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'The most hopeless feeling’: After 12 days on a cruise ship, passengers return to Baltimore facing uncertainty amid coronavirus pandemic

Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas returned to the Port of Baltimore early Thursday.

When the Royal Caribbean Grandeur of the Seas left the Cruise Maryland port terminal nearly two weeks ago, only three people in the state were confirmed to have tested positive for the new coronavirus, and it still seemed like a faraway problem to passengers Lisa and Dave Thoma.

“Things were kind of ‘wash your hands,’ and that was about it,” Lisa Thoma said Thursday.

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As the ship sailed south, however, the roughly 2,000 passengers learned they would not be allowed to get off as planned in most of their sandy destinations — Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, St. Lucia and St. Kitts and Nevis — due to new restrictions. Instead, the Grandeur made port calls in Barbados and Dominica, passengers said.

They watched the news from aboard the ship as the pandemic began to spread more widely in the United States, prompting Maryland public schools to close for at least two weeks and Gov. Larry Hogan to announce a host of other emergency measures to contain the outbreak — including the closure of the state-owned cruise terminal they embarked from.

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The governor’s order allowed the Grandeur to return to Baltimore. But, passengers wondered, what they would find when they arrived?

“When you’re sitting out in the ocean and watching and hearing about the hoarding and the situation, it is the most hopeless feeling you’ve ever had in your whole entire life," said Lisa Thoma, 55, of Blacksburg, Virginia.

Thoma said she and her husband hesitated a little before boarding the ship, especially because she has type 1 diabetes and would be considered a high risk if she is exposed to COVID-19. But they had looked forward to the cruise for more than a year and decided they didn’t want fear "to stop us from living,” she said.

Passengers were on high-alert, though, and the sound of a routine sneeze or cough aboard the ship was enough to turn heads, she said.

Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas offloads passengers after returning to the Port of Baltimore from a 12-day trip to the Caribbean.
Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas offloads passengers after returning to the Port of Baltimore from a 12-day trip to the Caribbean. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The retired couple and others disembarking Thursday morning in Baltimore heaped praise on the Royal Caribbean crew. Crew members face their own significant uncertainty about how the global pandemic — which has included at least one cruise-ship outbreak and has caused officials to halt cruises in many areas — will affect their jobs and their families.

A Royal Caribbean spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

“It was probably one of the scariest times, but we will also tell you Royal Caribbean and Captain Patrick and his crew members were phenomenal,” Thoma said. “They went way beyond. They had smiles on their faces. They were trying to do everything in their power to make sure this is the best cruise they could.”

While passengers were not required to remain six feet apart, as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thoma said, crew members were constantly cleaning, and when passengers were prohibited from serving themselves at the buffets as a health precaution, crew members served them instead.

“This has been a cruise we will never forget, but they really did the best they could in times like this," she said.

Nancy Beswick, who lives in Massachusetts, said the crew took such good care of her and her husband, Jeffrey, “that we had a fantastic cruise.”

The couple, who are in their 50s, felt safer on the Grandeur than anywhere else they could have been, she said.

“I felt like we were in really good hands,” Beswick said. “The cruise ship had a protocol in place for emergencies. They went into high gear and took care of us, and they were putting our health as a priority.”

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Passengers were not subjected to a health screening when they arrived in Baltimore, she said, adding the crew made getting off the ship quick and easy.

All passengers had their temperatures taken before boarding, and the cleaning procedures aboard the Grandeur were the most pronounced that Jeff Davidson said he had seen on any of his three dozen other cruises.

The crew kept passengers updated on sanitization efforts, which included cleaning all handrails every 30 minutes, said Davidson, 69, an on-board speaker dubbed “The Work-Life Balance Expert" and gives speeches on ways to reduce stress, get better sleep and increase longevity, among other topics.

“They were cleaning doorknobs, sills, baseboards, anything anybody might touch,” he said. “They took so many steps that after a couple days ... people’s concerns really just dissipated. They became more concerned about what’s going on back home.”

The Carnival Pride, the other cruise ship that calls the port of Baltimore home, dropped off its last passengers and left Baltimore Wednesday for Miami. The cruise line is offering its ships to the government as temporary, floating, 1,000-room hospitals to treat non-COVID-19 cases and free up capacity for hospitals expected to be overwhelmed by the outbreak, Carnival announced Thursday.

Twelve days at sea taught the Grandeur’s passengers a lesson in how quickly the coronavirus is moving — and just how much can change in two weeks.

While Maryland had just three cases when they left, the state had 107 total confirmed COVID-19 cases Thursday, including the first known infection of a child, up from 85 on Wednesday, when the state had its first coronavirus death.

With most roads and highways clear due to so many people working from home or not working, the taxi from the cruise terminal to BWI Marshall Airport was the fastest Davidson ever experienced, he said.

When he arrived at Baltimore/Washington International, he was one of the only passengers in the airport, which Hogan closed Thursday to all non-passengers, and made it through a security checkpoint in about 90 seconds, he said. He was one of two passengers on a Delta flight to Raleigh, North Carolina.

The plane had arrived empty from Philadelphia, he added.

“There’s nobody in the airport,” Davidson said.

That’s not the only difference they face. Grocery stores have been struggling to keep food, cleaning products, toiletries and hand sanitizer on shelves as people rush to buy rations.

As cruise passengers head home, they’re not sure what they’ll find.

“Now we’re heading back to Blacksburg,” Lisa Thoma said, “and we’re gonna see if we can’t get some toilet paper.”

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