“I’ve Been Forced to Stay on a Cruise Ship Against My Will for 33 Days and Counting. And I’m Losing Hope.”

While cruise ships currently sit empty of passengers due to COVID-19, there are still tens of thousands of people stuck on board: the crew. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80,000 cruise ship crew members remain quarantined on ships across the United States. Here, the story of one young woman experiencing it firsthand.

I can see Miami. The buildings, the trees, the land. But that’s all I can do…see it. I am a singer on board a Celebrity Cruises ship, and for 33 days, I have been asking, begging, and pleading to be allowed off the boat. But the answer is always no.

I’ve been on this ship, the Infinity, since early December, working as one of four singers who lead the boat’s big shows on the main stage every night—pop, bluegrass, country, folk, you name it. As someone who wants to work on Broadway someday, this was my dream gig. But on March 13, everything changed.

I went to bed in darkness and woke up in that same darkness. It always felt like it was 2 a.m. That lasted for five days.

That day, it was announced that all passengers would be getting off in Miami and there wouldn’t be any new ones coming aboard until further notice because of the new coronavirus regulations. We were later told that the crew would need to stay on board for a 14-day isolation period and that we’d still be getting paid.

At first, it was like a mini vacation. The pools, hot tubs, spas, and fitness centers were all open for our own recreational use. The specialty restaurants were open at a discounted price. The bars served liquor early in the day until late at night. On-board musicians played every evening; the production cast put on a show. I was still singing.

julia whitcomb

The single-bunk, windowless room Julia and her boyfriend spent the first five days of isolation.

Then the first sign something was going on: Security guards were seen near certain crew members’ doors. On March 23, we understood why: A person who had disembarked from the ship had tested positive for COVID-19.

That’s when things got scary. We were suddenly isolated to “crew only” areas. All social events were canceled. Meals were served in tiny dining halls where it got so crowded it was impossible to socially distance. We had hand-washing monitors. We were no longer allowed to serve food to ourselves. Members of the food and beverage department wore masks and gloves and were instructed not to allow us to touch anything. They served us food and handed us cutlery and beverages. Salt and pepper shakers were even removed from every table.

I waved goodbye to my friends who were able to get off the boat and went back to my cabin. It was one of the hardest moments of my life.

We started having regular temperature checks twice a day and full sanitization of the ship starting at 9 a.m. every morning. But we were still roaming around, without masks, anchored off the coast of Tampa for five days, wondering when we would get to go home.

(When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Celebrity Cruises directed Cosmo to CDC guidance and stated the following: “Our priority is getting our crew home safely. We have been working closely with health officials to make sure this happens. We submitted a plan to the CDC and are awaiting their feedback. We continue to work with all appropriate authorities to establish a safe and secure way for all of our crew members to return home as soon as possible.”)

Isolation began March 28. We were told to remain in our cabins and that there would be a “zero tolerance” policy for leaving at any time. There were temperature checks twice a day and meals delivered three times a day. My boyfriend and I were bunked in his windowless single room on a lower deck, without fresh air.

julia whitcomb
Julia’s current room on board the ship.

photo courtesy of Julia Whitcomb

After a few days of not having any sunlight and poor ventilation, my eyes began to hurt from the lack of light. My body felt heavy and exhausted. The carpet started to smell and the air got musty—the walls were sticky and humid. I cried every single day, my mood in a constant swing. I went to bed in darkness and woke up in that same darkness. It always felt like it was 2 a.m. That lasted for five days.

Information was scarce and unclear. Once I was told that I’d be moved to a room with a window. Another time, I was told that there were none, despite the boat being nearly empty. My mom was able to raise enough of an alarm with an HR manager that eventually my boyfriend and I were moved. We had a window. I was hopeful.

On April 9, one day before the CDC’s 14-day isolation period would end, we were told that the boat would dock in Miami and any U.S. citizen could get off the ship, as long as they could arrange a way home. That later changed. We could get off the ship but only if the cruise ship company drove us to our homes (seafarers are restricted from flying on commercial planes).

Celebrity did arrange for a bus to take people to certain states, like North Carolina and Georgia, but my home state of Illinois was deemed impossible to arrange on such short notice. I waved goodbye to my friends who were able to get off the boat and went back to my cabin. It was one of the hardest moments of my life. I wanted to go home and see my family.

I am in that dark place. I feel hopeless. My anxiety has never been this bad before. I need to see my family.

Since then, the past few weeks have been a blur. We’re now allowed to leave our rooms for three hours a day, one hour for each meal. We’ve been told a few times that we’ll finally be allowed to disembark from the ship, but each time, that offer has been rescinded.

The days are numbing. I go to bed late; I don’t really sleep much. I wake up in the morning to someone taking my temperature. I have Wi-Fi and try to watch Netflix. I take really long showers—it’s the only time I have privacy. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner come and go. And then it starts all over again. I haven’t sung in a really long time.

cruise ship performer, julia whitcomb
Julia performing before the quarantine began.

Courtesy of Julia Whitcomb

I have experienced clinical depression in the past. I know what it feels like, what it does to your brain. I am in that dark place. I feel hopeless. My anxiety has never been this bad before. I need to see my family. I am preparing myself for the work I’ll have to do to recover from this.

I feel very lost. I can’t see Miami anymore. The ship is now headed to sea, to wait. For what, I don’t know.

Those of us on the ship and those of us on land: We share the exact same concerns—the uncertainty about the future: Are we going to be able to keep our jobs? Can we rely on the income? Is it going to be enough? When are things going to get back to normal? Those questions cycle through my head, on and on. But above all else, I wonder: It’s been 33 days. When am I going to get off this ship?

Elizabeth Kiefer is a features editor at Cosmopolitan, where she focuses on enterprise stories, narrative reporting, and cultural coverage for the magazine’s print and digital platforms.

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