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 has turned to a liquid diet while he waits to hear how he will get back home to Augusta, Ga.
“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 onto ships and passengers being medevaced off them have 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 U.S. ports, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Twenty-four of those ships have known or suspected infection among the remaining crew members, said the CDC, which on Thursday extended a no-sail order for up to 100 days for cruise ships in U.S. 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.
Waiting off the Bahamas
Before the pandemic, the Volendam was on an anticipated 70-day voyage around South America — starting and ending in Florida, with 37 stops in between.
On March 20, the cruise line cut the trip short and the ship arrived at Port Everglades in Florida, two days ahead of its scheduled end, disembarking 1,200 passengers promptly at 7 a.m., Gordon recalled.
The return came a week after a cruise industry association announced a voluntary 30-day suspension of operations from U.S. ports of call. That industry move was followed a day later by the initial CDC no-sail order, which the federal health agency expanded and extended Thursday.
As they prepared for the passengers to depart, Gordon said he and other crew members still under contract faced what he saw as a choice: leave with the guests and risk future employment prospects with Holland America or remain onboard for the nine days then left on his contract and have the cruise line cover the cost of their returns home.
He joined 592 crew members on the Volendam who stayed put.
Drawn by the opportunity to sing and dance for a living, Gordon has worked for six years on cruise ships touring exotic locations. Under normal circumstances, he and other performers on board would be in a strict rehearsal schedule for their twice-a-week shows.
But their stage has been converted into a site for dance classes to give stranded crew an exercise option, and every other seat in the theater is blocked with tape to remind people not to sit next to one another.
Bedsheets drape the game tables and slots in the shuttered casino. The pool remains open after the captain deemed it a morale booster, Gordon said, and ramped up a rigid cleaning schedule.
There is a newfound appreciation for the cleaning staff, which sanitizes any area still used by the crew, he said.
The dining hall’s once-bountiful buffets are sparser and include more of the curries and fried fish heads favored by the Indonesian and Filipino crew members who make up the majority of those left behind. Crew members eat in the dining hall, Gordon said, seated at least six feet apart.
The Volendam was last provisioned on March 20 and will be resupplied at sea by another ship in the next several days, according to Holland America Line Vice President Sally Andrews. “The ship has enough supplies to provide for crew and another ship,” she said in a statement.
Gordon’s hope for leaving the Volendam flickered on April 5, when the captain announced that the cruise line had finalized a plan to repatriate 300 Indonesian crew members who would disembark in Florida for a chartered flight home on April 7.
It was a moment of intense joy and relief, Gordon said. “I was so happy for them and for all of us,” said Gordon, who saw it as a sign that he, too, would soon get a chance to leave.
But that hope faded within hours when the plan, announced over the ship’s intercom by the captain and subsequently confirmed to The Washington Post by Holland America, was canceled.
“The U.S. Coast Guard denied entry of Volendam into Port Everglades out of an abundance of caution due to fear of COVID,” Andrews said Friday. “This is the same fear we have experienced in other places, as have other cruise lines.”
She said the cruise line is “still working through the details regarding the repatriation of crew that are not required to remain on board the ships for essential operations during the period cruises are suspended.”
Despite the plan falling through, Gordon said he is grateful for the efforts by the company.
“I’m cautiously optimistic, but I don't want to get my hopes up,” he said of getting home.
Gordon said that according to a letter he received last week he is among the noncritical crew members whose pay would end this week, after having been briefly extended by the company after passengers departed.
Holland America confirmed it would not be extending contracts for some of those on board.
Company public relations director Erik Elvejord said the cruise line is “implementing a number of changes to best support our fleet while also helping many of our seagoing team members return home as safely and quickly as possible.”
For Gordon, however strong the appeal of getting home, it also comes with the sobering prospect of being jobless.
“When — if and when — I get off the ship, I’ll be without a job. The cruise ship industry has halted, and there is no sign that it’s coming back anytime soon. So, so many people are going to be out of work,” Gordon said.
Feeling like 'a prisoner'
Nearly 3,800 passengers left Royal Caribbean Cruises’ Ovation of the Seas on March 18 at Sydney Harbor, where it ended a six-night pleasure cruise.
