From paradise to coronavirus: the Grand Princess and the cruise from hell

A 15-night vacation to Hawaii, the trip of a lifetime, came to an end with a global pandemic and a detour into quarantine

As Ronald and Eva Weissberger boarded the cruise ship bound for Hawaii, the couple were looking forward to the trip of a lifetime.

The Weissbergers, the 74- and 69-year-olds from Florida, had heard stories about the boat’s sister ship, the Diamond Princess, which had been quarantined for weeks off the coast of Japan and ultimately resulted in more than 700 confirmed cases of coronavirus. But to them, the Diamond Princess “seemed like a world away”, says the couple’s son-in-law, Jason Chalik.

Little did they know, what would start as a 15-night cruise through paradise would turn into a waking nightmare for the 3,500 people on board.

As passengers headed up the gangway to the Grand Princess and toward their rooms on 21 February they had no idea that a 75-year-old man from Placer county, California – who’d stepped off the boat in San Francisco – was carrying Covid-19, the novel coronavirus that, by Friday afternoon, had infected more than 2,000 Americans and killed more than 40.

The cruise ship they boarded has since become the center of a dramatic US crisis that has forced national and state governments to take measures that seemed unimaginable even a week ago. It has also become a potent symbol for everything from America’s woeful lack of test kits, which had to be flown in by helicopter, to the racial politics of who will shoulder the burden of the outbreak.

Between the boat’s departure and its return, the nation’s handling of the virus would shift entirely. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic. Markets tumbled. Schools and theme parks shuttered and professional sports halted. And Donald Trump would suspend most travel from the European Union, setting off chaos at airports as confused travelers looked for a way home.

Health officials expect the number of US cases to multiply exponentially as the government, caught flat-footed by the outbreak, makes tests more readily available.

Karen Schwartz Dever and Harry Dever, of Moorsetown, New Jersey, were on board the Grand Princess cruise ship.
Karen Schwartz Dever and Harry Dever, of Moorsetown, New Jersey, were on board the Grand Princess cruise ship. Photograph: John Miller/Associated Press

The outbreak begins

The Grand Princess was thrust into the national spotlight after California reported its first death from coronavirus – an elderly man in northern California’s Placer county, who had been on the ship’s previous voyage to Mexico.

The exact point at which he contracted the virus is disputed.

Princess Cruises, which operates the Grand Princess and the Diamond Princess, claimed he was infected at some point during the Grand Princess’s trip to Mexico and said he complained of symptoms while still on board.

Public health officials in California disagree. More likely, they said, he was already infected when he stepped aboard the ship, indicating the new coronavirus had been spreading onshore for longer than anyone knew.

Genetic researchers this week traced the virus that infected passengers on the Grand Princess to the same family tree of infections that spread through a cluster of patients in Washington state and likely originated from a patient who had traveled to Wuhan, China. The finding suggests an infected person may have traveled from Washington to California and had contact with the someone who boarded the ship.

What is certain, however, is that the 75-old-year old Placer county man who tested positive for the new coronavirus died on 4 March – the first death in California attributed to the virus.

About 60 passengers who traveled with him to Mexico stayed on the ship’s next journey to Hawaii, mixing with other passengers.

Passengers had little reason to believe anything was out of the ordinary until the ship slowly started canceling events: first, the shows that drew large crowds, then the smaller events like music or dancing lessons that keep passengers busy at sea.

The morning of 4 March, the same day the Placer county man died at a hospital, Grand Princess officials told the 60 passengers who traveled with him they’d need to stay in their rooms until they could be screened for symptoms.

Still, most were allowed to carry on, catching sun on the Lido deck and visiting with their shipmates.

The elderly Weissbergers were playing cards with friends when news of the potential outbreak reached their daughter and son-in-law back in Florida.

“We called [the Weissbergers] and asked if they were quarantined,” said son-in-law Chalik, an attorney who has since in a lawsuit filed on the couple’s behalf, accusing the Princess Cruises of gross negligence for its “lackadaisical” response to the outbreak.

“They said, ‘No, we’re playing bridge’,” Chalik recalled. “We couldn’t believe it. We asked, ‘You’re playing bridge with other passengers? And you’re touching the same cards?’ They had no idea.”

