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Hawaiian vacation turns into quarantine for Spokane couple who remain in limbo on cruise ship

Nancy and David Holmes, along with other passengers  aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship, were issued masks that they were instructed to wear when they answered their door for meals and when they disembarked from the vessel. (Courtesy of Nancy and David Holm)
Nancy and David Holmes, along with other passengers aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship, were issued masks that they were instructed to wear when they answered their door for meals and when they disembarked from the vessel. (Courtesy of Nancy and David Holm)

It wasn’t their first cruise.

In fact, Nancy and David Holmes had been on 53 Princess cruises before they boarded the Grand Princess in February.

But their latest voyage was unlike any of those that came before.

And they had a sense it might be different.

Before setting sail, the Holmeses checked the news and saw the chaos as U.S. agencies struggled to repatriate citizens disembarking in Japan after a coronavirus outbreak aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

The Holmeses felt better about their cruise on the Grand Princess because it was U.S.-based, but they still packed for the possibility of something going awry.

“Even though we opted to go ahead and get on a Princess ship, we were fully aware of the Diamond Princess issues,” David Holmes said. “We loaded up some extra books just in case.”

The retired Spokane couple flew from Spokane to San Francisco on Feb. 21 to board the ship for a two-week Hawaii expedition that typically makes a stop in Mexico on the return voyage before sailing up the California coast.

For the first week, they enjoyed their cruise as they always have. The weather was beautiful, and it only rained for a little bit on one day. The Holmeses enjoyed the ports and beaches throughout Hawaii, as they had on the six or seven other times they had sailed the same route.

The return voyage across the Pacific Ocean brought choppy waters, and David described 30-foot swells that the couple could see from their balcony room.

The Grand Princess was supposed to sail to Ensenada, Mexico, before landing in San Francisco on March 6. That plan changed on March 4.

“We got an announcement from the captain saying that someone sailing on the previous (cruise) on this ship had gotten the coronavirus,” Nancy Holmes said. “So they took measures and canceled group activities for the evening.”

Princess officials announced a cluster of COVID-19 cases in Northern California were tied to the previous Grand Princess voyage.

After lunch the next day, all 2,422 guests on board were quarantined in their rooms, where they have been ever since, until state and federal agencies determined which port the cruise ship would land in and who needed to be tested. The Holmeses have been confined to their room with a balcony for nearly a week. Meals have been brought to their room three times a day by staff.

The Holmeses eventually learned federal officials were airlifting 45 COVID-19 test kits to the ship. Of those tested, 21 had the respiratory disease; 19 of those who tested positive were part of the crew.

As a result, all U.S. passengers of the Grand Princess entered into the realm of mandatory quarantine by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As for the Holmeses, they thought they would be off the boat by Wednesday, but by press time, their group had not been called to disembark.

Their bags were taken earlier in the day, and they were told they would find out which military base they were headed to right before they left. By Wednesday evening, they had heard Washington state might be involved in trying to get them home, but they remained in limbo.

The couple had very few complaints about their onboard quarantine.

Nancy said she would get up and shower and do her hair, despite the knowledge she would not be going anywhere. Passengers had access to the internet, movies and TV shows without charge.

From the beginning of the quarantine, the Holmeses suspected they would not get off the cruise ship quickly.

Passengers began disembarking on Monday, and the Holmes said sick passengers disembarked first, followed by California residents. Passengers leaving the Grand Princess face quarantine in one of four military bases: Lackland Air Force Base in Texas; Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Georgia; Travis Air Force Base outside Sacramento; or Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego. Once they arrive at a base, they will be handed mandatory quarantine orders from the CDC.

The Spokane couple witnessed safety precautions on board the Grand Princess increasing over four days as their cruise ship sailed in circles off the coast of San Francisco while federal and state officials refused to let the vessel dock.

Initially, crew members coming to their rooms were not gloved or masked, they said, but by Tuesday evening, everyone was masked and gloved. The Holmeses were given masks to wear every time they answered the door for their meals and for when they disembark. On Monday, they got a knock on the door from two people in full personal protective equipment, in white suits with big hoods.

They asked how the couple’s health was. So far, both Nancy and David feel fine.

“We feel normal, and we don’t have any signs of anything,” Nancy said. “You wake up and think, ‘Oh my gosh, did I cough,’ and feel kind of nervous.”

Eventually, officials announced the Grand Princess would dock in Oakland. Describing the scene they witnessed from their balcony, the Holmeses said they felt like they were the bad guys in a movie. Police boats flanked the massive ship, with helicopters whirring overhead. It was a beautiful day in the bay, David said, and as the cruise ship passed the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz it felt surreal to the couple. They could watch the ship move on their television and out their balcony window.

“We felt like we were the epicenter of evil or something,” David said.

The couple gives a lot of credit to the Princess staff and crew members for going to extreme lengths to make them comfortable, although they acknowledge that having a balcony and being able to go outside made the quarantine a lot easier. They feel sorry for passengers who had interior rooms with no windows or a window that did not open.

Princess will refund all passengers for the cruise as well as all onboard expenses guests incurred, unless they bought jewelry or art, the Holmeses said. Their airline did not charge them cancellation fees for their missed plane tickets, which they bought with miles. They were supposed to be back in Spokane on March 7. Their vacation-turned-mandatory-quarantine could last well into March, at this point.

Regardless, the couple remains in good spirits, although they both expressed hesitation in how federal agencies have communicated their next steps.

If they are eventually taken to a military base, they will be issued a mandatory quarantine order from the CDC, which could be revised within 72 hours. They can choose to be tested for COVID-19 at the military installation, but if they test positive, they will be detained by CDC officials accordingly.

The Holmes sounded optimistic as they tucked into what they thought was their last meal on board the Grand Princess on Tuesday night. Crew members delivered meatballs, potatoes and salad along with gin and soda.

Keeping up with local news, the couple mused it is odd to be at the epicenter of a potential outbreak of COVID-19 nationally.

“Everybody is learning. I think the CDC, they are learning how to do this, and I think they will get way better,” David said.

“It’s a huge logistical nightmare, we get that,” Nancy said. “We’re trying to be patient. We give Princess a lot of credit; they’ve taken care of the passengers, and the government is making this up as we go.”

As of Wednesday night, the Holmeses were still aboard the cruise ship and in their room, awaiting further instructions from the ship’s captain.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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