Brian Bailey, Guest Columnist
When the first reports of a novel coronavirus were coming out of Wuhan, China, I was in a place that very few humans have been, Antarctica. Though this news was disturbing I was sure that I would not be affected. I was as far from Wuhan as you could get and I’ve seen virus after virus come and go, without much of a bite. SARS, MERS, H1N1, Avian Flu, and more seemed to all come and go without ever coming near me. It never crossed my mind that in a few short weeks all of our lives, including mine, would be turned upside down.
I was working on an expedition cruise vessel as a cruise director, providing entertainment and fun activities for our high-paying guests. When the outbreak began, we had a meeting about what was going on in China and that we had a high number of guests from the country visiting our ship for a special trip to Antarctica. We immediately made plans for their arrival. If guests had been to that province that included Wuhan, in the last 30 days they were not allowed to come. If they had a fever they were not allowed to board. We were able to keep our ship safe and virus free throughout the Antarctic season. I was proud of what our team was able to accomplish, and it was a fun and memorable trip.
However, the trip that began on February 28th did not go as planned. This was supposed to be my last cruise before I went on a much-needed vacation. The cruise was starting in Ushuaia, Argentina and ending in Cape Town, South Africa with visits to several sites in The Falkland Islands, and the very remote Sub-Antarctic islands of South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha, and Gough and Nightingale Islands. You may have never heard of some of these islands, but they have some of the most incredible sites for wildlife. Abundant with several penguin, seal, and whale species.
While we were exploring a massive colony of King Penguins at St. Andrew’s Bay, South Georgia, we received word that several cruise ships had terrible outbreaks with several reported deaths and to make matters worse, they were being denied entry into ports. As we left South Georgia and sailed towards the most remote inhabited island in the world, Tristan da Cunha, we received word from their Island Council that we would be denied entry. At first, I was furious. We had been on this voyage for over 14 days and this small island was basing a decision on ignorance and fear rather than fact. It was my first taste of what was going on outside of our safe bubble. We did get permission to take our zodiacs (small watercraft we use to get off the ship to landing sites) to cruise around the island to get a closer look at their wildlife and incredible geological features. As we left Tristan da Cunha, we received the most eye-opening news, South Africa was denying our entry into Cape Town. We were in the most remote regions of the planet, what were we supposed to do? We set sail for Cape Town despite the news.
For days we circled around in 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 therapist. 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 help. Our company worked tirelessly to convince the South African government that we were a virus-free ship. Eventually they let us pull-up to the dock to get provisions and refuel. They then allowed our guests to disembark the ship as long as they had a confirmed flight out of the country. This was supposed to be my last port of the contract. I had planned on staying in Africa for an epic camping adventure across South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. Of course, that had been cancelled but I was just pleased that we able to get the guests home and I had a plane ticket in my hand. I was pleased, until the South African government wouldn’t allow any crew to repatriate. Only South African crew were allowed to disembark. We begged and pleaded with the government to let us off. Why were we so different from the guests? This was a reality that ever crew member around the world was facing. Why were we worth less in the eyes of our governments?
Our ship refueled one last time, and we left Cape Town, wondering where we could find a port to let us fly home to our families. We decided to head north in the Atlantic. The final destination plan changed three times as we headed towards the northern hemisphere. First, it was Lisbon, then Gibraltar, and then Tenerife, Canary Islands. It took us 21 days to reach Tenerife. We had to go at a slow economical speed to save on fuel. Of course, when we reached the island, we weren’t able to immediately go to the port. The sight was disheartening and appalling. The waters surrounding Tenerife was a cruise ship graveyard with fifteen ships at anchor, swinging in the wind, empty of guests, full of crew.
A new plan was formed. The company was going to combine the crew from three ships and then head to South Hampton, England where flights out of Heathrow were more abundant and England was treating ships with much more compassion. However, I received a surprise. I got a call from colleague to go to the Human Resources office. To my delight, they had a flight home for me. I was cautiously optimistic though, I had received at least two flights in Cape Town but still denied repatriation. I said I wouldn’t believe it unless I was on the plane. The next morning, I was on that plane, but the majority of my colleagues were not as lucky. Only the Americans, Canadians, British, and Europeans with an EU passport were allowed off the ship. However, that was only 23 out of 218 crew.
We disembarked the ship with a mask 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 colleagues, our friends, our ship family. When we arrived at the airport in Tenerife, we immediately practiced social distancing. We were new to this while the rest of world had practiced for a couple months. Police patrolled the terminal making sure people stayed at least a meter a part, and any one not wearing a mask was reprimanded but also given a mask.
I handed my passport to the border patrol agent and he looked at me in disbelief and said, “You’re an American? How did you get here?” I’m assuming, in the pre-virus world that this would have been an odd question. I just replied, “I was a researcher in Antarctica, and it’s been a difficult journey getting home.”
He shrugged and stamped my passport, and I passed through. Before we went through any sort of border patrol or immigration, my small band of repatriation rebels met to discuss the difficulties we could encounter. We decided to hide our seaman’s book, and not mention that we worked on ships. We had heard of crew members being turned away or forced to quarantine in foreign lands. We would all say that we were Antarctic researchers, which was just a stretch of the truth. That little white lie helped, and we were able to board the only flight of the day out of Tenerife and flew to Frankfurt, Germany. Arriving in Germany had a whole new set of issues.
