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.
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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Police disinfect a van at a hotel in Buenos Aires on March 16, 2020 before going to Ezeiza International airport from where a couple of US tourists will be expelled from the country for violating coronavirus quarantine rules. The couple defied restrictions imposed on visitors to try to limit the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
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Peruvian army soldiers control traffic in Lima on March 16, 2020, in an attempt to persuade the population to stay at home, one day after President Martin Vizcarra announced a State of Emergency and a two-week nationwide home-stay quarantine together with the closure of all borders to fight the spread of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus. No fatalities have been recorded of the 86 cases of Covid-19 detected in the country.
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A Catalan Autonomous police officer, Mosso d’Esquadra, halts a woman who was jogging through Las Ramblas on March 15, 2020 in Barcelona, Spain. As part of the measures against the virus expansion the Government has declared a 15-day state of emergency which will come into effect today.
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People clap their hands and wave, in Rome, Saturday, March 14, 2020. At noon in Italy, people came out on their balconies, terraces, gardens or simply leaned out from open windows to clap for several minute in a gesture of thanks for the doctors, nurses, other hospital staff and ambulance crews who have been treating and helping infected patients.
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Medical staff members wearing protective suits take samples from a young boy to test for the novel coronavirus called COVID-19 at the Bulovka hospital in Prague, Czech Republic, Saturday, March 14, 2020. The Czech Republic’s government has approved further dramatic measures early Saturday to try and stem the spread of the coronavirus.
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People wearing masks and carrying supplies walk past a mannequin wearing a mask in downtown Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, March 14, 2020.
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Employees of the Istanbul Municipality wearing protective gear disinfects a subway carriage to prevent the spread of the COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus, in Istanbul on March 12, 2020. Turkey announced on March 11, 2020 its first coronavirus case, a man who had recently travelled to Europe and is in good health.
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Workers place a mask on the figure of the Fallas festival in Valencia, Wednesday March 11, 2020. The Fallas festival which was due to take place on March 13 has been cancelled over the coronavirus outbreak. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
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A disinfectant worker sprays anti-septic solution against COVID-19 aboard a firetruck along a street on March 11, 2020 in Manila, Philippines. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday declared a state of public health emergency as the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the country rose to 33 from just 3 cases last week. With over 115,000 confirmed cases around the world, the coronavirus has so far claimed over 4,000 lives.
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Medical staff celebrate after all patients were discharged at a temporary hospital set up to treat people with the COVID-19 coronavirus in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on March 9, 2020. China closed most of its makeshift hospitals for coronavirus patients, some schools reopened and Disney resort staff went back to work on March 9 as normality slowly returns to the country after weeks battling the epidemic.
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A staff member removes waste after the final patients were discharged at a temporary hospital set up to treat people with the COVID-19 coronavirus in a sports stadium in Wuhan, in China’s central Hubei province on March 8, 2020. – China on March 8 reported its lowest number of new coronavirus infections since January, with nearly all the 44 new cases in the outbreak epicenter Wuhan.
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A protester sprays protesters with sprays disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus during a rally demanding women’s right during the International Women’s Day in Tahrir square in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, March 8, 2020.
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In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, rescuers search for victims at the site of a hotel collapse in Quanzhou, southeast China’s Fujian Province, Sunday, March 8, 2020. Several people were killed and others trapped in the collapse of the Chinese hotel that was being used to isolate people who had arrived from other parts of China hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak, authorities said Sunday.
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Medics treat a patient infected with the new coronavirus, at a hospital in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, March 8, 2020. With the approaching Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, officials kept up pressure on people not to travel and to stay home. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour, who gave Iran’s new casualty figures Sunday, reiterated that people should not even attend funerals.
89/113 SLIDES © Johan Ordonez, AFP via Getty Images
A worker from the Guatemalan Health Ministry checks a passenger’s body temperature as a preventive measure against the new coronavirus, COVID-19, at the Aurora International Airport, in Guatemala City, on March 4, 2020.
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Volunteers spray disinfectant with a robot at a residental area in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on March 3, 2020. The world has entered uncharted territory in its battle against the deadly coronavirus, the UN health agency warned, as new infections dropped dramatically in China on March 3 but surged abroad with the US death toll rising to six.
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A worker wears protective clothing as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus as she watches over customers in a supermarket in Beijing on March 3, 2020.
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Army soldiers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in front of a branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, South Korea, Sunday, March 1, 2020. The coronavirus has claimed its first victim in the United States as the number of cases shot up in Iran, Italy and South Korea and the spreading outbreak shook the global economy.
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A woman walks past shelves where toilet paper was stocked and now sold out, at a shop in Tokyo on March 1, 2020. The COVID-19 viral outbreak across Japan and dozens of other countries has fueled concerns about the Summer Games, which open on July 24, after sports events were postponed or cancelled.
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A woman, wearing a face mask amid fears over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, watches an anti-government rally in Bangkok on March 1, 2020.
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People wearing face masks attend Mass at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, March 1, 2020. The church decided to replace Sunday services with online ones for members’ safety amid the spread of the COVID-19.
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Medical personnel attend to a patient in critical condition at a hospital designated for coronavirus patients in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province, Sunday, March 1, 2020. China on Sunday reported a slight uptick in new cases exceeded 500 over the past 24 hours. They remain almost entirely confined to the hardest-hit province of Hubei and its capital, the epicenter of Wuhan.
