Ocean cruise held at sea amid coronavirus finally comes to end

photosvit/iStock
photosvit/iStock

(HONOLULU) — Nearly 2,000 anxious passengers aboard a crippled Norwegian Cruise Line ship that has been turned away from multiple emergency ports of call due to the coronavirus pandemic disembarked in Honolulu on Monday amid a stay-at-home order for local residents.

None of the passengers or crew members aboard the Norwegian Jewel are believed to have contracted the virus, but they are under strict orders to go from ship to chartered planes immediately to prevent them from mingling with locals, officials said.

“It’s a huge sense of relief,” passenger Jay Martinez, 27, of North Dakota told ABC News on Monday. “It’s been quite an ordeal.”

Martinez and his wife, Carmen, who got married on Feb. 19, were on their honeymoon when the pandemic rapidly spread from nation to nation triggering a global health crisis.

The tech savvy Martinez said that instead of griping, he set up a command center in his cabin to help older passengers stay in contact with their relatives and to lobby politicians and other government leaders in Hawaii to allow an emergency point to disembark after they were turned away from three previous ports.

“A couple of nights ago we spent our one month anniversary on this ship helping folks out,” Martinez told ABC News when reached by cellphone on the ship. “This is not the honeymoon we anticipated, but it’s one that we’ll never forget, for sure.”

Hawaii initially balked at allowing the Norwegian Jewel to disembark passengers, but then one of the ship’s engines conked out, causing the vessel to experience “major” propulsion problems, officials said. Over the weekend, Hawaiian officials gave the ship permission to enter Honolulu Harbor and devised a strict plan to offload the 1,700 passengers.

“A detailed plan is being developed with Norwegian Cruise Line that keeps passengers isolated to avoid any potential strain on Hawaii’s resources, while also addressing the well-being of the cruise line passengers who have been at sea for a very long time,” Jade Butay, director of the Hawaii Department of Transportation, said in a statement Sunday evening. “Because of the additional precautions we are taking in response to the COVID-19 crisis, it will take some time to transport these passengers safely to their chartered planes and we thank the public for its cooperation and understanding.”

Tim Sakahara, spokesman for the Hawaii Department of Transportation, told ABC News on Monday that passengers began to disembark at 7 a.m. local time. He said that before leaving the ship, passengers were screened for symptoms of coronavirus and then screened again by medical personnel inside the harbor terminal before being loaded onto chartered buses and taken to the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu to catch special chartered flights home.

Sakahara said Norwegian Cruise Line has chartered flights on Monday and Tuesday to Los Angeles, Sydney, London, Vancouver and Frankfurt, Germany.

The ship entered Honolulu Harbor on Sunday afternoon. The Jewel is the last ship in the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet with guests still aboard, according to the company.

“We are so very thankful to our Hawaiian partners and friends, especially Governor David Ige, Attorney General Clare Connors and Hawaii Department of Transportation Director Jade Butay and Deputy Director Derek Chow for their assistance in developing a coordinated disembarkation plan, which keeps both guests and Hawaii residents safe and secure,” Harry Sommer, president and chief executive officer of Norwegian Cruise Line, said in a statement. “The spirit of Aloha is alive and well.”

On Sunday, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell issued an emergency order requiring residents, except for essential employees, to stay at home. He also directed tourists to stay away. Similar edicts have been issued in other states and major cities hard hit by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic, including New York, California and Washington.

As of Sunday evening, Hawaii had recorded 56 positive COVID-19 cases, most of them in Honolulu, according to the state’s Department of Public Health.

What was originally scheduled to be a stress-free, 23-day cruise from Australia to Fiji and French Polynesia, had turned into a 25-day stressful voyage for the passengers, Martinez said.

The journey started on Feb. 28 in Sydney, Australia. The last time passengers were allowed to disembark was in Fiji on March 11, according to Sakahara.

All cruise ships are on a 30-day pause in operations, which took effect on March 14, but cruises already at sea either ended their itinerary or continued on to their next destination.

The Cruise Lines International Association said that about 40 ships with 90,000 passengers were at sea when President Donald Trump announced a ban last week that restricts travel by many foreigners to the U.S.

Martinez said he his wife are scheduled to leave the Norwegian Jewel on Tuesday afternoon and board a chartered flight to Los Angeles. From there, passengers have to make their own arrangements to get home, he said.

He said he was pretty sure no one on the cruise contracted the virus.

“Essentially, we served our self-isolation at sea from the last time we touched down on land,” Martinez said, noting that the ship has been at sea for nearly 14 straight days searching for an emergency port to disembark.

Martinez called the crew members the “heroes of the day” for keeping them all safe.

“I mean,” Martinez said, “those guys were cleaning everything and anything every half-hour.”

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