We were to spend the night at the hotel next to the airport, but when we arrived at the terminal in Frankfurt, the police began to split up the group. Those from a Schengen country (EU) were allowed to go to the hotel; the Americans, Canadians, and the Brits (As my British colleague muttered “thanks Brexit”), were told we couldn’t leave the airport. There was so much confusion and some of the Americans and Canadians were able to walk right out of the airport and to the hotel without being stopped. Some of the Americans got stopped right outside on the sidewalk and were immediately held by airport police and received deportation papers stating that they were a danger to Germany and other Schengen countries.
The next morning, they had to be escorted to the gate! It was an absurd mess! One of my friends mentioned, “Geez, if Germany is disorganized, you know it’s bad.” We all nodded in agreement. Frankfurt’s Airport was mostly empty; we started racing each other down the empty halls of the terminal to pass time. McDonald’s was the only place to get food. In fact McDonald’s was the only place to get food on my entire journey home. We camped out near each other in the empty terminal and fell asleep not knowing the obstacles we would face the next morning.
We awoke the next day in the Frankfurt Airport, and made our way through immigration again. We handed the agents our passports and boarding passes. They looked at the boarding passes with confusion talking to their fellow agents about what to do with us. They said, “No.” They said no, we could not pass because we were not allowed to fly through Amsterdam. The Netherlands had apparently made a recent decision not allow Americans to fly through their country. I pleaded with the agent knowing that this wasn’t up to him. He honestly looked sad as well. The new laws in place state that we had to fly directly to the US and could not pass through another Schengen country. Even though the day before we flew from the Canary Islands, Spain, a Schengen country to Germany, another Schengen country. Confused? So were we.
We went back to the terminal and immediately called our company and booking agents. God bless them because they got us on a flight to Newark, New Jersey that was just leaving two hours later. We were able to track down our luggage with great help from the team from United Airlines and Lufthansa. The relief I felt when I actually boarded that flight to New Jersey was immediate. Finally, after 34 days after my first repatriation attempt, I was able to go back to the United States.
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 if we were bringing in the virus. The only thing that happened was a fever check. That was it. Just a fever check. No questions were asked about where I was coming from or where I was in the last 30 days. No one to informed me that I needed to be in quarantine for 14 days. Nothing. It was just like coming back from vacation.
This is when I realized why America had failed dramatically in this fight against this virus. They had not done enough. In comparison to my Aussie and Kiwi friends that were met at the airport by police and escorted to a hotel where they are under mandatory quarantine for 14 days. I was able to then fly to Chicago, where I had to spend the night again but this time in a hotel, then I flew to Cincinnati the next morning. I drove to my rental cabin to spend my self-mandated 14-day quarantine, thinking I must have been the last American on a ship to make it home. To my shock and dismay, there are a great number of Americans on cruise ships still stranded at sea, and some of them are right off the coast of Florida. This made my blood boil.
When this outbreak first hit cruise ships, the vessels were not met with compassion. They were shut out, turned away, refused entry. It reminded me of the Biblical story of the citizens with leprosy, shunned from their city. 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. Ships’ Captains searched desperately for a port that would take them, while their passengers became severely ill and some terminally ill.
When the Grand Princess reported that they had suspected coronavirus cases, they were refused entry into the port of San Francisco and were floating in a state of limbo while President Donald Trump exclaimed, “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.” Two passengers and one crew member died.
Similar stories played out around the world. Ships were denied entry and help in the fight against this pandemic. Perhaps no policies lacked compassion for ships than our own CDC. The CDC has a No Sail Order, and in the section entitled “Findings and Immediate Action,” it states that the CDC Director found that CoVid19 had not been sufficiently controlled by the industry or the state and local health authorities. Then it continues, “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.” How can the CDC director say that the state and local health authorities did not do enough when the cruise ship industry was being asked not to use state and local help in this pandemic?
The CDC left these vessels out in the open ocean to fend for themselves, without proper medical equipment, or training for the medical staff. How could a ship’s doctor and nurse possibly know how to deal with a pandemic virus that still baffles the medical community?
The CDC has given the cruise industry several guidelines before they can repatriate their crew. The most significant hurdle is banning the use of commercial flights. Cruise companies have to repatriate the crew through private charter. Europe allowed me to repatriate from my ship through commercial airlines. Why not the U.S.? There are 56 Americans on the Emerald Princess off the coast of Florida right now. They are virus-free, and they are not a danger to our society. I can’t imagine what a great cost it would be to repatriate, by charter flight, each and every American marooned at sea. This has slowed down their repatriation to a complete halt. The world’s governments have not treated sea-farers with dignity. When people are on a ship, are they able to dial 911 for help? Absolutely not. The crew of a ship is not just a group of housekeepers, cooks, and entertainers. They are also the EMTs, Police, and Firefighters. They were, and still are, on the front line of this pandemic but with very little assistance. They deserve to come home to their families. There is an estimated 421,000 Americans that work on cruise ships, and the industry supports over 1.2 million Americans.
The virus didn’t come from a cruise ship. It came from the shores of Asia, Europe, and the United States… to the ships. I call on the United States government, especially the CDC to lift the policies that have abandoned these human beings, and especially our fellow American citizens out to sea, and away from their country!