There was a moment of what seemed like sweet relief when passengers were able to disembark from Holland America’s MS Westerdam after being turned away from multiple ports. But things took a turn when a passenger from the ship was diagnosed with coronavirus on her journey home.
As a result, hundreds of passengers and crew members, now docked in Cambodia, are finding themselves in limbo once again.
Elly Echybowski, who was traveling aboard the Westerdam with her husband, Timothy, shared positive, if anxious updates from the Sokha Hotel in Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia.
As of Tuesday morning in Cambodia, guests were updated twice a day by Holland America staff, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Echybowski wrote in an email to USA TODAY. She said US Embassy staff were also in the hotel lobby posting updates and assisting with procuring medicine.
“Today they had posted that several more countries will not let us fly through,” Echybowski said. When passengers gain flight arrangements, she said, they will be provided with a letter bearing their test results.
Echybowski noted that all passengers at the hotel have been tested for coronavirus, and “so far all negative.” With passengers anxious to get home, “we have been told not to leave the hotel in case we are assigned a flight. At the meeting this morning 15 people were given flights home today,” she said.
Overall, “our needs are being met. Very comfortable accommodations. The staff are wonderful,” said Echybowski, noting that Holland America is providing guests with $50 stipends per person per day (breakfast is included with the hotel stay).
Keeping her afloat? “Video conferencing (with) our children & grandchildren daily,” she wrote. “On the ship we used workout facilities daily. Here in the hotel, we need to be ready to leave at any minute, so will do what I can in my room!”
But perspectives varied.
“Everything is a mess right now,” Steve Muth, a passenger from Michigan who was traveling on the Westerdam with his family, told USA TODAY Sunday morning. Muth, who is also at the Sokha Hotel, said he and other guests were advised to stay in their rooms and wait for updates.
More than 24 hours later on Monday, things hadn’t changed much. “(It’s) just a lot of confusion, chaos, frustration.”
Muth is staying with his wife, his daughter and their daughter’s boyfriend in Phnom Penh. They have two sons at home in Michigan, as well.
Muth and his family had been in a position to fly home, having heard from Holland America that there were plane tickets ready for them, when news broke that an American passenger tested positive for coronavirus. Then, everything came to a halt.
According to Holland America Line, an 83-year-old American woman who departed from Westerdam on Friday later reported feeling ill at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and tested positive for coronavirus. The passenger is in stable condition at a hospital in Malaysia, according to a release from the cruise line shared with USA TODAY by Buck Banks on Sunday.
Meanwhile, not all of the passengers are so lucky to have been moved to land. Lorraine Oliveira, a passenger traveling from the U.K. on Westerdam with her family, told USA TODAY on Sunday that they were still on board the Westerdam. As of Monday she expected to remain there for maybe two more days. “I just want to go home now,” she said in a message.
On Monday morning, Holland America said that 255 passengers and 747 crew members remain on the MS Westerdam, which docked in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Friday. The ship was previously turned away from ports in the Philippines, Japan, Guam and Thailand despite no cases of coronavirus cases during the voyage.
“We are all concerned about the staff & passengers still on the Westerdam,” said Echybowski.
On a briefing call Monday afternoon, Dr. William Walters, the director of operational medicine at the U.S. State Department, told reporters that 260 American citizens remain in hotels in Cambodia pending onward travel, and 92 more are on board the MS Westerdam. Around 300 Americans left Cambodia after testing under their ministry of health.
In a statement provided by spokesman Buck Banks, the cruise line said that Cambodian health officials were on the ship Monday to test those still on board, a process expected to last several more days.
“Guests at a hotel in Phnom Penh have all completed the COVID-19 screening,” the cruise line stated Monday morning. “Results are being returned when completed, with the first batch of 406 all being negative. Cleared guests may travel home, and arrangements are being made for those guests. Guests in both locations are being very well cared for, including assisting with any medications needed.”
Muth has no complaints about Holland America and how they have handled the situation, but he is concerned with the U.S. government’s response – and the veracity of the information that has been shared with those who are stuck overseas.
‘Something went awry’:Why did US break Diamond Princess coronavirus quarantine?
“Holland America has been pretty darn good; it’s the State Department that has been the problem,” he said. “Their information is not consistent, it’s inaccurate.”
As of Monday, there hadn’t been an ambassador available at the hotel in three days, Muth said, and when he had the chance to ask questions of representatives, he received what he calls an “angered defensive response” without meaningful information.
It seems some people who were on MS Westerdam have been able to get out, Muth said, while others are being turned away from the airport. “(There) appears to be a no-fly list for people from the Westerdam,” he said. “But they can’t explain why.”
And what if they finally make it back to the States and are locked into quarantine for two weeks? “Holy cow another two weeks of this … not fun,” he said. “We don’t know for sure. No one is saying that is going to happen, but (the idea is) hanging out there.”
When you travel, you want to know that your government has your back in case of a situation like this, Muth said.
“How our government hasn’t behaved well will stick with me,” said Muth. “The State Department doesn’t have its act together at all and nobody seems to care.”
USA TODAY has reached out to the U.S. Department of State for comment.
State Dept. issues highest advisory:‘Do not travel to China’ amid coronavirus outbreak
Contributing: Andrea Mandell, Hannah Yasharoff, Jayme Deerwester, Julia Thompson, USA TODAY