In the avenue of ocean that stretches south from Miami to Cuba and northeast to the Bahamas, dozens of cruise ships sail back and forth. Every so often, they come into Florida ports to refuel and restock. Otherwise, they wait.
The crew members on board — many no longer receiving paychecks — wait for news about when they will return home and see their families again. Two months after the cruise industry shut down amid repeated COVID-19 outbreaks on ships, more than 100,000 crew members remain trapped at sea with little reliable information about what will happen to them.
While most passengers were able to get off cruise ships by early April, crew members have largely remained stuck. During the prolonged isolation, the virus continued to spread through the ships. At least 578 crew contracted COVID-19 at sea and seven have died, according to a Herald analysis.
At least two crew members have leaped overboard in apparent suicides. On May 10, a 39-year-old crew member from Ukraine on the Regal Princess ship died after jumping overboard while the ship was anchored off Rotterdam, Netherlands. Late last month a crew member jumped off Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas ship while it was near Greece; his body was never found.
Likely no one imagined the situation would become so dire.
When cruise companies first shut down operations on March 13, they expected to cancel cruises for just 30 days, believing the crisis would quickly pass, much like the 2002 SARS pandemic that killed fewer than 800 worldwide, and they would be up and running again soon. Some crew were sent home in March, including many entertainment employees, while some new crew members were brought on.
But on April 9, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention banned cruising in U.S. waters through at least late July, citing ongoing outbreaks among crew who remained on ships. The CDC put new rules in place limiting repatriation to private transportation and requiring cruise line executives to sign legal agreements assuring the agency’s health rules will be followed. Some countries, including Haiti and the Philippines, are requiring crew members be tested before they can return. Others, like Grenada, want cruise companies to pay for a land-based quarantine once crew members arrive.
“This is a totally new situation for everybody,” said Teijo Niemela, editor of Cruise Business Magazine. “There is no guidebook for this.”
Some crew members have spent days in small, windowless rooms with no information about when they will be going home as their ships float in and out of U.S. ports. Some are on long journeys crossing the Atlantic Ocean without any assurance their home countries will allow them to dock. Some were told for weeks that their ships were virus-free only to see colleagues quietly evacuated to Miami hospitals days later.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Many feel like an afterthought after watching cruise companies use diplomatic and logistical channels to promptly repatriate passengers.
The delayed repatriation process could jeopardize the industry going forward, said Rockford Weitz, director of the Maritime Studies Program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
“(The cruise companies) have to show they are going to have the capability in an emergency situation to get people at scale off of the ship and back home,” he said. “They have to be able to convince their customers they can find solutions and work constructively with public health authorities. The time for excuses at this point in May, there’s no excuse for not finding the way home.”
So far Carnival Corporation has repatriated 37 percent of the crew left at sea after cruising halted and passengers departed — some by air charter, and some by sailing its ships across the oceans on multi-day voyages. MSC Cruises has sent home 76 percent and Disney Cruise Line 33 percent. Royal Caribbean Cruises declined to comment on how many employees it still needs to repatriate. It has sent home an estimated 23 percent, based on employee data in financial filings and minimum ship manning requirements. Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line said it has repatriated around 100 people. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings did not respond to requests for comment.
Some companies with ships near Florida have chosen not to send crew home from the United States on expensive charter flights that come with a complex web of legalities. Instead, they have opted to transport them on ships or wait until Caribbean airports open.
For instance, MSC Cruises CEO Gianni Onorato said in a May 8 letter to employees that the company is planning to take its North American ships to Europe and fly crew commercially from there — meaning crew will spend a week longer at sea. For now, five of the company’s ships are still lingering near its private island in the Bahamas, and occasionally coming into PortMiami.
The vast majority of MSC crew left at sea — 95 percent — live in countries where borders are still closed, said company spokesperson Luca Biondolilo in an email. Once those restrictions are lifted, he wrote, “we have a plan in place for them to repatriate by various means, including flying home on chartered aircraft...We are constantly in contact with the Governments in these countries at the highest level on behalf of our crew and in some discreet cases we were able to persuade them to allow our crew back despite closed borders via special charter or repatriation flights whenever available and/or feasible.”
Carnival Corp. spokesman Roger Frizzell also noted the tangle of government rules.
“Our goal has been to repatriate our crew members as quickly as possible, but that has proven to be much more difficult in recent weeks because of port closures, country closures and global travel restrictions,” he wrote in an email.
