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Coronavirus: Royal Caribbean passengers who tried to cancel trip decide to board anyway

Passengers say after hours waiting on the phone, they gave up on refunds and went ahead with cruise plans.

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TAMPA — Ana Trevino’s family trip for 13 shrank to six people by the time she arrived at Port Tampa Bay on Thursday to board a cruise to Cozumel.

With coronavirus on their minds, some of the remaining travelers had tried to cancel their tickets in exchange for a credit. After hours on hold, they said they couldn’t get through to Royal Caribbean within the required 48-hour notice period.

The options became: Go on the cruise now or spend hundreds of dollars on nothing.

“I’m excited, but also terrified,” said 30-year-old Claudy Berrios, before boarding Brilliance of the Seas at the Port of Tampa Bay on Thursday. “I really tried canceling.”

The U.S. Department of State is recommending against taking cruises during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Cruise ship passengers, especially the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, are at greater risk of contracting the new virus because of ships’ close quarters, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Operator Princess Cruises, part of Carnival Corp., announced on Thursday it was suspending its service worldwide for the next two months after two of its ships had outbreaks. That same morning at Tampa’s port, two bag handlers wore face masks as they loaded passengers’ luggage for the waiting 958-foot ship.

Trevino, Berrios and the four others in their group wore gray T-shirts that said, “Oh, Ship! It’s a family trip.”

“Except, a lot of the actual family isn’t here now," said Tevino, 29, of Orlando.

From left: John Tavarez, Crystal Matos, Richard Vazquez, and Claudy Berrios, arrive for a cruise with The Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas. Their original group shrunk down from 13 cruisers, to six, as people canceled at the last minute due to concerns over coronavirus, at the Port of Tampa Bay on Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Her father-in-law decided not to come, even though he didn’t get the credits. Crystal Matos, 33, said her mother’s medication for rheumatoid arthritis lowers her immunity, so she couldn’t come. Another relative was pregnant and wanted to be careful.

Debra Williams, 32, flew in from Missouri with her five children for the cruise. She, too, said she tried to cancel the trip for credits but gave up after hours on hold. The family had been planning the trip for more than a year.

Jessica Montes, 35, is a geriatric physician in Tampa. Her bachelorette party was supposed to be a Royal Caribbean cruise to the Bahamas that left from Miami on Friday. She said three of her five friends who planned to attend also are doctors. Their employers advised against cruise travel.

Montes was frustrated she couldn’t get at least a partial cash refund, given the virus outbreak has now been classified as a pandemic.

“I’m not canceling just to cancel,” she said. “I’m not allowed to go and I’m not going to put myself or my patients at risk.”

Port Tampa Bay has not disclosed how many cruise ship passengers have canceled trips. It said no cruises have been canceled.

“We strive to create a healthy and safe environment at all times,” the port said in a statement. “It is too early to know if passenger volumes are down.”

Royal Caribbean last week began offering credits toward future cruises for people seeking to cancel their trips through July 31. It has already canceled or modified cruises through Asia. But passengers have to cancel more than 48 hours before their trip.

The cruise line says on its website it has “rigorous medical protocols” for its ongoing trips including ship cleaning and air filtration. It did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The Cruise Line International Association, the trade group for companies such as Royal Caribbean, has launched a series of protocols for its members on medical screenings to outright denying passengers who may have contact with someone affected by COVID-19.

Porters load luggage into waiting taxis for guests arriving from their cruise with The Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas at the Port of Tampa Bay on Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“We remain in close contact with local governments around the world," the cruise association president Kelly Craighead said in a statement. “Travelers should know that their health and safety is the absolute priority for the industry.”

Trevino’s crew was still in high spirits, hoping a less crowded cruise ship might feel like a VIP experience. Matos upgraded her suite because room rates dropped due to cancellations.

Royal Carribean hasn’t said how many trips have been canceled, but as of Thursday afternoon its stock prices per share had fallen to about $32 from $116 at the start of the month.

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