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Coronavirus cruise ship nightmares: America has abandoned its citizens at sea amid COVID-19

Crew members like myself have not been treated with dignity. Working for a cruise ship shouldn't mean being sent to a floating prison for an indefinite period of time.
Brian Bailey
The author in Antarctica.Courtesy Brian Bailey

When the first reports of a new coronavirus were coming out of Wuhan, China, I was exploring a place that very few humans have been: Antarctica. Though this virus news was disturbing, I was sure that I wouldn't be affected. After all, I was pretty much as far from Wuhan as anyone could get. I was working on an expedition cruise vessel as a cruise director. Our focus is on wildlife and geology; it isn't a pleasure cruise. And my job was to provide entertainment and fun activities as a diversion.

When the outbreak began, we had a meeting about what was going on in China and came up with a contingency plan: If guests had recently been to the region, they weren't allowed to come. If they had fevers, they weren't allowed to board. As a result, we were able to keep our ship safe and virus-free throughout the Antarctic season.

As we left South Georgia and sailed toward the most remote inhabited island in the world, Tristan da Cunha, we got word that we would be denied entry.

However, the trip, which began on Feb. 28, didn't go as planned. This was supposed to be my last cruise before I went on a much-needed vacation. But while we were exploring a massive colony of king penguins at St. Andrew's Bay off the island of South Georgia, we were told that several cruise ships had suffered terrible outbreaks and were being denied entry into ports.

As we left South Georgia and sailed toward the most remote inhabited island in the world, Tristan da Cunha, we got word that we would be denied entry. It was my first taste of what was going on outside our ships. (We did get permission to take our Zodiacs — small watercraft — to cruise around the island to get a closer look at its wildlife and incredible geological features.)

This was only the beginning of one of the most stressful periods of my life. When the outbreak first hit cruise ships, the vessels weren't met with compassion. They were shut out, turned away and refused entry. The ships became giant floating petri dishes, where the virus was able to spread easily on the many touchable surfaces and through the circulating air conditioning. Captains searched desperately for ports that would take them, while their passengers became ill.

When the Grand Princess reported that it had suspected coronavirus cases, it was initially refused entry by the port of San Francisco. President Donald Trump seemed to support this non-solution. "I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault," he said in March, implying he'd rather maroon passengers and crew than have their coronavirus cases counted toward America's official tally. Two passengers and one crew member have so far died on the Grand Princess alone.

Similar stories are playing out around the world.

As we left Tristan da Cunha, we got news that South Africa was also denying our entry into Cape Town. We were in the most remote region of the planet; what were we supposed to do? We set sail for Cape Town anyway.

For several days we circled in the water near Cape Town. My job went from providing light entertainment for the guests to making sure I kept their minds occupied at all times. I became an entertainer and a consoler. I was running out of ideas, but my colleagues had my back. I saw the best and worst in our guests. Some seemed to blame us for the entire crisis, and some comforted us and rolled up their sleeves to pitch in.

Our company worked hard to convince the South African government that we were a virus-free ship. Eventually, they let our ship dock to get provisions and refuel. They then allowed our guests to disembark as long as they had confirmed flights out of the country.

This was supposed to be my last port of the contract. I had planned to stay in Africa for a camping adventure across South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Of course, that had been canceled, but at least we were able to get the guests home and I had a plane ticket in my hand. That is, until the South African government wouldn't allow any crew to repatriate. Later, I found that my ship's crew wasn't the only ones refused entry. Tens of thousands of crew members were finding out that their stays on their ships were about to become indefinite.

My ship's crew wasn't the only ones refused entry. Tens of thousands of crew members were finding out that their stays on their ships were about to become indefinite.

Our ship refueled one last time, and we left Cape Town, wondering where we could find a port to let us return to our families. We spent weeks looking for a way to get home. Eventually, I was able to disembark in the Canary Islands, along with a small group of European, Canadian and American colleagues.

We walked off the ship with masks on our faces and tears in our eyes; we were afraid of our journey home and just as afraid of what was going to happen to our ship family left behind. We told as few people as possible that we worked on cruise ships, so strong was the stigma. From there we traveled to Germany, spending the night in the Frankfurt airport, and from Germany to New Jersey. With every hour, it felt like our window was closing. As the coronavirus began to race through the U.S., Americans abroad were becoming persona non grata.

The relief I felt when I actually boarded the flight back to the United States was immediate, and I could finally feel my body relax. It had been more than a month since I had first tried to return home.

As we were coming into Newark, I could see the beautiful New York City skyline and Lady Liberty. I will admit I cried when I saw her. How many times has she greeted people in desperate situations? When we came off the plane, I was expecting to be greeted by police and CDC officials to check whether we were bringing in the virus. The only thing that happened was a fever check. That was it. No one informed me that I needed to be in quarantine for 14 days.

This is when I realized why America had failed so dramatically in its fight against this virus. Making matters worse, when American officials finally did wise up to the threat of the virus, they locked down ports without a clear plan. To my shock and dismay, thousands of Americans are on cruise ships still stranded at sea, and some of them are right off the coast of Florida. This makes my blood boil.

Indeed, the CDC's plan for cruise ships is a study in contradiction. According to its website, "As operators of non-U.S. flagged vessels sailing in international waters, it is imperative that the cruise ship industry and cruise lines themselves take responsibility for the care of their crew and do not further tax the limited U.S. resources during a public health emergency." But it feels like the CDC left these vessels out in the open ocean to fend for themselves, without proper medical equipment or training for medical staff. How could a ship's doctor and nurse possibly know how to deal with a pandemic that still baffles the medical community?

And it remains difficult for cruise ships to repatriate their crews. One of the most significant hurdles is the ban on the use of commercial flights. Cruise companies have to repatriate their crews through private charters. But crew members also can't use rental cars, taxis or ride share services, nor can they stay in hotels or traverse public airport terminals.

The majority of cruise ships are virus-free. Some have been stuck at sea for more than 60 days. Meanwhile, states in the U.S. are starting to reopen hair salons. Making repatriation this difficult feels inhumane, and it's taking a serious toll on crews' mental health.

Clearly, seafarers are not being treated with dignity. The crew of a ship isn't just a group of housekeepers, cooks and entertainers. They are also the EMTs, police and firefighters of this community. They were, and still are, on the front line of this pandemic but with very little assistance. They deserve to go home to their families.

The virus didn't come from a cruise ship. It came from the shores of Asia, Europe and the United States ... to the ships. Working for a cruise ship shouldn't mean being sent to a floating prison for an indefinite period of time. America has abandoned its citizens at sea. Now it's time to bring them home.