“As a result, there have been numerous complications and challenges. For example, we have 7,500 Filipinos on our ships in Manila, currently waiting to be allowed to go ashore.”
Royal Caribbean Ltd. spokesman Jonathon Fishman wrote, “Getting all of our crew home safely remains our top priority. So far, we have successfully repatriated over 16,000 crew members, and we are working with governments and health authorities around the world on our plans. We appreciate our crews’ patience and understanding in this ever-changing global situation.”
Among those caught in limbo is Meshal Habib, 48, from Romania. He signed an agreement with his company, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line to forego his salary from mid-March to mid-April, and stay on board the 1,500-passenger Grand Celebration ship to begin to work again after the initial 30-day hiatus. When it became clear in early April that cruises would not be starting again, he asked to go home. Though April is long past, he has not been paid.
For a month and a half, Habib said he had to pay for bottled water and soap until the company began providing the items at the beginning of May. Still, he is desperate to get home to his family and find work there. So far, he said, the company has told him it can’t afford the private flights.
“I pay rent for my parents and my sister,” he said. “I need to go home to work.”
The company said it is providing food, access to passengers spaces and daily activities to keep crew entertained. “At Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, the safety and well-being of our onboard crew members remain a top priority, and we are continuing to work closely with our crew to make travel arrangements and return them home safely to their families as soon as possible,” the company said in a statement.
The seafarers have little recourse. U.S. labor laws do not apply to cruise ship workers as the companies and ships are registered abroad. The International Labor Organization, an arm of the United Nations, recommends that cruise companies pay crew members at least sick wages during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether the crew are quarantined on land or on a ship.
But according to crew, that isn’t always happening. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, MSC Cruises, and Disney Cruise Line crew who are no longer working on board say they are not getting paid. Royal Caribbean crew say they’re receiving $400 per month. Carnival Cruise Line crew say they are being paid 60 days past the end of their contract. Crew on other Carnival Corp. brand ships, like Princess Cruises, say they are not being paid.
Norwegian Cruise Line crew say they have not been paid since the end of March. The company did not respond to requests for comment about this issue.
MSC Cruises crew were asked to sign agreements with the company ending their pay in return for being rehired at a later date. The company said the agreements were signed off on by the International Transport Workers’ Federation.
Disney Cruise Line crew say they have not been paid since the end of March. A company spokesperson said Disney is reevaluating pay for non-working crew and will update them next week.
Carnival Cruise Line extended its 15 days of pay to 60 for crew whose contracts were ended early and is paying crew scheduled to work but unable to join the company’s ships because of the pandemic between 30 and 60 days of basic wages.
And then there’s the issue of health, both physical and mental. Crew members stuck at sea continue to catch COVID-19 on board ships. Twelve crew members on the MSC Preziosa tested positive for the virus on May 15, according to a recording of the captain’s announcement obtained by the Herald. At least two crew members on the Disney Wonder tested positive in early May, according to medical records and interviews with sick crew members. Disney Cruise Line is ordering crew members on the Disney Wonder who tested negative back to work, sparking fear about exposure to the virus after more than a month of cabin isolation.
Disney Cruise Line said crew who express concerns about working are not being scheduled.
“Our focus is on the health and well-being of our Crew and we have a team working tirelessly to repatriate them,” said Kim Prunty, a spokesperson for the company. “With constantly changing requirements around the world and numerous borders still closed, this has proven to be an extremely complex process. We are using our ships to repatriate Crew to Europe and the Caribbean and are continuing to try to arrange charter flights to other destinations.”
Some crew members tell the Herald they will never work in the cruise industry again after how they have been treated during the pandemic. Habib, who has worked on cruise ships since 1999, said he doesn’t have confidence that the industry will take care of him during the next crisis.
“You never know what will happen in the world again,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”
Others who feel they have been treated poorly say they will return to sea because there is no better job available in their home countries.
“There is no choice in terms of money,” said a Filipino who works for Carnival Corp., who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.
For now, tens of thousands are stuck in limbo. Here are some of their stories:
Cruise to nowhere
Gan Sungaralingum has not touched land in more than two months, and doesn’t know when he will next.
When ships were still sailing, the 38-year-old worked in the retail department selling high-end watches for Coral Gables-based vendor Heinemann Americas aboard Carnival Corp.’s Sky Princess, which dropped off its last passengers in Fort Lauderdale on March 14. At first, the company sent home colleagues whose contracts had already expired. But Sungaralingum, whose contract didn’t expire until June, remained on board rather than return to his home in Mauritius.
