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Monday, February 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘A luxury prison camp’: Washingtonians on cruise ships held captive by coronavirus, uncertainty

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 12, 2020

In this Feb. 11, 2020,  photo, medical workers with protective suites walk away from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, near Tokyo. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
In this Feb. 11, 2020, photo, medical workers with protective suites walk away from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, near Tokyo. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
By Nicole Brodeur Seattle Times

The idea was to see Asia, a continent Susan Anabel had always wondered about. The people. The food. All of it.

Instead, the Marysville, Washington, woman has been confined to her windowless cabin aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, on which 218 people, including 25 Americans, have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus, also referred to as a coronavirus.

“She is in an inside room with no window, no balcony. It’s just four walls,” said Anabel’s son, Jeffrey, of Lake Stevens, Washington. “It’s more like being in a prison than on a cruise, at this point.”

The Princess Cruise Lines ship, carrying 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew members, set sail from Hong Kong on Jan. 25. A week later, an 80-year-old passenger tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. When the ship arrived in Yokohama, Japan, two days later, passengers were forbidden from disembarking.

Initially, 62 passengers were diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus. On Wednesday, Japan’s ministry of health said that number had jumped to 218. The ship is now halfway through a two-week quarantine at Daikoku Pier at the port of Yokohama, and is host to the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases outside China, where the outbreak started.

“I was on the phone with my mom when the captain came on and said there were 66 more cases,” Jeffrey Anabel said. “It’s funny, at first she thought 14 more days on a cruise wouldn’t be so bad. But then reality set in.”

Those who have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus are allowed to leave the ship for treatment. But those who are healthy must stay put to prevent exposure.

The crew delivers three meals a day to passengers’ rooms, as well as thermometers so passengers can monitor their temperatures. The ship has also provided free movies and other entertainment on its on-board television channels, and delivered activities like origami, crossword and coloring books to passengers’ rooms.

The ship has also started laundry service, since passengers only packed enough clothes for two weeks, Anabel said.

Susan Anabel declined to be interviewed this week. But in an interview with KING5, she spoke of the morning of Feb. 4, when she learned that her two-week vacation was being extended into something like solitary confinement:

“The captain came over the intercom and said that everybody needs to stay in their room,” Anabel said. “ ‘We are awaiting further information from Japan officials.’ So that’s when we knew that we were not going to be going home.”

She has been on more than 20 cruises and has elite status with the cruise company. She is on the cruise solo, which her son said “may have been a blessing.”

“This is what she loves to do,” he said. “My mom is very strong, and is generally very happy. I don’t think she’s in a bad mood; she’s just trying to get through it, and what can you do?

“She wanted to do this one. And look where it got her.”

Meanwhile, somewhere off the coast of Thailand, Lydia and John Miller of Orcas Island have been walking 10 miles a day around the deck of the Holland America Westerdam, which was refused entry to five ports because of concerns about the coronavirus – even though no onboard cases have been confirmed.

The Millers – who own Pebble Cove Farm, an inn and animal sanctuary – left Singapore Jan. 16 on the cruise line’s “30 Day Far East Discovery Tour,” which was scheduled for stops in Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan, Japan, the Phillipines, South Korea and China. They imagined night markets and Buddhist temples, riding in tuk tuks and eating all kinds of new foods.

Even better, the cruise promised “very few sea days,” Lydia Miller said in an interview.

Ten days into the trip, concerns about the COVID-19 virus started to rise when the disembarkation point of Shanghai was changed to Yokohama, Japan.

“Everyone was speculating, sharing rumors, articles read online and news from family and friends,” Lydia Miller said. “Unbeknownst to us, we had entered Dr Seuss’ ‘The Waiting Place.’ ”

In Hong Kong, 1,254 passengers finishing their trip got off and 768 new passengers got on. Hong Kong was designated as a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Watch Level 1, which required only that passengers were up-to-date on all recommended vaccines.

The Millers spent that first day off the boat, exploring Hong Kong, which did not seem affected by the virus – although many people wore masks and there were long lines outside pharmacies to buy more.

Once back on board, they learned there wouldn’t be a second day in Hong Kong, and that the ship was headed to Manila, in the Philippines. But the ship was refused because of concerns about the virus.

The ship was scheduled to have two days in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, but those, too, were canceled when the government there wouldn’t let passengers disembark. The boat sat at the dock for hours.

“We left Kaohsiung that afternoon,” Lydia Miller said, “unaware that it would be our last stop.”

Since then, the ship has been denied entry to ports in Japan and in Bangkok, Thailand, even though there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus on board. On Wednesday morning, Holland America tweeted that the ship was finally heading for Cambodia, where it has gained approval to let passengers disembark.

“The ship is not in quarantine and we have no reason to believe there are any cases of coronavirus on board the ship,” Holland America spokesperson Sally Andrews said in an earlier statement. “We know this is confusing for our guests and their families and we greatly appreciate their patience.”

Patience is an understatement, Lydia Miller said.

A few days ago, Holland America gave everyone free Wi-Fi and phone calls, but because so many passengers are online, the internet is slow and it is difficult to make calls.

“We are floating on a luxury prison camp,” Miller said.

But the Millers are making the best of it, she said, and are feeling “very thankful” not to be quarantined to their cabin.

“There is definitely a feeling of camaraderie among the passengers,” Lydia Miller said. “We’re all in the same boat, literally.“

All guests will receive a 100% refund for the 14-day sailing, Andrews said, as well as a 100% future cruise credit.

But whether the Millers would be willing to go on another cruise anytime soon remains to be seen.

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