The Grand Princess cruise ship carrying passengers who have tested positive for coronavirus in the San Francisco Bay area.
The Grand Princess cruise ship carrying passengers who have tested positive for coronavirus in the San Francisco Bay area. Photograph: Fred Greaves/Reuters

Things get worse

Later that day Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, announced a state of emergency and, citing those on board who had shown symptoms said the Grand Princess, would head back to California early for testing.

The toughest moment for Michelle Heckert, a Bay Area woman traveling with her grandparents, came when she learned all passengers would need to stay in their rooms until further notice.

“I called my mom in tears, like ‘I can’t do this. I can’t stay in this room the whole time.’ I was just really scared about the uncertainty of it all,” she said. “I wasn’t scared for myself. I’m healthy, I’m young. I figured if I got it I would be able to recover. But I was scared for my grandparents, and I felt a lot of pressure to protect them from it.”

The ship was delayed off the coast of San Francisco while officials hatched a plan. In a dramatic scene, US coast guard helicopters dropped tests onto the Grand Princess. Of the 45 tested, 19 crew members and 2 passengers would test positive for the virus and about 100 passengers showed symptoms.

Crew members, many who shared space for accommodations and meals, would deliver meals to rooms individually — which health experts said was one of the factors why the quarantine of passengers within a cruise ship’s close quarters is ineffective.

Passengers on board the Grand Princess watch while a US military helicopter delivers coronavirus tests.
Passengers on board the Grand Princess watch while a US military helicopter delivers coronavirus tests. Photograph: Steve Berry/Reuters

In reference to the Diamond Princess, where passengers also faced prolonged quarantine, Dr Amesh Adalja, with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Business Insider that quarantining passengers on a cruise ship allows “the virus to literally pick them off one-by-one”.

“The whole idea of the cruise ship quarantine was ill-conceived, and the resultant slew of infections it spawned was completely predictable,” he said.

Meanwhile, as the Grand Princess idled offshore, Donald Trump publicly expressed reluctance to bring the ship home.

“I like the numbers where they are,” Trump said. “I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”

“They were in shock,” Chalik said of the Weissbergers’ reaction to comments from the president.

“They actually like a lot of what Donald Trump has to say, and here he’s talking about them like they’re just numbers. They’re not numbers, they’re my kids’ grandparents.”

Donald Trump holds a coronavirus briefing at the White House.
Donald Trump holds a coronavirus briefing at the White House. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Heading for the shore

As they waited just off the coast, passengers took to social media to share their quarantine horror stories. One man complained he was going hungry because the ship was rationing food. A family of eight started an Instagram account about the hair-pulling endeavor of trying to occupy six small children for days in a tiny, windowless cabin.

Michelle Heckert, who said she did her best to strike a positive tone, playing music with a ukulele and releasing videos on Twitter, tweeted the day’s in-cabin entertainment: an instructional video on how to make paper airplanes.

when #GrandPrincess starts teaching us how to make paper airplanes via our stateroom TVs 😭😭 #princesscruises

— Michelle Heckert (@WhatTheHeckert) March 6, 2020

The Grand Princess was finally given the green light to return to shore, but it would dock in Oakland, not San Francisco. Officials said Oakland’s outer harbor put it at safer remove from tourists and densely populated areas.

To many in Oakland, a city that’s long lived in its glitzier neighbor’s shadow, reopened old wounds, fanning longstanding tensions steeped in racial and environmental discrimination.

“There’s a feeling, particularly among people of color in this city, that things keep happening to us and not for us,” Oakland activist Cat Brooks told the Guardian. “When something like this [cruise ship] happens, that allows for a breeding ground of hysteria and mistrust.”

But the news was more than welcome to those on board the Grand Princess. Cars honked, passengers whooped and cheered as the boat passed underneath San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate bridge.

“We knew we were headed toward shore,” said Rex Lawson, 86, who was traveling with his wife Mardell, 81. “Everybody was very happy when we pulled under the bridge, they were out on their balcony, yelling and clapping”.

Passengers on the Grand Princess wave as the ship approaches Oakland.
Passengers on the Grand Princess wave as the ship approaches Oakland. Photograph: Noah Berger/Associated Press

The worst, it seemed, was over. But still to overcome was was the colossal task of moving thousands of passengers, an untold number of whom had been infected, off the boat and onto buses, where they’d be transported to hospitals, hotels or military bases for 14 days of quarantine.