On March 25, crew were moved from their regular quarters to individual passenger cabins. Sungaralingum said he received his last paycheck on April 12. On April 25, he was transferred to the Island Princess ship at Great Isaac Cay in the Bahamas. In the interim, at least one fellow crew member tested positive for COVID-19, according to a captain’s announcement obtained by the Herald.
On May 1, the ship left the Bahamas for a global repatriation journey with 1,402 on board. The voyage will end in the Philippines in June.
Sungaralingum heard from colleagues aboard other ships that Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, was not allowing citizens to return home. The country has more than 300 cases of COVID-19, and 10 deaths. But Sungaralingum was hopeful that by the time the ship reached that part of the world in late May, his country would allow him and eight other Mauritians on the ship to disembark.
On May 6, Island Princess anchored offshore Fortaleza, Brazil, for refueling. Later that day, the long cross-Atlantic journey began.
The days have taken on a monotonous rhythm. Sungaralingum wakes up, gets his temperature checked, and eats breakfast in the dining hall from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. Then he goes back to his cabin and watches TV until the hour-long lunch break, at 11 a.m. Dinner is served at 5 in a communal area. Only a certain number of crew members are allowed in the gym at one time; Sungaralingum is assigned the slots from 9 to 11 a.m. and 9 to 10 p.m.
“In a prison you are confined in a space,” he said. “At least at home I will have my family. Here I am in a prison.”
Sungaralingum joined the cruise industry eight years ago to travel the world and to learn new things. He hasn’t decided if he will come back after this experience.
After just two days into the cross-Atlantic voyage, Sungaralingum learned that a colleague on Holland America Line’s Volendam ship received a notice from the Mauritian ministry of foreign affairs that it was denying re-entry to 25 citizens aboard that ship.
“After consultations with our health authorities, it has been deemed that, from a sanitary perspective, the current conditions may not be conductive for a return to Mauritius, either by airplane or ship, of our nationals who are working on — or who are passengers on — cruise liners,” the notice said.
The news sapped Sungaralingum’s hopes of going home. “We don’t know where we will end up, no one will accept us,” he said.
The ship anchored off of Cape Town, South Africa, on May 16, where it will stay for three days while the South African crew are tested. Sungaralingum and the other Mauritians will not be allowed off. If the Mauritius government denies them entry, the ship will continue to its next stop: India.
A spokesperson for Princess Cruises did not have an update about Sungaralingum’s situation. “Our team has been working extraordinarily hard on this situation as well as all others,” she said in an email.
“Our top priorities are compliance, environmental protection and the health and safety of our guests and crew,” said Carnival Corp. spokesperson Roger Frizzell.
On March 1, the 4,004-passenger Norwegian Bliss cruise ship headed out on a cruise from New York City. During the voyage, someone showed symptoms of the deadly disease. The ship reported the possible COVID-19 infection to the CDC, according to the agency, and returned to port as scheduled on March 8 to load up with new passengers for another cruise.
Both passengers and crew were largely unaware of the threat.
After the ship offloaded its last guests in New York City on March 15, Captain Karl Staffan Bengtsson made an announcement to crew that someone who had been on the ship recently had tested positive for COVID-19. At least two people who were on the ship — one passenger and one crew member — during the March cruises tested positive for the virus, the CDC said. One was just two years old.
In a recording of the announcement obtained by the Miami Herald, the captain said:
After they arrived at home from our previous cruise, they then tested positive for the COVID-19, the coronavirus...
In other words, we do not know if we possibly could have the virus at this time. However, on a good note, the ship desanitize... last turn around. We have not had any guest or any crew becoming ill with flu like symptoms, suspecting a possible spread of the virus. This means that is not to say that there is no risk. So if you indeed develop symptoms of a cold sore throat, dry cough, runny nose, sneezing, etc., then stay in your cabin and call the medical center. Do not go there until you are told to do so in order to prevent further spread.
A crew member who was enjoying the day off on the pool deck said he immediately felt unsafe. Another said he knew something was wrong. Both requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the company, which has threatened employees who speak with journalists.
