe the only solution is for Atlantis to suspend cruises for the foreseeable future. Diamond Princess, which is part of Carnival Corp., announced Thursday it was canceling all trips for the next two months after 700 people contracted the coronavirus aboard a February cruise, resulting in the deaths of seven people.

“Ultimately, this is a public safety concern,” said Masters, who noted that the Celebrity Summit ocean liner that Atlantis is chartering for the Puerto Rico trip has a capacity of 2,158 people and that the cruise is currently sold out. “It’s gone far beyond just people wanting money and their refunds back. They are completely overlooking the CDC, the World Health Organization and state governors asking folks not to congregate with more than 250 people.”

Washington state, for example, has banned gatherings of more than 250 people in several counties, and New York has prohibited most gatherings of more than 500 people. Several cities and states — including Maryland, Michigan, Ohio and Oregon — have even closed down schools amid COVID-19 fears.

The high volume of passengers on the ship is particularly hazardous for the LGBTQ people who will be sailing on it, as 100 advocacy groups and public health organizations noted in a Wednesday open letter that this population is “at particular risk for coronavirus disease.” Groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the National LGBT Cancer Network warn that the LGBTQ community has “higher rates of HIV and cancer, which means a greater number of us may have compromised immune systems, leaving us more vulnerable to COVID-19 infections.”

Although Atlantis stated in its email to passengers that the company is “working very closely with appropriate agencies to assure the health and safety of all guests and crew members,” some questioned whether it would even be possible to take every precaution necessary to prevent an outbreak. According to reports, the coronavirus can survive in the air for up to three hours’ time and live on surfaces for several days.

“I understand they’re washing down surfaces,” Sottovia said. “But if they’re still planning to have dance parties and events, you’re going to be around people. You can’t purify the air. If you’re next to the person that has it, it’s just going to spread that way.”

As LGBTQ customers demand answers and accountability, Steiner added that Atlantis has a “responsibility” to keep its passengers safe from a virus that has already caused the confirmed deaths of at least 40 people in the U.S. and 5,000 worldwide. “If we are scared about a global pandemic of epic proportions, we should not be forced to go on this cruise because we don’t want to lose the money,” she said.

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