Gina Pallotta and Michael Neky were in a celebratory mood as they boarded the Grand Princess in San Francisco on a warm afternoon in late February.
As the Grand Princess and its 3,533 passengers and crew pushed off from Pier 27 in San Francisco around 4 p.m., news about the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, had just begun dominating headlines. New cases were ticking upward worldwide, and hope of containment was diminishing. Passengers aboard the Diamond Princess, a sister ship operated by Carnival Corp.'s Princess Cruises, remained marooned off the coast of Japan after 700 people had been exposed to the flu-like disease.
The news had worried Pallotta, and she and Neky, 63, had briefly considered canceling their cruise. But Carnival had assured her that they were screening everyone boarding the ship, barring anyone from countries where the virus had taken hold. There were other precautions being taken, too. Informational signs and bottles of hand sanitizer had been placed strategically around parts of the ship.
Her concerns eased, Pallotta and Neky settled into their state room on the ship's Dolphin Deck. They were touched to see that the ship's crew had hung a special "Happy Anniversary!" banner across their doorway.
It was to be a routine voyage for the Grand Princess, which carried 1,111 crew, 2,397 adults and 25 children from 54 countries. As it sailed out of San Francisco Bay on Feb. 21, guests anticipated a relaxing 15-day cruise through the Hawaiian islands, followed by a stop in Baja California, before returning to the Bay Area on March 7.
Earlier that day, all but 62 passengers had exited the 951-foot ship, which had just completed a cruise to the Mexican Riviera. Among them was a 71-year-old man from Rocklin in Placer County, about 20 miles northeast of Sacramento. He left the boat with flu-like symptoms, as did several other passengers.
The man's symptoms would prove to be a cononavirus infection. And in the days ahead, efforts to contain its spread on the Grand Princess would test the thousands of people trapped onboard. The ship, essentially a 107-ton floating city, would end up circling for days near the Farallon Islands as government officials decided how to deal with those aboard after 21 people, including 19 crew members and two passengers, would test positive for the highly contagious disease.
Sequestered in their staterooms, passengers, most of them elderly, would watch the news on their televisions, hoping for updates as the ship's captain became increasingly frustrated by breakdowns in communication with government officials on shore. More than a dozen passengers would recount their experiences to The Chronicle, describing moments that ranged from mere annoyance to fears they'd been abandoned, even possibly sentenced to their deaths.
But on Feb. 21, the crisis was still a week off. The Grand Princess slipped under the Golden Gate Bridge and pushed through the fog toward Hawaii.
It was two days into the cruise, and a retired estate planning attorney from Walnut Creek was hoping friends and the ship's staff would not make a fuss about his birthday. Cliff Egan was turning 90 on this cruise — his 43rd sea voyage. But it was the first he was making without Grete, his beloved wife, who had recently died in her sleep. He didn't want any special attention.
Egan had booked a room near an elevator on the Aloha Deck. Suffering from equilibrium issues, he relied on a cane, and didn't want to walk any farther than he had to. For his Feb. 23 birthday, two friends ushered him into the Crown Grill. He ordered lobster and, to his relief, the waiters never learned of the special occasion.
The five-day trip across the Pacific Ocean was easy enough, though the weather remained chilly and overcast. As the Grand Princess arrived in Hawaii, Egan decided to stay aboard, attending afternoon lectures on nature and film history. In the evenings, there was always a show of some kind. He especially enjoyed the juggling act. Grete would have liked it too, he thought.
Other passengers, like Nancy LaPointe, would go ashore. A retired Chrysler employee, LaPointe, 76, had packed a half-dozen books with a plan of spending "sea days" reading and watching for dolphins on her private balcony on the aptly-named Dolphin Deck. The Poplar Grove, Ill., resident considered herself an avid "cruiser." This was already her third voyage of the year.
"If you've never cruised, it's the best vacation ever," she said. "When you get on the ship, you unpack once, and then you're good to go." It was always a tranquil experience for LaPointe, a cancer survivor with autoimmune issues, and her husband, Jim, who is a diabetic.
But once in Hawaii, she was ready to go shopping. When the Grand Princess reached Kauai, she and Jim disembarked. They bought chocolate macadamia nuts, then stopped at Walmart to stock up on elderberry, an herbal supplement that can alleviate cold and flu symptoms.
Joyce and Wai Li, a retired couple from Oahu, also visited Kauai, booking a river cruise and exploring its famed Fern Grotto. They were on the Aloha Deck, too, but in an interior cabin without windows or a private balcony. They'd been visiting their son, Keane, in San Francisco.
On Feb. 29, the Grand Princess left Hawaii for Ensenada, Mexico, its last stop before returning to San Francisco. Pallotta and her husband celebrated their anniversary, splurging on a special dinner during the ship's Formal Night. She wore a sparkly dress and a jeweled bracelet for the occasion. Their concerns about the coronavirus hadn't completely vanished, however. Nervous about picking up germs, the couple had avoided the buffet, which was flanked by bottles of hand sanitizer.