Recordings of additional captain’s announcements show Norwegian Cruise Line repeatedly misled the crew on the Norwegian Bliss about the virus spreading around ship and failed to protect workers from infection. As more crew developed COVID-19 symptoms, the captain told the crew that they had the “common cold” and that all tested negative for COVID-19. Yet at least 100 people showed symptoms, 18 contracted pneumonia, and four were evacuated to Miami hospitals with the disease in late March and early April, according to the recordings of captain’s later announcements.
One spent weeks on a ventilator before recovering.
One Norwegian Bliss crew member told the Miami Herald, “I do understand lying to crew members on innocent issues, but at this time our lives have been put at risk and we had the right to know the truth. ..If they lie to crew so easily, do you think they will tell the truth to the passengers once we start sailing again?”
By the time all the passengers left the ship on March 15, the CDC had warned that cruise ships are exceptionally dangerous places for COVID-19 spread. A Miami Herald investigation found that at least 2,050 people who were on ships that left port before March 13 tested positive for the virus. By then, several people who became infected on cruise ships had already died. At least 76 people have died from the disease during or after a cruise, according to a Miami Herald analysis.
“The common sense now would have been to assume we have been infected and act accordingly,” one crew member from the Norwegian Bliss said. “But they decided to assume we are not infected.”
On March 17, the ship left its anchor near New York City and began sailing south to Miami. That day, the CDC issued its highest travel advisory for cruise ships, a first of its kind warning against all cruise ship travel worldwide.
Crew members say it would be another two weeks before they were moved from double crew quarters to individual cabins. In the meantime, some managers held large department gatherings where crew members stood close together. Crew had use of the passenger gym and gathered at live music performances and movie screenings.
The District, a brewery-style enclave on Deck 8 port-side with leather chairs and high top tables normally off limits to workers, hosted a party on March 20 to celebrate the captain’s upcoming birthday when the ship docked in Miami, one of the crew members said.
Four days later, on March 24, Bengtsson announced an outbreak of the “common cold.”
Being here in quarantine, we are, of course, completely free of the coronavirus. However, we have quite a number of so-called common cold cases and that’s why we maintain this stringent procedures with social gathering. Not more than 10 people, keep a distance, etc. etc., because we want to stem this cold from continue spreading around the ship...
Now, all the patients that you want, everybody that’s been coming down with a common cold syndromes, have been tested for the coronavirus. We have those tests on the board, so far and they’ve all been negative. So in other words, we know for sure that we do not have the virus....We are actually a lot better off here on the ship than the rest of the world.
After the announcement, all meetings on board were capped at 10 people, one of the crew members said. But more workers got sick.
“You could hear crew members coughing in their cabins at night,” one said.
Two days later, on March 26, Bengtsson announced that there was a “possible case of COVID -19 virus on board.”
...Possibly a case of COVID-19 virus on board. The crew member in question has been diagnosed with pneumonia and is under the circumstances doing well. The crew member will be transferred to a hospital here in Miami later today, we took care, where the crew member will also be tested to have the COVID-19 diagnosis confirmed. Needless to say our procedures on social distancing and strict hygiene practices, washing hands often, stays in place and they are now more important than ever.
Crew members say they wondered how there could be a possible COVID-19 case if the company had been testing those with symptoms for the disease all along. One said he asked the ship’s tailor to make him a mask. Crew members continued to sleep in shared cabins.
On March 30, Bengtsson announced that the ship had “quite a number of so-called common flu cases.”
Well as I’m sure you know, also we’ve had quite a number of so-called common flu cases, some influenza cases. But our strict quarantine procedure has paid off. And so these numbers have been reduced quite, quite significantly. And that’s a good, good thing to see. However, our social distancing procedures will still be in effect in order to continue to reduce that course. And also to try to kill a little bit of rumors here is that you read on social media and you hear that we’ve had a number of so-called COVID-19 cases on board the ship. These are mostly rumors.
We know we have the one confirmed case. So, yes, it is true that we did have one case of confirmed COVID-19, and that’s the crew member, patient, that has now being treated in Miami hospital. That’s the only one that has been confirmed. But then again, like I said, there was a lot of rumors flying around so I want you to just take that with a pinch of salt or two as there has not been any confirmation on that.
The crew members said that by March 31, everyone on board was moved to individual cabins. But by that point, it was too late.
Over the next four days, three more crew members would be quietly evacuated from the bowels of the ship and into ambulances waiting for them on the pier at PortMiami. Crew members continued to eat together in the passenger buffet area and the crew mess hall.
