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Floating 'prison' as countries bar Canadian cruise staff from getting home
TORONTO -- At least 310 Canadians employed on nearly 100 cruise ships remain stranded at sea, as they say they are being denied entry at ports despite repatriation efforts by the Canadian government and cruise companies.
And they are not alone: tens of thousands of crew members are still living on otherwise-empty passenger vessels still at sea.
Family, friends, and crew from multiple ships including the Emerald Princess, the Disney Dream, and the Norwegian Epic have told CTVNews.ca that ships are having trouble finding a country that will even allow their own citizens - let alone international crew members - to disembark.
"To hold them hostage like this is not acceptable," Jack Peake, the father of one of the stranded Canadian cruise ship employees, told CTVNews.ca by phone.
"He's told me already that most of the people on the ship are getting to the point where they feel like they're in prison."
Peake shared his son's latest message from on board the Emerald Princess, which has been anchored off Nassau since it was denied entry in Fort Lauderdale on April 6: "'This isolation and quarantine has gone on for the better part of two months. I'm torn between being grateful that I'm fed and housed, and feeling limited to borderline imprisonment.'"
In a letter sent to the Canadian crew of the Emerald Princess on Wednesday, the guest services team of the ship said the crew should prepare for a flight to Toronto on May 9.
“We must stress that all plans are still subjected to change,” the letter reads in part. “As you have experienced, travel restrictions continue to face disruptions around the world, including the United States.”
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada confirmed on Thursday evening that plans are in place to bring home crews from cruise ships close to Florida on Saturday via a flight from Miami to Toronto, but the cruise ship managers must present an acceptable plan to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before the crew can disembark.
There are similar plans for several cruise ships near Los Angeles. Two flights for crew members are being arranged for Friday, pending approval from the CDC.
CTVNews.ca could not confirm whether the Miami port would allow Canadians to disembark and was waiting for a response from the CDC at the time of publication.
Global Affairs Canada is encouraging Canadian crew members on cruise ships who are having trouble travelling home to contact the closest Canadian consulate or embassy, or Global Affairs Canada headquarters.
The department said they have opened a consular case for Canadian crew members requiring assistance to return home.
According to multiple crew on board the Emerald, more than four dozen Canadians were denied disembarkation in Nassau, Bahamas on Tuesday - even after the Canadian government had provided a charter flight to bring them home.
"We were told we were denied entry because the Bahamian government health officials said it wasn't safe for us to disembark," Michelle Joly told CTV News by video, adding that land was insight when they were packed and ready to leave Tuesday morning. "Even though we had a bus waiting there for us that would take us directly to the airport, directly on to the airplane."
On Wednesday evening, government officials told CTV News their priority is to get Canadians off the ships. They confirmed they did arrange a flight from Nassau, Bahamas to Toronto, but the Canadians on the Emerald were unable to disembark from the ship to board it.
"Crew are extremely tired - mental health is a concern. Anyone who's been stuck inside a room, especially with no windows - or some of them up to 52 days now - they're starting to lose their ability to remain calm, to remain patient throughout this process," said Krista Thomas via Skype. Thomas is a former cruise employee who runs a private Facebook page to connect Canadian crew members still out at sea.
Thomas said cruise lines are trying to do a good job taking care of their staff, but noted that provisions are limited because ships are not allowed dock at port to get supplies, and that there is a great deal of uncertainty for ship captains and their officers, pointing to one ship that was recently denied entry for refuelling.
"There's not going to be gourmet meals on board - it's not a vacation like some people think it is" she said. "(Crew members) are arriving at port with ticket in hand, thinking that they're going home and something has changed."
NO WAY HOME
Multiple Princess Cruises ships were anchored off Nassau, as the company worked to consolidate employees from the same continent onto ships that could sail to ports closer to their home countries, some as far away as the Philippines.
"Being turned away just makes us crew members feel worthless," said Arny Galoyo, a Princess Cruise Lines entertainer who was last on solid ground in Panama, on March 9.
Galoyo added that Americans and Jamaicans have been denied entry by their own countries.
