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Mah-jongg, buffets and coronavirus fears: Cruise quarantines leave passengers in limbo

The Diamond Princess cruise ship with about 3,700 people on board sits anchored in quarantine off the port of Yokohama, Japan.
The Diamond Princess cruise ship with about 3,700 people on board sits anchored in quarantine off the port of Yokohama, Japan.
(Getty Images)

Mah-jongg games, buffets and deck exercises. Passengers on the World Dream cruise ship quarantined in Hong Kong say they’ve been free to move about the ship but worry about the risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

In ports of call as diverse as Hong Kong, Yokohama and New Jersey, authorities are grappling with how to handle thousands of cruise passengers who may have been exposed to the deadly virus. In Japan, health officials and Carnival Corp. have imposed strict isolation on thousands of passengers aboard the Diamond Princess off Yokohama.

Hong Kong authorities are examining more than 1,800 passengers and an equal number of crew members on the ship, operated by Dream Cruises. The ship was quarantined after passengers from the Chinese mainland who boarded between Jan. 19 and Jan. 24 tested positive for coronavirus.

The number of cases has now jumped to eight from three. Authorities have yet to find any cases among passengers currently on board.

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Hong Kong software engineer Edgar Chan, his sister and their parents were aboard a five-day cruise from Hong Kong to Taiwan when the vessel was denied entry for a second stop in Taiwan after the initial cases were discovered.

The ship returned to Hong Kong, and was placed under quarantine Wednesday. Since then, passengers have received little information about what to expect or how to protect themselves, he said.

“We are in quarantine, but everyone is still walking around,” Chan, 28, said via WhatsApp. “I am concerned about that. We don’t know much about what will happen.”

Quarantines and denying cruise ships entry to ports are the latest efforts by governments to protect their citizens as the coronavirus continues to spread, with the number of infections rising to more than 31,000 and deaths at 638.

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Preventing passengers potentially exposed to the respiratory virus from disembarking protects those on shore. But that leaves cruise operators and health authorities to deal with thousands of passengers who may have been exposed to the virus.

In New Jersey, more than two dozen Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. passengers were screened for coronavirus Friday, and four were transferred to a hospital — the first such incident at a U.S. port and the latest to roil the tourism industry.

Japan confirmed 41 more cases of coronavirus among the 3,700 passengers aboard Carnival’s quarantined Diamond Princess, and denied entry to another vessel. That brings the tally of infections to 61 among 273 passengers and crew so far tested. The ship is being isolated at the port of Yokohama and is the biggest center of infection outside of China.

Japan has banned a separate cruise ship — the Westerdam — from berthing in the country, saying a person on board was suspected of having the virus. The operator, Carnival’s Holland America, said there were no known cases aboard the Westerdam and the ship wasn’t in quarantine.

While some aboard the isolated Diamond Princess in Yokohama have been tweeting about their life under quarantine, there’s been little on social media from passengers on the ship sitting in Hong Kong’s Kai Tak cruise terminal.

Some Hong Kong residents aboard have reached out to local lawmaker Helena Wong, anxious about the lack of information, drug prescriptions running out and whether infected passengers may unwittingly expose others because there are no restrictions of movement on the boat. Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, of which Wong is a member, has set up two hotlines for Hong Kong residents stuck on either quarantined vessel to call for help.

“They get very little information from the cruise company or the government,” Wong said. “It’s unacceptable to keep them on the cruise but not carry out isolation. If they’re lucky, they may not have any reported cases. If they are not lucky, it may be very disastrous with everyone in close contact and moving around.”

Daniel Lam, on board the World Dream with his girlfriend and her parents, is among the concerned passengers. He thinks the boat is too crowded, with passengers gathering in public spaces to eat food brought from the buffet.

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“The thing that worries me the most is that we have to read the news to know what’s happening on the boat,” the 26-year-old Lam said. “No one told us the ship carried coronavirus patients. No one told us the crew who served us are the same crew on the trip with those patients. And now no one tells us what to expect next.”

Hong Kong’s Department of Health said Friday that all respiratory samples taken from crew members and passengers earlier have tested negative. Checkups on the ship are still underway, it said. One crew member was reported to have developed respiratory symptoms Friday afternoon, and that person’s results are pending.

The ship’s operator, Dream Cruises, a brand under Genting Cruise Lines, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. In a statement Tuesday, the company said that it implemented “various precautionary measures” including temperature screening of all guests and crew members coming aboard and enhanced disinfection protocols.

Chan said he has noticed crew members on the World Dream more frequently disinfecting and cleaning floors and wiping down surfaces in the last couple of days. Still, he’s not taking any chances. He and his family have been mostly sticking to their two rooms, except for meals in the dining hall and an occasional dash to the deck for some fresh air — with masks.

But passengers on board have been mingling on deck for exercise and strolls. The mah-jongg tables were busy Friday morning, but appeared closed in the evening, while the sports court was open in the afternoon. Other activities, such as rock climbing and the pool, have been closed, Chan said.

Chan said he felt a bit of sore throat and reported it on a health questionnaire that was handed out by Hong Kong health authorities. He was swabbed, but hasn’t gotten the results back. He said he’s not too concerned and has kept busy the last few days dialing in for videoconferences and other meetings at work.

“I will not be surprised if they announced we will be quarantined for 14 days,” Chan said. “I wish the government would have their decision sooner. Then we will know what to expect.”

Ha and Wei write for Bloomberg.


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