By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) – Hundreds of travelers who boarded a cruise liner for Hawaii last month in sandals and sunglasses trudged off the coronavirus-stricken ship in face masks at the Port of Oakland, California, on Tuesday, headed to quarantine sites around the country.
The tightly controlled disembarkation began on Monday, hours after the cruise ship Grand Princess arrived at a specially secured terminal across San Francisco Bay from its home port amid cheers from weary passengers who had spent days at sea confined to their staterooms.
As of Tuesday evening, according to the cruise line, more than 1,400 passengers had left the ship. They were seen filing down a gangway wearing surgical masks, escorted to chartered buses by personnel dressed in full protective gear.
Addressing a news conference on Tuesday in Sacramento, the state capital, Governor Gavin Newsom said he hoped to finish getting all 2,400 some passengers off the ship within 72 hours.
Plans originally called for the 1,100 crew members, except those requiring immediate medical care, to remain aboard the Grand Princess when it leaves port for a two-week quarantine period at sea.
But Newsom told reporters that some crew members, many from the Philippines, may end up repatriated to their home countries instead.
Among the first people off the ship were 26 U.S. residents taken by ambulance to hospitals around the region, including two passengers diagnosed with coronavirus during on-board testing last week that also found 19 crew members infected, Newsom said.
Princess Cruises, the ship’s owner-operator, said those crew members were deemed asymptomatic and confined to their individual cabins.
QUARANTINE AT BASES
All remaining U.S. passengers will be tested once they reach quarantine housing at one of four military bases – two in California and one each in Texas and Georgia.
A group of 232 Canadians, the biggest cohort of non-U.S. passengers, were repatriated on Monday, Newsom said.
The Grand Princess was denied entry to San Francisco Bay last Wednesday en route back from Hawaii as authorities learned some passengers and crew had developed flu-like symptoms, and that patrons from an earlier cruise to Mexico aboard the same ship had tested positive for coronavirus. Since then, at least 12 cases have been linked to the previous Mexico trip.
Diagnostic kits were flown to the ocean liner by helicopter on Thursday to test those who were ill. The 21 positive test results on Friday constituted one of the largest clusters of cases documented in the United States.
But it took authorities until Sunday to decide on a return-to-port strategy and quarantine plan for the ship.
Princess Cruises also owns the Diamond Princess, which was quarantined off Japan in February. About 700 people aboard that ship became infected, and six have died, in a crisis that experts said was mishandled by Japanese bureaucrats.
Newsom, echoing advice from public health experts, said elderly people and individuals with chronic health problems – two groups most vulnerable to serious illness if infected by coronavirus – should stay off cruise ships.
Princess, a unit a world-leading cruise operator Carnival Corp <CCL.N>, said on Monday that passengers of the ill-fated voyage to Hawaii would receive a refund for all costs related to the trip and a credit toward a future cruise.
At least one couple aboard the Grand Princess sued the company even before reaching dry land, seeking over $1 million in damages for emotional trauma they said they suffered during the ordeal.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Leslie Adler and Lincoln Feast.)