On Monday morning, just before the Grand Princess pulled in, trucks rumbled to and from the docks along the shoreline like any other day. Four large private passenger buses waited to transport the possibly-infected passengers.

Passengers disembarked by order of priority, those with acute medical needs first. Officials said it could take up to three days to unload everybody. But by Friday, five days after the Grand Princess first docked, 14 international passengers still remained on board. Officials said they’d be there at least through the weekend while their home countries arranged transportation.

The boat’s 1,000-plus crew is expected to remain on board under quarantine while officials determine a place to dock for good.

The Grand Princess cruise ship sits docked at the Port of Oakland.
The Grand Princess cruise ship sits docked at the Port of Oakland. Photograph: Kate Munsch/Reuters

Quarantine issues emerge

Prince Cruises declined to be interviewed for this story, saying that currently “all team members are focused on the situation at hand and the well-being of our guests”.

But complaints quickly started mounting from passengers concerned that recommended quarantine protocols weren’t being followed. Passengers were in close contact with others as they unloaded the ship. They boarded a bus and sat close to others who might be infected.

Passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship exit a bus before boarding a chartered flight to San Antonio, Texas.
Passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship exit a bus before boarding a chartered flight to San Antonio, Texas. Photograph: Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

And many have still gone untested even days after arriving at an air force base for quarantine.

Denise Morse, a Davis resident, on Thursday filed a complaint through her congressman, John Garamendi, claiming that safety protocols have been disregarded.

“We’re an incubator for Covid-19,” she said from her room on Travis air force base, where she’s surrounded by a containment fence and under guard 24 hours a day.

Morse said that when she first arrived at the base she noticed passengers crammed together as they lined up for food and grabbed condiments out of shared bins. There were no hand-washing stations available in the food areas and the passengers had to serve themselves coffee using their bare hands on the coffee dispenser, she said.

On 10 March, the day the Grand Princess first reached Oakland, passengers received an official document under their cabin doors that read: “Once you arrive at the military installation, you may choose to be tested for Covid-19.”

But Morse said that when she and her husband asked to be tested for the coronavirus on Thursday, they were told no tests were available.

“They are not testing us. On the ship they gave us a paper that said we would be tested. When we got here (three days ago), they took our temperatures instead,” Morse said.

Heckert, also quarantined at Travis air force base, said on Thursday that her family hadn’t been tested, either.

Congressman John Garamendi on Thursday filed a complaint with the federal department of Health and Human Services on Morse’s behalf. It was only then, Morse said, that staff began delivering food to passenger’s rooms instead of having them line up to grab plastic boxes from tall stacks.

“We were better off on the ship,” Morse said, adding that cruise ship staff left food outside their door.

Crew members wear masks while preparing to dock the Grand Princess in Oakland.
Crew members wear masks while preparing to dock the Grand Princess in Oakland. Photograph: Noah Berger/Associated Press

Eric Olsen, a spokesman for Rep Garamendi, said the congressman sent pictures of the food distribution problems to HHS, which is running the quarantine.

“According to health guidelines, you’re supposed to be separating people in their rooms,” Olsen said. “If someone is Covid-19 positive, this (mingling) is going to spread the disease. These people are supposed to be getting ready to be released to the public.”

As spokesperson for the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said: “Our number one priority was to screen passengers for symptoms, address any underlining health conditions, make sure they had access to their prescription medication, and get them settled into their rooms.”

“This unprecedented response has raised many significant logistical challenges. We have assigned case managers to each of the guests to individually address their needs. We recognize this has been a stressful experience and we remain dedicated to providing all the support we can to passengers.”

For 86-year-old Rex Lawson, who was traveling with his wife Mardell, the experience hasn’t soured his travel plans forever. His children told him he’s never going on another cruise, but he said it’s hard pass up the free trip Princess Cruises has offered him and his wife.

“I don’t say never,” Lawson said.

But he might be out a partner. He asked his wife if they might use the free ticket in the future. She’d told him that next time, he’d have to go by himself.

  • Erin McCormick and Vivian Ho contributed reporting


Mario Koran in Oakland

The GuardianTramp

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