On Wednesday, March 4, Pallotta noticed that things had suddenly changed in the dining room. Bread baskets had been removed from the dining tables. Waiters now wore masks and gloves as they dished out the food from the buffet. Passengers could no longer salt and pepper their own food. Crew members did it for them.
After lunch, the captain made a special announcement over the public address system. The cruise was being cut short. There would be no stop in Baja California the next day, as planned.
"We started hearing that something strange was going on," Pallotta said. "We were almost to Mexico when the captain advised us to stay in our rooms. When we heard that, we immediately bought bottled water and snacks. We knew we were going to get quarantined."
What passengers on the Grand Princess didn't know yet was that same day, the ailing 71-year-old Rocklin man who had left the ship 12 days before had died after contracting the coronavirus, becoming California's first fatality from the disease.
Public health authorities rushed to track down passengers who had been on the 10-day voyage to the Mexican Riviera with him earlier in February—a task that would take weeks. More than 60 of those now on the Grand Princess were among them.
Now, at least 21 people were experiencing symptoms that could indicate they had been infected. On shore, the situation was also becoming dire. At least 62 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in California, with clusters occurring in Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties. The number of kits to test for the virus lagged.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency. At a press conference, he announced that the state would "provide as much time as needed to secure the safety of everyone on board" the Grand Princess.
But on the ship, Pallota and the thousands of other passengers and staff wouldn't hear of the coronavirus death until hours later. At around 9 p.m., the captain announced that helicopters would drop off coronavirus test kits in the morning, with 46 people to be tested.
"Public health officials have advised that no guests will be permitted to disembark until all results have been received," Princess Cruises said in a press release at the time. "Out of an abundance of caution, all guests who have been identified for testing have been asked to remain in their staterooms."
Until then, the Grand Princess was to remain at sea.
On the morning of Thursday, March 5, Joyce and Wai Li updated their son in San Francisco on the ship's movement. Activities continued on the Grand Princess mostly as usual, including the daily bible study, though bingo had been canceled.
As passengers gathered on the lower decks to watch two National Guard helicopters drop off the virus test kits, Egan managed to snap a few photos. The Li couple also recorded a video, sending it to their son. A few hours later, the black copters would return to pick up the samples and take them to a laboratory in Richmond.
When passengers arrived for breakfast in the dining room, the crew suggested that they keep an empty seat between them, and maintain a 6-foot distance from other passengers at all other times. The Lis remained optimistic, though, that they would still dock on Saturday in San Francisco as planned.
LaPointe was less sure. She knew the Grand Princess maintained a small library; she'd donated about 30 novels to it over the years. She decided she'd grab a few extra books, just in case. A few hours later, at lunch, the captain made another announcement: Everyone was to return to their staterooms and isolate themselves immediately.
LaPointe knew that was bad news. "With more than 200 days, at least, on this cruise line alone, I knew this was not normal procedure," she said. "You knew something was up."
Pallotta and Neky, the couple celebrating their anniversary, had guessed right. The Grand Princess had been placed under quarantine on a recommendation from officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A second coronavirus death, likely linked to the ship, had occurred in Santa Clara County. New infections were being reported across the state, indicating that the outbreak was widening.
Pallotta and Neky returned to their room on the Dolphin Deck, as did the LaPointes. The Lis and Egan retreated to the Aloha Deck. Crew members in masks slipped room service menus under stateroom doors. Even in lockdown, passengers could order delicacies like twice-baked goat cheese souffle and seafood-stuffed trout.
Around 8 p.m., the speakers in each room crackled with the captain's latest announcement: About 55 miles off the coast of California in something of a holding pattern. The ship remains safe and secure. … Testing has been completed. As previously advised, we will receive the first results tomorrow. … May we all stay positive as we wait for more news.
Pallotta thought again about the fact that she had nearly canceled the cruise because of her coronavirus concerns. Now she had another worry: Her husband was about to run out of his diabetes medication.
For the next few days, the Grand Princess drifted in international waters along the California coast. As government leaders worked out logistics that would decide the passengers' fate, communication breakdowns meant that those on board — the captain included — were often the last to be informed.
On Friday, March 6, Vice President Mike Pence went on national television to announce the results of the tests done on Grand Princess passengers and crew. Of the small number tested, 21 had been diagnosed with the coronavirus, larger than any outbreak so far in California. After the ship was allowed to dock, he said, passengers would be put into a 14-day quarantine in facilities on land, while the crew would return to sea on the Grand Princess.
Few people aboard — not the ship's captain, those infected or the passengers now confined to their rooms—had been informed of any of this news before Pence spoke with the press.
(Cruise officials would later say that the shipboard doctor had been informed while Pence was in the press conference, and was in the process of alerting those who had tested positive.)
Egan saw the announcement as it happened on MSNBC, which he had taken to watching while isolated in his berth day and night.
"Do they just want us to stay out here forever until everybody dies off?" Egan asked himself in frustration.