Multiple people who spoke with CTV News said crew members were being denied port entry elsewhere too, sometimes at the last minute after sailing for more than a week to get to a port closer to home.
In an emailed statement to CTV News on Wednesday, Roger Frizzell, a spokesperson for Carnival Corporation, which owns the Princess Cruises, said they were doing everything they can to repatriate crew members, including working with government officials on a debarkation plan.
"Given the restrictions on travel, there are a number of complicating factors," he wrote. "We continue to take care of our crew members on board, including providing WiFi for them to keep in touch with their loved ones back home."
Frizzel said the cruise lines under the Carnival Corporation umbrella are working on repatriating crew and they expect that 26,000 of their team members will be able to return home within a few weeks.
"Even in the United States, it has happened in several ports, that the United States crew members … were not allowed ashore either," said Pieter van Vliet, a travel and cruise industry expert and consultant.
"And yes, it has happened … that crew members from other countries were being refused to land in their own country."
William Lees, a Norwegian Cruise Line art director, says he is one of only three Canadians on board his ship, the Epic, making the likelihood of a charter flight more difficult.
"This is against our will, we don't want to be here. And yes, people might say you're in a safe environment. Well, I can take safety precautions from home," said Lees, who now spent more than 50 days in a windowless cabin too small to fit even his suit cases.
"That's it, this is my home for Lord knows how long."
In the United States, the Miami Herald reported that Royal Caribbean has agreed to terms laid out by the CDC for disembarking, including ensuring that employees would not use public transportation, interact with the public or stay in a hotel. The CDC told the paper that the cruise company had initially balked at the cost of paying for private transportation for its large American crew.
In a letter to crew members, forwarded to CTV News on Wednesday, Royal Caribbean president and CEO Michael Bayley shared the cruise line's tentative repatriation plans for its staff. For Canadian and European crew, the plan is to have them transfer to their Freedom, Empress and Majesty ships and sail to Southampton, England from where they will be able to fly home.
Galoyo, a pianist and singer from Toronto who has entertained on cruise ships for 20 years, says Princess has done everything it can to get its crew members home, but has been stonewalled by what he says are changing protocols of the CDC.
The U.S. agency issued a "No Sail Order" for all cruise ships in April, which suspended all cruise ship operations at U.S. ports of call. But crew members had previously been allowed to disembark, according to at least one industry report, a move that was halted by the CDC and the U.S. Coast Guard.
"Canada as a country has been very accommodating, willing to send charter planes - the word was WestJet was going to fly into the Bahamas and bring all the Canadians home," said Peake.
Countries denying cruise ships entry are concerned about the risk of welcoming crew members infected with COVID-19. But on the Norwegian Epic, for example, temperature checks are conducted for each crew member before each meal, according to Lees.
"The procedures and the protocols and the guidelines put on us and the cruise line is not the same as what's going on with the general public. It just feels like we're being held hostage," he said.
And, according to Galoyo and others, the Emerald Princess has been free of COVID-19 for 51 days. They say the roughly 800 staff members on the vessel have had their temperatures checked twice a day, been required to wear masks, had to stay physically distant from others, and had to spend upwards of 21 hours a day in their cabins.
"This has been life-changing for many of us," Galoyo told CTVNews.ca via a video call from his cabin. But it will not keep him off cruise ships, though he worries that the pandemic will batter the industry and make it hard to find a job.
So he's put his time stranded at sea to good use, rehearsing two new shows and composing music.
"It keeps me sane. It's the only music now on the ship."
Back home, Galoyo's partner of 21 years Noam Markus says he's dealt with his feeling of helplessness by doing what he can: helping Galoyo register as a Canadian abroad and writing letters to the Canadian consulate in Florida and the prime minister's office.
He has received responses which he says makes them feel the Canadians haven't been forgotten, but Markus says it's frustrating not to know why the ship is being turned away or when the crew members can get home.
"We are only hearing hearsay and rumours. We don't know anything," said Markus, a performer himself who teaches drama and mime. He also worries about the toll this is taking on Galoyo's 85-year-old mother.
"He should be home."
With files from CTVNews.ca Writer Ben Cousins and CTV News’ Sheila Scott in Vancouver