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Coronavirus turns couple’s Asia cruise into surreal voyage to nowhere

Updated February 13, 2020 - 8:14 pm

A Henderson couple’s cruise vacation in Asia turned into a surreal two-week voyage without any shore time after their ship, the MS Westerdam, was turned away by country after country out of fears of spreading the new coronavirus from China.

The vessel was turned away from at least 11 ports of call despite no evidence that a single person on board the cruise ship was ill with the COVID-19, the official name that’s been given to the respiratory disease caused by the new virus.

Fears that some of the passengers might have been exposed to the virus, which triggered an outbreak in China, began after a stop in Hong Kong, where the virus had spread from central China. That led to the ship being rejected at ports in the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Guam. The Holland America luxury liner finally received permission to dock in Cambodia, according to Henderson residents Paulette and Joseph Schaeffer.

The Cambodian Health Ministry announced that 20 samples taken onboard the ship were all negative for the coronavirus, and granted clearance to begin disembarkation Friday morning, according to a statement from Holland America Line on Thursday.

“Flight details are being communicated to guests as they are finalized, and it is expected that a full disembarkation will take a few days given the charter flight schedule,” the cruise line stated.

“During this time, guests will remain comfortably on board with full service in operation.”

The ship has 802 crew members and 1,455 passengers, including the Schaeffers, who are in their late 70s. A former nurse and Las Vegas police officer, respectively, they are global travelers who favor sea and river cruises for their convenience.

Paulette Schaeffer responded by email Wednesday night to questions from a reporter.

Where are you and what’s going on?

“We are currently waiting in the bay within site of Sihanoukville. … Immigration is checking our passports en mass to verify Cambodia visas. We have been told that representatives of multiple embassies, including the U.S., are aboard together with health care agencies and other unnamed officials.”

What’s your reaction to possibly getting off the ship?

“We have felt false hope so often thus far, only to have that hope dashed. We are actually in placid acceptance, although resolution this time is starting to look promising.”

How have you been spending your time?

“Our time is spent as it would be on any other ‘at sea’ day on any cruise. A full agenda of various activities is available for all on board. All venues are open to everyone. Food, entertainment, housekeeping services, etc., continue as normal.

“We mostly attend lectures, read and enjoy the shipboard entertainment. We do participate in many ‘happy hours’ and eat more than we need, but we do try not to do so to excess.”

What’s the mood been like among passengers?

“The mood is resigned but positive towards resolution soon. Very little blame is voiced toward Holland America.”

Is anyone freaking out?

“We have not witnessed nor heard of anyone ‘freaking out.’ We have been a very civilized group.”

What has been the most surprising aspect of this experience?

“The most surprising to us is how many ports we have been turned away from in light of the fact that everyone on board has passed health checks and have not shown any evidence of symptoms of the virus.

“It is disappointing to experience the lack of common sense in the response of so many governments to this whole situation.”

How would you describe the actions of the ship’s staff?

“The crew has made a valiant effort to remain helpful, courteous and consistent in their service. They too have had their disappointments related to our circumstances but a ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude has developed.”

What’s the first thing you want to do when you’re on dry land?

“Once on dry land, we only look forward to our return home. We’ve had enough adventure for a while.”

Holland America Line said it was providing homeward travel for its customers, refunding the cost of their cruise and providing credit for a future cruise.

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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