The Grand Princess, like the Diamond Princess before it, had become international news. Across the United States, and in countries like India, Australia and Canada, the families of those marooned at sea worried. Many sent messages of encouragement over social media. Passengers responded, posting photos and videos of empty hallways littered with room service trays, or giving interviews to media outlets.
Pallotta's husband begged their Modesto congressman, Rep. Josh Harder, for additional diabetes medication. On March 8, the ship received a delivery of 405 medications — for those with the most urgent medical needs — along with other supplies.
Still, the Grand Princess went nowhere.
"We were literally going in circles," Pallotta said, the monotony growing as she monitored the ship tracker on her room's TV. "I just kept thinking: 'Please let us dock. Please start the 14 days.'"
It had been planned as a special trip, an echo of a romantic moment 16 years before. "It didn't turn out that way," she said. "It felt like our own leadership was turning their backs on us."
The ship's eight whirlpool spas, seven lounges and showrooms, four pools and three main dining rooms sat empty. Fresh fruits and vegetables dwindled on the meal trays delivered three times a day. To help pass the time, passengers relied on activity kits packed with "Sudoku at Sea," coloring books and decks of cards, or watched the dozens of movies added to the TV programming. Like her neighbor Egan, Joyce Li would celebrate her birthday on board, but in quarantine.
For some, life on the ship had come to resemble being in a jail or hospital. The Grand Princess announced a "fresh air and sunlight program," offering passengers hour-long escapes from their rooms on the deck. Instead of group classes, guided exercise and meditation were offered on the Wake Show, the cruise's morning TV program. When the staff dropped off their meals, passengers were required to wear masks while receiving them.
With her supply of books and a private balcony, LaPointe actually found the seemingly endless days at sea peaceful. Despite her age and health concerns, she wasn't worried about contracting the coronavirus. Still, she was glad she had augmented her supply of elderberry.
The ill-fated voyage had not dampened her passion for cruises. "My goal is to live on a ship, preferably a Princess ship, in Alaska in the summer," she said. "It's cheaper than a nursing home."
On the morning of Monday, March 9 — days after President Trump had suggested that the ship stay at sea so any infected passengers wouldn't inflate the nation's COVID-19 count, after the captain had seemingly steered south toward San Diego and then reversed course, after days of waiting and not knowing — the Grand Princess ducked under the Golden Gate Bridge headed for port in Oakland.
Cheers broke out as familiar landmarks passed: Alcatraz Island, the Bay Bridge. They would soon be off the ship and headed home. But first, there would be further quarantine, at Air Force bases and other federal facilities across the country.
The frustrated captain made an announcement as they docked at Pier 22, an outer harbor in Oakland: We have not been receiving timely nor accurate information from the government agencies who are developing and managing the disembarkation plan, making it virtually impossible for me to prepare you and guide you on their processes.
Princess Cruises apologized for the disastrous trip, promising to reimburse every passenger's expenses, including Egan's $4,500 room and his birthday lobster. It even offered passengers a voucher for another free cruise. Egan wasn't sure whether he would take them up on it.
As he was rolled off the Grand Princess in a wheelchair, among the first groups of people taken off the ship on Tuesday, doctors in hazmat gear checked his temperature and asked if he had been coughing. To his surprise, that was the extent of their examination. Hours later, he was on a chartered bus to Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, a destination some passengers had begun calling "Camp Corona."
"I'll be here 14 days," he said Wednesday, adding that he felt healthy and his temperature was normal. "At that point, I have no idea. Hopefully, there is some way of getting back to my house in Walnut Creek. I don't imagine the bus is personally going to dump me there."
That same day, Pallotta and her husband also were taken to Travis. Their room there, she said, is "actually pretty nice," though they've had long waits between meals.
They fared better than the LaPointes. By Thursday, the couple was still stuck aboard the Grand Princess, waiting to be taken to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia. By then, 2,042 people had disembarked, and government officials hoped the process would conclude by the weekend. Meanwhile, Princess Cruises canceled all voyages for the next 60 days.
That afternoon, the LaPointes sipped soft drinks as they watched charter buses pull up to the ship, where some still on board dealt with leaking toilets and growing resentment. After a few hours, their group was called. More than a week after their quarantine began, they finally stepped onto dry ground,
Joyce and Wai Li, who'd been trapped in a berth without windows or a balcony, were thrilled to finally escape their "plush prison," as Joyce called it. But a new ordeal would follow.
As they disembarked from the Grand Princess Wednesday, Wai told the doctors examining him about experiencing a tightness in his chest and a fever, which had by then abated. As Joyce waited in a nearby tent, she watched her husband be whisked into an ambulance that would take him to Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, then to a hotel in San Carlos for quarantine. She wasn't allowed to say goodbye.
"They didn't even let me get close to the ambulance," she told her son, Keane. "I want to cry."
Today, quarantined nearly 500 miles away at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, she can only wait to learn if her husband tests positive for the coronavirus.
Editor’s note: Since this story was published, Grand Princess passenger Wai Li learned Sunday that he has tested positive for COVID-19.
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