The U.S. Coast Guard said the ship notified the agency on March 28 and April 2 “about crew and/or hazardous conditions aboard,” even while it was telling crew members otherwise.
By April 4, at least 100 crew members were isolated with COVID-19 symptoms, some with pneumonia, the captain said.
Some of them most likely had been COVID-19, but not all of them...we know for sure that we have or at least had the COVID-19 on board. We have four crew members that we’ve had to send to a hospital in Miami. The latest one was yesterday. So for those of you who saw an ambulance yesterday on the pier, that was the fourth crew member going to hospital and they all developed pneumonia. We know for sure that one of the crew members had the COVID-19. That’s been confirmed by testing. We haven’t received tests from the other three. So we don’t know for sure....
I don’t know if you should be worried, but I don’t think it’s it’s wrong to be worried. I think the whole world is worried. We have a pandemic. The COVID virus is all around us. And if you’re worried, that’s fine. But I will argue that we are a lot better off here than you would be in your home community, because here we have strict protocol. And we also have a medical center that can attend to anybody that has any kind of symptoms.
On April 13, Bengtsson announced at least 18 of the sick crew had pneumonia.
“We have had another two new cases unfortunately, we had a good streak here in almost a week with no new cases, but then again, we had another two now that also developed pneumonia so that is bringing the isolated crew up to 20 from 18 yesterday and the pneumonia cases to 18 versus 16 yesterday. On the good note we have another two crew members who could leave the quarantine, they have now served their time if you want without developing any symptoms and they’re now out and about.
After repeatedly reassuring crew that their sick colleagues had tested negative for COVID-19, on April 22, Bengtsson announced that it is likely many of those who were sick had the disease, but the ship wasn’t doing any testing.
So all this together means that the Norwegian Cruise Line had taken the standpoint of not doing any testing here so we will not be doing any testing onboard the ship.
Norwegian Cruise Line did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
More than a week later, on April 30, a crew member from the Philippines who was evacuated from the ship in early April was wheeled down the hall of Larkin Community Hospital in Hialeah to applause from health care workers who had cared for him. Thanks to them, he had beat the disease.
“It’s almost a month that I am here at the hospital, in less than 24 hours on my first day I became unconscious and got my intubation and went critical,” he said in a Facebook post on April 30. “Subconsciously I struggled in pain, I even faced death but I can hear my wife and my children saying their names one by one to help me with prayers.”
A nightmarish timeline
Julia Whitcomb, 24, and Bruno Cruells, 30, met in November 2019 while living in the Florida International University dorms during rehearsals for their upcoming tour on the 2,170-passenger Celebrity Infinity, owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Both had worked on cruise ships for several years. Whitcomb, a singer from Illinois, describes Cruells as soft-spoken and level-headed. Cruells, a music director from Argentina, describes Whitcomb as brave and big-hearted.
Together, the couple spent 57 days trapped on board.
They were prepared for 14 days of isolation on board when the captain announced that a quarantine was required after the ship offloaded its last passengers in Miami on March 14. Someone who traveled on the ship’s second to last cruise out of Miami on March 5 tested positive for COVID-19, according to the CDC.
The first few passenger-less days felt like a vacation, the couple said. Crew were allowed access to what are normally no-go zones: the pools, hot tubs, spas, gyms, restaurants and bars. The musicians played in a different venue every night, and the production cast put on a full show of the musical “iBroadway” on March 20 for a crowd of a few hundred.
The scenario quickly changed. In the weeks that followed, they would be limited to a 12-foot by 12-foot windowless space with little information about when they might go home. They finally were moved to a cabin with a window, where the confinement continued as more crew got sick with COVID-19. Their day-by-day account details growing anxiety as plans for their departure repeatedly changed, and ship leadership delivered information that was factually inaccurate.
One of them eventually made it home. The other is still at sea.
Celebrity and it’s parent, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., did not comment on the situation.
MARCH 21: A security guard sat in front of a closed crew cabin door on Deck 2. On deck 3, another security guard kept eye on a row of closed crew cabin doors.
Whitcomb thought some crew members were being isolated because they weren’t feeling well, but shipboard officers had made no announcements about onboard risks of the virus or any confirmed cases.
MARCH 23: In a morning briefing over the loudspeaker, the cruise director announced that someone with COVID-19 symptoms had to be medically evacuated from the ship while it was anchored off of Tampa that day. Everyone was ordered to practice social distancing. The pools, hot tubs, spas, gyms, restaurants and bars closed. Twice-daily temperature checks were instituted.
