The scariest thing is just the unknown, say stranded cruise ship crew
For close to a month, Matthew Gordon has been living in an 7.4-square-metre windowless cabin, stranded at sea with thousands of fellow crew members after their cruise ships' passengers departed.
Aboard the MS Volendam off the coast of the Bahamas, Gordon said each day starts with a reminder from the captain about the importance of social distancing and, recently, a plea for understanding as the cooks, pending new supplies, work through what's left of the food.
Gordon had grown used to the fried fish heads that have become a lunch staple, but a recent toothache – on a ship with no dentist – made chewing so unbearable that he's turned to a liquid diet while he waits to hear how he will get back home to Augusta, Georgia.
"We have nowhere to go. It's indefinite. We have no idea when we are coming home," said Gordon, a 27-year-old singer and dancer in the ship's cabaret shows. "The scariest thing is just the unknown."
The Volendam has not had a reported coronavirus outbreak, but the ship, operated by Holland America Line, has been caught for weeks, like other vessels, in travel restrictions and denials to dock at ports across the globe by officials alarmed by infections and deaths linked to cruise travel.
Scenes of testing kits being airlifted on to ships and passengers being medevaced off them commanded worldwide attention since the cruise crisis struck. But left behind are nearly 80 000 crew members stuck on about 100 cruise ships in or near US ports, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Twenty-four of those ships have known or suspected infection among the remaining crew, said the CDC, which on Thursday extended a no-sail order for up to 100 days for cruise ships in US waters.
The order calls for a halt of all cruise line activity on ships with capacity to carry 250 or more, including crew members, while the industry is required to put forward a new comprehensive plan to address a range of concerns including surveillance and reporting of illness on board, testing procedures, onboard medical care, and evacuation logistics.
Ships sit off the West Coast, the East Coast and the Gulf Coast, the CDC said. And they wait off the shores of other nations, including Australia, where sharp responses to outbreaks on ships have included a police team investigation of the Ruby Princess and its Miami-based owner Carnival after 15 passenger deaths and some 660 infected people from the vessel became the biggest individual contributor to covid-19 cases on that continent.
For marooned crews and cruise lines, port closures and flight restrictions have further complicated efforts to repatriate staff members. In some cases, cruise liners have resorted to sailing for days to drop crew members off at ports in their home countries.
"Sometimes in a global crisis such as this, caution and fear can take over in some people in some countries, and what would normally be a basic level of human decency to allow these men and women into a port to be able return to their homes – yet surprisingly it has been denied by some countries in recent weeks," said Roger Frizzell, a senior vice president for Carnival.
So, crews sit, waiting to be helped back home by an industry that the CDC in its order accused of not sufficiently controlling the scope of the coronavirus outbreak and of relying too heavily on federal, state and local resources as passengers and crew members became sick.
In interviews, six crew members on four ships left at sea shared stories of captains shoring up morale and an intense camaraderie that has formed amid overwhelming uncertainty.
Erika Butters, a singer on the Nieuw Statendam, remains stuck at sea off the coast of the Bahamas with her husband, who is the ship's second mate, and their 2-year-old son.
Butters, 34, said they've been happy on board and has posted videos of herself singing to Facebook while they await permission to enter a port. "With all my family and friends stuck at home I wanted a way to lift spirits and show we are all okay," she said in an interview.
Some ships are being restocked at sea as a result of having to stay far from land.
And while workers on some ships have been told they will continue to be paid, others have been told their wages will taper. Still others have been told their pay will end when their contracts are up – even if companies haven't yet been able to find a way to get them off their ship.
In a letter last week from Holland America, for example, the company expressed deep gratitude for its staff's resilience and determination but noted the "unprecedented situation" that has cruise travel on hold.
Crew members needed for the safe operations and manning of the ship might be asked to extend their contracts, the letter stated. "For everyone else, as contracts end, we will make every effort to repatriate them home, understanding that current travel restrictions may significantly limit our ability to make this happen, and some people may need to remain onboard in an unpaid status."
They would have room, food, medical care and access to communications, the letter stated, and would not be asked or permitted to work.