Escaping the cruise from hell
This story was originally published in The Guardian. Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2020.
As Ronald and Eva Weissberger boarded the cruise ship bound for Hawaii, the couple was looking forward to the trip of a lifetime. The Weissbergers, the 74- and 69-year-olds from Florida, had heard stories about the boat's sister ship, the Diamond Princess, which had been quarantined for weeks off the coast of Japan and ultimately resulted in more than 700 confirmed cases of coronavirus. But to them, the Diamond Princess "seemed like a world away," says the couple's son-in-law, Jason Chalik.
Little did they know, what would start as a 15-night cruise through paradise would turn into a waking nightmare for the 3,500 people on board.
As passengers headed up the gangway to the Grand Princess and toward their rooms on Feb. 21 they had no idea that a 75-year-old man from Placer County, California — who'd stepped off the boat in San Francisco — was carrying Covid-19, the novel coronavirus that by Friday afternoon had infected more than 2,000 Americans and killed more than 40.
The cruise ship they boarded has since become the center of a dramatic U.S. crisis that has forced national and state governments to take measures that seemed unimaginable even a week ago. It has also become a potent symbol for everything from America's woeful lack of test kits, which had to be flown in by helicopter, to the racial politics of who will shoulder the burden of the outbreak.
Between the boat's departure and its return, the nation's handling of the virus would shift entirely. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic. Markets tumbled. Schools and theme parks shuttered and professional sports halted. And President Trump would suspend most travel from the European Union, setting off chaos at airports as confused travelers looked for a way home.
The Grand Princess was thrust into the national spotlight after California reported its first death from coronavirus — an elderly man in Northern California's Placer County, who had been on the ship's previous voyage to Mexico. The exact point at which he contracted the virus is disputed. Princess Cruises, which operates the Grand Princess and the Diamond Princess, claimed he was infected at some point during the Grand Princess' trip to Mexico and said he complained of symptoms while still on board.
Public health officials in California disagree. More likely, they said, he was already infected when he stepped aboard the ship, indicating the new coronavirus had been spreading onshore for longer than anyone knew. Genetic researchers this week traced the virus that infected passengers on the Grand Princess to the same family tree of infections that spread through a cluster of patients in Washington state and likely originated from a patient who had traveled to Wuhan, China. The finding suggests an infected person may have traveled from Washington to California and had contact with the someone who boarded the ship.
What is certain, however, is that the 75-year-old Placer County man who tested positive for the new coronavirus died on March 4 — the first death in California attributed to the virus. About 60 passengers who traveled with him to Mexico stayed on the ship's next journey to Hawaii, mixing with other passengers.
Passengers had little reason to believe anything was out of the ordinary until the ship slowly started canceling events: first, the shows that drew large crowds, then the smaller events like music or dancing lessons that keep passengers busy at sea. The morning of March 4, the same day the Placer County man died at a hospital, Grand Princess officials told the 60 passengers who traveled with him they'd need to stay in their rooms until they could be screened for symptoms.
Still, most were allowed to carry on, catching sun on the Lido deck and visiting with their shipmates. The elderly Weissbergers were playing cards with friends when news of the potential outbreak reached their daughter and son-in-law back in Florida.
"We called and asked if they were quarantined," said son-in-law Chalik, an attorney who has since filed a lawsuit on the couple's behalf, accusing Princess Cruises of gross negligence for its "lackadaisical" response to the outbreak.
"They said, 'No, we're playing bridge,'" Chalik recalled. "We couldn't believe it. We asked, 'You're playing bridge with other passengers? And you're touching the same cards?' They had no idea."
Later that day Gavin Newsom, California's governor, announced a state of emergency and, citing those on board who had shown symptoms, said the Grand Princess would head back to California early for testing.
The toughest moment for Michelle Heckert, a Bay Area woman traveling with her grandparents, came when she learned all passengers would need to stay in their rooms until further notice. "I called my mom in tears, like, 'I can't do this. I can't stay in this room the whole time.' I was just really scared about the uncertainty of it all," she said. "I wasn't scared for myself. I'm healthy, I'm young. I figured if I got it I would be able to recover. But I was scared for my grandparents, and I felt a lot of pressure to protect them from it."
The ship was delayed off the coast of San Francisco while officials hatched a plan. In a dramatic scene, U.S. Coast Guard helicopters dropped tests onto the Grand Princess. Of the 45 tested, 19 crew members and two passengers would test positive for the virus, and about 100 passengers showed symptoms. Meals were delivered to rooms individually — but prepared and served by crew members who shared space for accommodations and meals, a system that health experts said was one of the reasons why the quarantine of passengers within a cruise ship's close quarters is ineffective.