That evening, the company announced that the sick crew member tested positive for COVID-19. Everyone on board would be limited to crew areas, including smaller, crowded crew dining halls. Whitcomb skipped dinner that night, fearing proximity would spread the virus.
MARCH 28: Crew members were ordered to stay in their cabins until further notice. For Whitcomb and Cruells, that meant a 150-square-foot windowless room. Meals were delivered three times a day with a knock on the door. Each came with a 500-milliter bottle of water — less than two cups. Twice a day a staffer came by to check their temperatures.
Julia Whitcomb, 24, from Illinois, and Bruno Cruells, 30, from Argentina spent their first five days of isolation aboard Royal Caribbean Cruises’ Celebrity Infinity ship in a windowless cabin. JULIA WHITCOMB
The tiny room quickly became a cell. “There was a zero tolerance policy for leaving the cabins at any time,” Whitcomb said.
Whitcomb’s eyes hurt, body felt heavy. Anxiety soared.
“The perception of time and mood became drastically affected,” Cruells said in a May 12 Facebook post summarizing their experience. “Julia cried daily. I comforted her, and I cried sometimes too.”
Crew members in need of toiletries and those with questions or concerns were instructed to dial “53” for guest relations. When Whitcomb and Cruells made inquiries to supervisors about when they would be going home, they found little empathy, they said.
Other crew members had been shifted to passenger cabins with windows or balconies; Whitcomb and Cruells requested a move. No more passenger cabins were available, they were told.
So Whitcomb and Cruells stayed in the dark — in more ways than one.
The couple was desperate for information. They had no idea how long they would be kept locked inside without fresh air, much less when they might again touch land.
MARCH 30: In a shipboard announcement, the captain advised crew members that anyone who contacted a journalist or posted on social media about their concerns could be fired.
The announcements triggered their desperation. “The sound of the telephone and the public announcements provoked a profound anguish each time we heard them,” Cruells posted on Facebook.
Whitcomb called her mom in Illinois, connecting her with the mother of an onboard colleague who had successfully lobbied Celebrity for a passenger cabin with a window. Whitcomb’s mother contacted a suite concierge with the company who was able to reach the ship.
APRIL 2: The ship’s HR manager called. Whitcomb and Cruells would move to a passenger cabin with a window.
That same day, the company confirmed a crew member from the ship died.
The window and the extra space provided much needed sensory relief. But the lack of information continued to drain them.
APRIL 9: After nearly 14 days of isolation, Whitcomb was told she would be going home when the ship docked in Miami four days later. Though the company has a legal obligation to pay for transportation home for crew, Whitcomb decided to buy a flight and coordinated with a friend in South Florida who agreed to drive her to the airport.
APRIL 13: The human resources manager called Whitcomb to tell her that she would not be leaving after all. The CDC no longer allowed commercial flights for crew and her Illinois home, 1,440 miles away, was too far for a private bus, she was told. A fellow crew member from North Carolina was let off in Miami that day and driven home on a bus with six others that continued on to Connecticut.
“Going from looking forward to seeing my family to then being right back to where I was before...was one of the hardest moments of my life,” she told the Miami Herald.
For two years, Whitcomb has battled an eating disorder, sparked by onboard weigh-ins for her job as a production cast vocalist. At its worst, the disorder caused Whitcomb to purge once or twice a week. Now, the purging became an almost-daily occurrence.
“I am hating this person I’m becoming,” she said in a summary of her experience shared with media. “I haven’t recognized myself through this process and am preparing myself for the amount of work I’ll have to do to recover from the effects of this place and time. I can’t sleep, I am hardly eating, and I have been drinking alcohol every day, and have been having irreversible ideas of how to make all of this end.”
The cabin isolation dragged on.
APRIL 16: Celebrity announced a three-day easing trial: crew would be allowed out of the cabins for three hours each day, one for each meal. Crew could only wander on Decks 10 and 11; masks were mandatory. If they followed the rules, the captain said they would have access to the full ship again on April 19.
APRIL 17: In the written “Crew Repatriation Weekly Update,” Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. wrote the CDC had “banned all flights for crew repatriation.” (The CDC would later confirm to the Miami Herald that it never banned crew repatriation flights.)
APRIL 18: The easing trial was deemed successful; in the evening, a packet with guidelines for utilizing full ship access was slipped under Whitcomb and Cruell’s door. They looked forward to a long walk the next day.
