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COVID-19 chaos: MSC Fantasia passengers 'kept in the dark' until day of disembarkation

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3/24/2020 Morgan Hines, USA TODAY
a blue and white boat sitting next to a body of water: 17. MSC Fantasia, built by MSC Cruises in 2008, weighs 137,936 GT and carries 3,274 people at double occupancy. © MSC Cruises 17. MSC Fantasia, built by MSC Cruises in 2008, weighs 137,936 GT and carries 3,274 people at double occupancy.

At 2 a.m. on Tuesday, MSC Fantasia passenger Julie Cruickshanks, 63, received a letter. It was pushed under the door in her stateroom on the Panamanian-flagged cruise ship, which was resting in port in Lisbon, Portugal.

After more than a week of confusion on board about itinerary changes, disembarkation processes, emails and announcements, Cruickshanks learned in the early hours of the morning she would be going home to Liverpool, England, that day – earlier than expected. 

On Sunday, MSC Fantasia disembarked its first group of passengers (all Portuguese nationals and residents) in Lisbon, the cruise line said in a statement provided by spokesperson Alyssa Goldfarb on Tuesday. After leaving the ship, two of those guests tested positive for coronavirus, the disease that has infected more than 417,000 people and killed more than 18,600 around the world, according to Johns Hopkins data.

"So far, British, Brazilian and German nationals/residents have disembarked, transferring from the ship to Lisbon Airport for their onward travel on MSC Cruises-provided charter flights," Goldfarb said Tuesday, the same day Cruickshanks and the other remaining passengers began disembarking.

"l think they wanted us off quickly," Cruickshanks told USA TODAY while riding a coach bus to the airport under police escort. '"It was chaos."

After receiving the letter, she and hundreds of others corralled in the ship's theater to pick up their passports. "We sat for four hours, all together."

It's common for cruise ships to hold onto passports on international cruises so passengers can have clearance to disembark at different ports around the world. The service is voluntary, Goldfarb told USA TODAY. 

Then, after having their temperatures taken twice on the ship, some Fantasia passengers boarded buses bound for the airport, where they were told to put a seat between them and the nearest passenger and to avoid sitting next to the windows. 

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But Cruickshanks, who left the ship wearing a mask she had carried on board herself, said that precautions were not followed during the disembarkation process. It was the opposite of social distancing. 

"We were packed like sausages just trying to get off the ship," she said. "It was stupid. It was very cramped. You were shoulder to shoulder – everyone pushing and shoving to get off."

The disembarkation process is expected to continue through Thursday – at least. 

"This is due to the extremely limited availability of flights into many of the countries where guests reside. For the great majority of passengers, MSC Cruises has organized – under the guidance of local authorities – direct charter flights or other transportation by nationality," the cruise line said.

Goldfarb told USA TODAY in an email that it's been a challenging process to get passengers off the ship because countries are rapidly altering their border entry guidelines and airports are limiting flights.

In response to Cruickshanks' allegation that it kept guests in the dark until the last minute, MSC said it notified passengers as soon as it was able to secure charter flights that could leave sooner than their original commercial flights, which were frequently being canceled and might have left passengers stranded. The cruise line said it made an "incredible" effort to update passengers whenever it got reliable information, in order to ensure the quickest and safest return trip possible.

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The ever-changing journey

When Cruickshanks boarded the ship in Rio de Janeiro on March 9, after traveling from London's Gatwick Airport, everything seemed normal. She was meant to disembark in Barcelona, Spain, though the cruise was scheduled to continue on to Italy, which was placed under a government-mandated lockdown that same day due to the outbreak there

Then, slowly, as coronavirus continued its spread, closing borders and bringing nations to a standstill, things began to change.

More than 1,000 passengers decided to pack up and leave the ship during a March 13 port call in Maceió, Brazil, Claudio Ferreira, a Brazilian passenger who boarded MSC Fantasia in Rio, told USA TODAY.

Neither Ferreira nor Cruickshanks was part of that group, which Ferreira said disembarked out of concern over countries closing borders.

At the time, MSC told passengers that Fantasia would be sticking to its itinerary, which called for Ferreira to disembark in Genoa, Italy.

Eventually, after it was announced that ports were to be skipped, Ferreira said that MSC told passengers that the ship would dock in Marseilles, France, before landing on Lisbon as its final destination. 

MSC said that the situation began to change rapidly soon after the ship left Brazil, with port availability (including Marseilles and Genoa) changing on a minute-by-minute basis. When Lisbon became available, the cruise line opted to do the disembarkation there so that passengers like Cruickshanks could return home as soon as possible and not run the risk of running into more port closures. 

Cruickshanks said she thought MSC, which is based in Geneva, handled the situation badly.

"I feel the people on the ship should have been told what was happening. We were told nothing. We were kept in the dark about the flights, about all the ports we were going to," she said. "They were still booking excursions knowing people were not going to these places."

On Saturday, Cruickshanks told USA TODAY she truly had no idea of when she would actually get home. They were told that they would be docking in Lisbon and unless they had an airline ticket, they could not disembark. "Nobody seems to know anything."

Eventually, she was told by a representative of Cruise Nation, the service through which she booked her MSC Fantasia sailing, that she would be going home on Wednesday.

That was before everything changed on Tuesday.

"To be honest, we didn’t know we were going home" until the 2 a.m. letter, Cruickshanks said.

They arrived at the airport without tickets and their bags were put on the plane. The only thing she knew was that she was going to London.

"We were not told we were disembarking and told nothing about this flight. We were not told where it was going; we didn’t know anything," she said. "l don’t have a clue why."

In a statement, the cruise line apologized to passengers for the inconveniences created by the situation and asked for their continued trust and understanding.

It's not just MSC: The entire cruise industry is scrambling

More than a week after it announced it would suspend operations, members of the Cruise Lines International Association are still scrambling to get passengers off ships – often in the nearest port that will allow them to do so  – and send them home to wait out the virus.

As of Tuesday morning, approximately 7.1%, or about 20 of CLIA's 277 member ships were still at sea and in the process of wrapping up voyages. The percentage of ships still in transit is down from 14% (or around 39 ships) Thursday.

"This is a highly fluid situation, with numbers changing by the hour as cruise ships around the world are completing their voyages," Bari Golin-Blaugrund, CLIA's senior director of strategic communications, told USA TODAY. 

"The vast majority of the rest are either at port, anchored or repositioning," Golin-Blaugrund said. "CLIA members are focused on the safe and smooth return home of those onboard cruise ships that are currently at sea."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 chaos: MSC Fantasia passengers 'kept in the dark' until day of disembarkation

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