Meanwhile, as the Grand Princess idled offshore, Trump publicly expressed reluctance to bring the ship home. "I like the numbers where they are," the president said. "I don't need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn't our fault."
"They were in shock," Chalik said of the Weissbergers' reaction to comments from the president. "They actually like a lot of what Donald Trump has to say, and here he's talking about them like they're just numbers. They're not numbers — they're my kids' grandparents."
As they waited just off the coast, passengers took to social media to share their quarantine horror stories. One man complained he was going hungry because the ship was rationing food. A family of eight started an Instagram account about the hair-pulling endeavor of trying to occupy six small children for days in a tiny, windowless cabin.
Michelle Heckert, who said she did her best to strike a positive tone, playing music with a ukulele and releasing videos on Twitter, tweeted the day's in-cabin entertainment: an instructional video on how to make paper airplanes.
The Grand Princess was finally given the green light to return to shore, but it would dock in Oakland, not San Francisco. Officials said Oakland's outer harbor put it at safer remove from tourists and densely populated areas.
To many in Oakland, a city that's long lived in its glitzier neighbor's shadow, the Grand Princess' docking reopened old wounds, fanning long-standing tensions steeped in racial and environmental discrimination. "There's a feeling, particularly among people of color in this city, that things keep happening to us and not for us," Oakland activist Cat Brooks told The Guardian. "When something like this [cruise ship] happens, that allows for a breeding ground of hysteria and mistrust."
But the news was more than welcome to those on board the Grand Princess. Cars honked, passengers whooped and cheered as the boat passed underneath San Francisco's iconic Golden Gate bridge. "We knew we were headed toward shore," said Rex Lawson, 86, who was traveling with his wife, Mardell, 81. "Everybody was very happy when we pulled under the bridge, they were out on their balcony, yelling and clapping."
The worst, it seemed, was over. But still to overcome was the colossal task of moving thousands of passengers, an untold number of whom had been infected, off the boat and onto buses, where they'd be transported to hospitals, hotels, or military bases for 14 days of quarantine.
On Monday morning, just before the Grand Princess pulled in, trucks rumbled to and from the docks along the shoreline like any other day. Four large private passenger buses waited to transport the possibly infected passengers. Passengers disembarked by order of priority, those with acute medical needs first. Officials said it could take up to three days to unload everybody. But in fact it took five days — and even longer for 14 international passengers waiting for transportation to their home countries.
After the ship docked, complaints quickly started mounting from passengers concerned that recommended quarantine protocols weren't being followed. Passengers were in close contact with others as they unloaded the ship. They boarded a bus and sat close to others who might be infected. Many were still untested days after arriving at an Air Force base for quarantine.
Denise Morse, a Davis, California, resident, filed a complaint last week through her congressman, John Garamendi, claiming that safety protocols have been disregarded. "We're an incubator for Covid-19," she said from her room on Travis Air Force Base, where she was surrounded by a containment fence and under guard 24 hours a day.
Morse said that when she first arrived at the base she noticed passengers crammed together as they lined up for food and grabbed condiments out of shared bins. There were no hand-washing stations available in the food areas, and the passengers had to serve themselves coffee using their bare hands on the coffee dispenser, she said.
On March 10, the day the Grand Princess first reached Oakland, passengers received an official document under their cabin doors that read: "Once you arrive at the military installation, you may choose to be tested for Covid-19." But Morse said that when she and her husband asked to be tested for the coronavirus on Thursday, they were told no tests were available.
"They are not testing us. On the ship they gave us a paper that said we would be tested. When we got here (three days ago), they took our temperatures instead," Morse said. Heckert, also quarantined at Travis Air Force Base, said last week that her family hadn't been tested either.
Only after Congressman Garamendi took her complaint to the Department of Health and Human Services did the staff began delivering food to passenger's rooms instead of having them line up to grab plastic boxes from tall stacks.
"We were better off on the ship," Morse said, adding that cruise ship staff, at least, left food outside their door.
For Rex Lawson, the experience hasn't soured his travel plans forever. His children told him he's never going on another cruise, but he said it's hard pass up the free trip Princess Cruises has offered him and his wife. "I don't say never," Lawson said.
But he might be out a partner. He asked Mardell if they might use the free ticket in the future. She'd told him that next time, he'd have to go by himself.