APRIL 19: The plan had been rescinded, the captain announced at 8:30 a.m., but gave no reason. Crew would be allowed out of their cabins only for meals, served in a passenger dining room.
Whitcomb’s mother contacted her U.S. senators and representatives, whose staffs promised to look into the situation.
APRIL 20: Whitcomb called the HR manager for an update on when she would be going home. She was again told Illinois was too far for a private bus and asked how Whitcomb was holding up. Whitcomb told him she was struggling and that her mental health was deteriorating.
The HR manager offered to connect Whitcomb with a ship therapist.
“At this point I felt betrayed by the cruise line industry so a ship therapist was the last kind of therapist I wanted to talk to,” she told the Miami Herald. “Also, since I was isolated in a cabin with my boyfriend, I knew that I would never be able to have a private conversation.”
Ten minutes later, the HR manager called her back to say that the company had arranged for her to leave the ship on April 29, when the ship would next visit Miami, via a private bus. Whitcomb called her mom to tell her the good news but warned her not to get her hopes up.
APRIL 21: The plan was off, the HR manager informed her.
APRIL 23: The shipboard “Crew Repatriation Weekly Update” again wrote that the CDC had banned all crew repatriation flights. For the first time, it included information for Argentines; Cruells would be flying home on April 30.
That same day, the CDC reiterated to cruise companies that they could use private transportation to repatriate crew from U.S. airports. The agency sent the companies a legal document for their executives to sign saying they would be held criminally liable if the process did not follow CDC’s rules.
In an email explaining why she wouldn’t be allowed off the ship in Miami during the upcoming docking, the HR manager misspelled Whitcomb’s name, adding to her distress.
“Hi Julie,” the email said. “We will continue to work with CDC and CBP on the request to sign off. As soon as we learn more and can give you safe transport home we will communicate to the same.”
APRIL 24: Whitcomb had begun experiencing intense anxiety attacks. “I can confirm that I am in that very dark space all over again,” she said told media via email. “I feel hopeless and have been questioning my existence in general lately.”
In an effort to elevate her concerns, Whitcomb posted on her Facebook page asking if any of her friends had contacts at the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun-Times.
APRIL 25: The HR manager called to remind Whitcomb of the company’s social media guidelines against speaking to journalists.
APRIL 26: Celebrity parent Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. again told crew members in its written update about crew repatriation that the CDC had banned all crew repatriation flights.
APRIL 27: By now, the congressional staffs contacted by Whitcomb’s mother confirmed that the CDC was allowing charter flights provided cruise executives first signed the CDC’s legal agreement.
Whitcomb posted a Facebook live video. “My main priority is getting off the ship and I’m going to do whatever I need to get off the ship. I will not stop posting on social media no matter who reports me, who threatens me, who reminds me of the social media policy...I need to go home.”
APRIL 28: Knowing the next day’s Miami docking was her only chance to get off before the ship headed back to sea for its next two-week rotation, Whitcomb again called HR to request she be let off. The company set up a meeting with the hotel director.
In a Facebook live video after the meeting, a sobbing Whitcomb said the hotel director blamed the CDC.
“When we talked to him it was more of the same sort of thing about the CDC really pushing against them and not allowing us to leave and saying the CDC is the biggest struggle right now,” she said. “I begged and I pleaded and said I really need to go home because my mental and emotional state is really bad and I’m past the point of recognizing some of the feelings I’ve been feeling, thoughts I’ve been having...I’m in desperate need of going home and being on land and being out of this environment.”
APRIL 29: The Infinity docked in Miami. The company again sent a written update to crew saying the CDC had banned all crew repatriation flights. The announcement said Cruells would instead be flying home on May 3.
At 4 p.m., just as the ship was scheduled to leave, the HR manager called Whitcomb and told her to pack her things; the company was going to hold the ship at PortMiami until 10:00 p.m. so that she could disembark. She went to the financial office and closed out her accounts.
Around 6 p.m. a doctor called Whitcomb and asked if she could come to her room. Whitcomb said yes, assuming this would be her final temperature check before leaving. The doctor showed up with a nurse. Both stood outside the cabin door with their backs against the opposite wall across the hall.
The doctor asked Whitcomb if she was OK. Whitcomb explained she was extremely anxious because the company was giving her confusing and contradictory information.
The doctor asked if she was suicidal. “Not right now,” Whitcomb said.
