MURRAY – There have been numerous stories unveiled over the past few weeks about how passengers aboard cruise ships were kept on those vessels in quarantine due to suspicions that passengers or crew members had been infected by the 2019 novel coronavirus COVID-19.
Ketih and Tracy Williams, along with about 10 other friends, were not part of that discussion as their Carnival cruise pulled into port earlier this month at Long Beach, California. They came real close, though, as a passenger developed an illness that later proved not to be COVID-19. However, the passenger had to be tested, and that led to a delay of leaving the ship that ended up lasting about 24 hours.
“We would tell people we were going on a cruise and everybody was telling us, ‘Oh! You need to cancel! This virus! This virus!’” Keith said as he recalled the experience Saturday, which did not become worth mentioning, he said, until the morning of last Saturday, March. That was when their vessel was pulling into Long Beach after having taken passengers on what was described as a western riviera cruise with ports of call in multiple locations in Mexico.
“It had been a great cruise and we had no fear. When we’d go into Mexico, they were keeping us pretty well posted (about COVID-19) because it was starting to become kind of a big deal. Everywhere we’d go, they’d have signs posted saying ‘No coronavirus here.’ Yeah, they actually had signs posted at the ports, and we pretty much went through normal protocol as we would if we were still in Murray. We washed our hands everywhere we went and had hand wipes with us everywhere we’d go. Honestly, if not for those signs, we truly wouldn’t have thought anything about it.”
So as the ship neared Long Beach, all was normal and the Williamses and their friends were preparing for a seemingly uneventful end to the voyage, where the ship passes through U.S. Customs and everyone leaves and goes about their lives. Except for one couple, Keith said everyone in their party had been on previous cruises and knew the process well.
Until the process changed. Disembark time was 8 a.m., but when 8 a.m. came, Carnival made an announcement that there was a delay with Customs.
“So our group is together and we’re all kind of looking at each other funny,” Keith said, noting that, though this was unusual, there still was no feel of something being wrong in the air. “Then, and I don’t even have the times, but they came on two or three different other times – I’d say between 8 and 11 o’clock – and on the last one, they came on and said, ‘OK, we’ve been cleared by Customs; however, we’ve not been cleared by local officials.’ That’s when we went, ‘Oh crud!’ So then, at about noon, they came back on and said, ‘OK, here’s the scoop. We had a passenger get sick – now, they didn’t meet any criteria for the coronavirus.’
“That was the first time we heard (‘coronavirus’). However, some of the people sitting beside us in the line had gotten to talking and they had pictures that had been taken by somebody from a balcony showing people being escorted off by people in hazmat suits earlier that morning. So we already had a suspicion of what was going on. So now, they’re telling us that the passengers didn’t meet any criteria; however, local officials wanted them checked out further.
“To be honest, we weren’t really afraid of the virus at that point. Our only fear we had with the whole thing was simply, ‘Are we going to get stuck on this ship for 14 or 21 days?’ Because that’s how long we had heard people were being kept on other ships that had this kind of thing going on.”
Carnival said they believed the testing of the passengers would yield results in six hours, so passengers were asked to retrieve their luggage and head back to their rooms if they wished. In the meantime, Keith said their wait was eased as the ship’s bars, entertainment venues and food areas were reactivated. This also gave the Williamses and their friends a chance to contact their airlines to ask for assistance as their flights now would require new departure times. Keith said this had to be done twice, because the test results were not received in six hours.
“At 9:30 that night, we finally got the results back and they said the passenger was negative for COVID-19 and they’re going to get us disembarked in the middle of the night,” he said, explaining that this was fine with him. “Oh, we all wanted off. Our group had already called Southwest (Airlines) and redone our flights and the earliest available was 6:30 in the morning on that Sunday morning. Somebody made a comment, ‘Well, they probably won’t get us off until the middle of the night, so we probably aren’t going to be able to leave until 3 o’clock (in the afternoon),’ and I said, ‘Hey, if they get us off at midnight, I’m getting off this boat and I’m getting out of here.’
“At that point, your only fear was somebody else might have signs or symptoms. So as soon as they let us off this boat, I’m getting off this boat.”
That departure had to wait as well. Customs personnel had left their post for the night earlier and could not be brought back, so the passengers had to stay on the ship a bit longer still. Keith said this presented the chance for Tracy and him and their friends to get some much-needed sleep before arising at about 5:30 that Sunday morning. Departure finally came at 8.
“There was not any panic among the passengers when all of this was going on, but you could tell with a lot of them, they were ready for it to be over. A lot of their smiles were gone,” he said, adding that, for the most part, he believes Carnival personnel performed very well during this delay. “There was nobody fighting, nobody really getting upset, and that’s because Carnival’s people didn’t show any signs that there was anything to fear.
“Carnival kept that ship under control. They really did, and it was just because of the way they were acting. They were great. The only negative side of it, and even our group was talking about it, is that they knew what was going on before we ported. If they would’ve come on at 8 (a.m. on the 7th) and said, ‘Hey, we haven’t been cleared by customs yet because we had a passenger ….’ If they would’ve said that, rather than have people sit there for 5 1/2 hours waiting to disembark before they said it, it would’ve been a bit nicer, you know? But they didn’t, and I’m sure they had their reasons.”
By a little after midnight last Monday, the Williamses were back home in Murray and to normalcy … or so they thought.
“Then we found out there’s no toilet paper,” Keith said referring to how fears of COVID-19 exploded after they came home, with numerous major sporting events worldwide being postponed or canceled altogether as the number of cases sharply rose, two of which were to NBA players, prompting a suspension of that league’s season. And yes, everyday items, like toilet paper, disappeared from shelves throughout Murray.
“On the cruise, we only had one channel where we were to get television news and that was CBS. We had seen some coverage (about the spread of COVID-19), but it was very minimal and wasn’t blown up like it has become (in the last) week.
“So we get back Monday (March 9). The first trip I made to Walmart was at about 10 o’clock Wednesday night and I went in for something totally different. One of our kids needed some socks for Crazy Socks Day at school and Tracy said, ‘Well, we’ve still got some cereal, so go ahead and get some milk too.’ So I did; then I walk by the toilet paper aisle and it’s like, ‘You have got to be kidding me!’ I don’t know. But it’s blown up now.”
The Williamses’ ordeal was happening almost simultaneously to a Princess cruiseliner being denied access to the port up the Pacific Ocean from Long Beach at Oakland. There, last Sunday, 21 people – two passengers and 19 crew members – tested positive aboard the ship. All 2,000-plus passengers were transferred from the ship to military bases for a mandatory 14-day quarantine period, while the 21 people infected went to medical facilities.