On the morning of March 21, the captain gathered the crew in the theater for an important announcement: One of the recent passengers had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The previous day, Australian authorities had notified Royal Caribbean Cruises that a 67-year-old passenger who traveled from Canada to join the cruise had tested positive for the coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19, according to the company. Two of the cruise’s passengers who had disembarked in Sydney also had tested positive for the virus, according to local health officials.
“I was scared,” said Erick Arenas, a 34-year-old singer and dancer from Manila who works on the Ovation, recalling how the crew learned of the exposures.
The Ovation of the Seas entered a voluntary 14-day quarantine offshore, although crew members could move about the ship if they abided by social distancing guidelines.
But alarm among Australian health officials over the health risks posed by cruise lines was growing.
On March 27, the Australian Border Force directed all non-Australian-flagged cruise ships to depart Australian waters “as soon as possible,” a spokesman for the country’s Department of Home Affairs said in a statement.
A day later, aboard the Ovation, a more restrictive quarantine was announced that included barring crew members from leaving their rooms as part of a fleetwide directive, according to Arenas, who remains on lockdown.
He worries, he said, that the virus could be on the ship. But the fear that the virus could be at home in Manila haunts him, too.
As of Sunday, no Ovation crew members had tested positive for or exhibited symptoms of covid-19, according to Royal Caribbean Cruises Vice President Rob Zeiger.
“If I have to choose, I would rather stay here than go home until the virus is gone,” said Arenas, who noted that at least on the ship he knows where his next meal is coming from.
As of Friday, Australian authorities had connected four cruise ships that arrived in Sydney Harbor in March to 543 cases of the coronavirus. Ninety-eight of those cases are passengers who disembarked from the Ovation of the Seas, according to officials with the New South Wales Ministry of Health.
Australian officials now have banned all international cruise vessels from docking until June 15.
As of last weekend, three cruise ships empty of passengers but manned by crews remained in Australian ports and had not made plans to depart, the spokesman for the Australian Department of Home Affairs added.
Arenas’s ship was not among those.
The Ovation of the Seas had left Australian territorial waters, headed toward Bali, where in a few days the company hoped to disembark Indonesian crew members and secure flights for others, according to Zeiger.
“I think it’s good,” Arenas said. “At least we are going somewhere and at least have a plan. Still, I feel safe here.”
Arenas said he supports the fleetwide quarantine announced by the captain and says Royal Caribbean Cruises is looking after staff members.
Unable to leave his room, he said he battles boredom with songs and an exercise routine — focused on his abs and chest — that he can do in the cramped space. He keeps in contact with friends and family using the ship’s WiFi, posting lighthearted videos to the social-media platform TikTok that capture life on lockdown.
The feelings of isolation, though, are harder to beat back, he said.
After more than two weeks of being barred from leaving his room, “what I feel like now is that I’m a prisoner,” he said.
Arenas’s contract ended in March, but he received an extra month’s pay after Royal Caribbean said its employees in their fleet would be paid through April 29.
As he does with every paycheck, Arenas said, he will send a portion of his check to his family in the Philippines.
For many Filipino workers who man cruises, their wages support an extended household, said Ellene Sana of the Center for Migrant Advocacy based near Manila. Nearly 6,000 repatriated seafarers from cruise ships returned to the country between late February and April 5, according to the nation’s Department of Foreign Affairs.
Arriving home brings a close to the uncertainty of open-ended days at sea but gives rise to other concerns, she said.
“For those returned home after cruises halted, they are asking themselves when they can board another vessel and how can we compete for what may be fewer jobs,” she said, and there is the overarching question of “what happens to me and my family now?”
When Arenas returns, it will be to a changed home.
On Sunday, Arenas’s sister called him to say their 72-year-old father had been rushed to a hospital because he had been having trouble breathing.
“The hard part is I cannot do anything about it,” Arenas texted The Post.
On Tuesday, his father died after suffering a heart attack, and before the results of a coronavirus test administered to him were known, Arenas said.
Regine Cabato contributed to this report.