The doctor offered her the opportunity to be medically evacuated from the ship to have psychiatric testing in a hospital in Fort Lauderdale. Whitcomb declined the offer and told the doctor that she was scheduled to get off the ship to go home that evening. The doctor said she didn’t know anything about that.
Whitcomb and Cruells shared an emotional goodbye.
Around 8:30 p.m., Whitcomb got a call from Human Resources telling her that the company’s legal department would not agree to the CDC’s terms, preventing her from getting off the ship.
“They took it all back,” she said, distraught, on a phone call with the Miami Herald as the ship left Miami that night around 9:00 p.m.
That same day, executives at sister company Royal Caribbean signed the CDC’s legal form to disembark the cruise director of its Liberty of the Seas ship in Galveston, Texas, and provided a private car to take him home to Memphis, Tennessee, 615 miles away.
Cruise company officials told the CDC that they were largely refusing to sign the agreement with the agency because providing private transportation is too expensive, according to Dr. Martin Cetron, the CDC’s director of the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, who spoke with the Miami Herald two days later.
Whitcomb and Cruells went back out to sea.
APRIL 30: Cruells’ May 3 flight home has been canceled, according to the company’s written crew update.
MAY 3: Royal Caribbean’s CEO Michael Bayley and Celebrity Cruises’ CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo sent letters to the crew saying they would sign the agreements with the CDC to repatriate people as quickly as possible despite reservations about being held liable for the repatriation process.
“We have decided that the importance of getting you home is so great that we will sign these documents as they are written today to help get you off the ships,” wrote Bayley.
* * *
On May 7, Royal Caribbean signed the required document for Whitcomb and one other American to disembark. On May 8, the company transferred Cruells to another ship, the Celebrity Reflection, at its private island in the Bahamas, and told him he would be flying to Argentina from Barbados on May 15.
Whitcomb was now alone in the cabin they had shared together for 41 days.
“The breath is knocked out of me and my heart is barely beating. I’ve never felt pain like this in my whole life,” she wrote on Facebook.
On May 9, the Celebrity Infinity returned to Miami. Whitcomb walked off the ship on to the pier at PortMiami, and boarded a 25-passenger bus.
“Oh my gosh, trees,” she said in a Facebook live video, looking out the window at Miami as the hired van drove over the port bridge. “I haven’t seen a tree in so long.”
The next 24 hours were spent in the van with two drivers, on her way to her home town of Belvidere, Illinois.
MAY 10: Whitcomb’s parents huddled next to her under an umbrella at the local fairgrounds as friends and neighbors greeted her in a drive-by welcome parade. She will be quarantined at her cousin’s house away from her family until May 24.
* * *
Meanwhile, despite Royal Caribbean’s assurances that Cruells would be flying home May 15 from Barbados, his fate remained uncertain. The Argentine embassy in Barbados told him via email on May 9, “There are not any flights planned from Barbados.”
When Cruells checked in with an HR manager on May 10, she said via email that the ship was scheduled to arrive to Barbados on May 16 or May 17, so his flight home would be postponed.
MAY 11: Three days after moving to the Celebrity Reflection, the company again moved Cruells, this time to the Celebrity Equinox. Again, he found himself trapped in a windowless crew cabin, but this time even smaller. The bed folds up against the wall, and the toilet is inside the shower.
MAY 12: Cruells was told he will be transferred back to Celebrity Reflection on May 13 to fly from Barbados to Argentina on May 28.
MAY 13: The ship transfer was canceled due to bad weather.
MAY 15: Cruells moved back to Celebrity Reflection ship to a room with a balcony.
“Now that so many people are home, I look forward to going back to mine and drinking mate looking out the window: that portal whose importance I once took for granted,” he said.
Miami Herald reporter Sarah Blaskey contributed to this story.
• • •
Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage
GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information, six days a week
LOCAL RESTAURANTS: The updated database of Tampa Bay restaurants open for dine-in or takeout
UNEMPLOYMENT Q&A: We answer your questions about Florida unemployment benefits
BRIGHT SPOTS IN DARK TIMES: The world is hard right now, but there’s still good news out there
LISTEN TO THE CORONAVIRUS PODCAST: New episodes every week, including interviews with experts and reporters
HAVE YOU LOST SOMEONE YOU LOVE TO COVID-19?: Help us remember them
HAVE A TIP?: Send us confidential news tips
We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.