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Students wearing Disney character hats and face masks leave Tokyo Disneyland on the day it announced it will close until March 15th because of concerns over the COVID-19 virus, on Feb. 28, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. A growing number of events and sporting fixtures are being cancelled or postponed around Japan while some businesses are closing or asking their employees or work from home. Prime Minister Abe has also asked schools to close for around a month as COVID-19 cases continue to increase and concerns mount over the possibility that the outbreak will force the postponement or even cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics.
98/113 SLIDES © CHARLY TRIBALLEAU, AFP via Getty Images
Mask-clad commuters make their way to work during morning rush hour at the Shinagawa train station in Tokyo on Feb. 28, 2020. Tokyo’s key Nikkei index plunged nearly three percent at the open on February 28 after US and European sell-offs with investors worried about the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
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An Iraqi woman wearing a protective mask holds her cat as she poses for a picture during a protest against corruption in the Iraqi government in the southern city of Basra on Feb. 27, 2020. Mass rallies have Iraq since October, with protesters demanding snap elections and an independent prime minister as well as accountability for corruption and recent bloodshed. Meanwhile, the country confirmed its first novel coronavirus infection in an Iranian national studying in a Shiite seminary in the holy city of Najaf, in central Iraq, triggering widespread panic.
100/113 SLIDES © Ahn Young-joon, AP
Workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at a bus garage in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 26, 2020. The number of new virus infections in South Korea jumped again Wednesday and the U.S. military reported its first case among its soldiers based in the Asian country, with his case and many others connected to a southeastern city with an illness cluster.
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A couple wearing protective facemasks hold hands while walking along the waterfront in Hong Kong on February 22, 2020.
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A woman riding a bus wears a facemask on February 21, 2020 in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines.
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Spectators wear face masks to help prevent the spread of the SARS-like virus that originated in central China as they watch the exhibition gala at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Seoul on Feb. 9, 2020. South Korea has confirmed 27 cases of the new coronavirus virus so far.
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A shopper wearing face mask pushes a shopping cart in front of an empty shelves inside a grocery store on Feb. 9, 2020 in Hong Kong, China. Hong Kong has 29 confirmed cases of Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), with over 37,500 confirmed cases around the world, the virus has so far claimed over 800 lives.
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A Chinese woman wears a protective mask as she has her temperature checked before entering a park with her child on Feb. 9, 2020 in Beijing, China. The number of cases of a deadly new coronavirus rose to more than 37000 in mainland China Sunday, days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a global public health emergency. China continued to lock down the city of Wuhan in an effort to contain the spread of the pneumonia-like disease which medicals experts have confirmed can be passed from human to human. In an unprecedented move, Chinese authorities have put travel restrictions on the city which is the epicenter of the virus and municipalities in other parts of the country affecting tens of millions of people. The number of those who have died from the virus in China climbed to over 810 on Sunday, mostly in Hubei province, and cases have been reported in other countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, India, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and several others. The World Health Organization has warned all governments to be on alert and screening has been stepped up at airports around the world. Some countries, including the United States, have put restrictions on Chinese travelers entering and advised their citizens against travel to China.
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A child is seen wearing a facemask, as public fear over China’s Wuhan Coronavirus grows, at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Feb. 3, 2020 in Manila, Philippines. The Philippine government has been heavily criticized after failing to immediately implement travel restrictions on China, the source of a deadly coronavirus that has now killed more than 300 people and infected thousands more. On Sunday, the first coronavirus death outside of China was reported in the Philippines.
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Coaches transport eighty-three Britons and 27 foreign nationals who have been evacuated from Wuhan following a Coronavirus outbreak, from RAF Brize Norton to Arrowe Park Hospital in Merseyside, where they will be quarantined, on January 31, 2020 in Brize Norton, England. Two people in the same family have been diagnosed with the Coronavirus in the UK.
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A resident walks across a pedestrian crossing on January 31, 2020 in Wuhan, China. The city has continued to be evacuated and locked down by Chinese officials.
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A Chinese girl wears a plastic bottle as makeshift homemade protection and a protective mask while waiting to check in to a flight at Beijing Capital Airport on Jan. 30, 2020 in Beijing, China. The number of cases of a deadly new coronavirus rose to over 7000 in mainland China Thursday as the country continued to lock down the city of Wuhan in an effort to contain the spread of the pneumonia-like disease which medicals experts have confirmed can be passed from human to human. In an unprecedented move, Chinese authorities put travel restrictions on the city which is the epicenter of the virus and neighboring municipalities affecting tens of millions of people. The number of those who have died from the virus in China climbed to over 170 on Thursday, mostly in Hubei province, and cases have been reported in other countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and France. The World Health Organization has warned all governments to be on alert, and its emergency committee is to meet later on Thursday to decide whether to declare a global health emergency.
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A man uses alcohol to disinfect the grounds nearby the Wuhan Huoshenshan hospital construction site on Jan. 28, 2020 in Wuhan, China.
111/113 SLIDES © Betsy Joles, Getty Images
Chinese police officers wearing masks stand in front of the Tiananmen Gate on Jan. 26, 2020 in Beijing, China. The number of cases of coronavirus rose to 1,975 in mainland China on Sunday. Authorities tightened restrictions on travel and tourism this weekend after putting Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, under quarantine on Thursday. The spread of the virus corresponds with the first days of the Spring Festival, which is one of the biggest domestic travel weeks of the year in China. Popular tourism landmarks in Beijing including the Forbidden City, Badaling Great Wall, and The Palace Museum were closed to the public starting Saturday. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission announced it will delay reopening schools from kindergarten to university. The death toll on Sunday rose to 56. The majority of fatalities are in Wuhan where the first cases of the virus were reported last month.
112/113 SLIDES © Kevin Frayer, Getty Images
Chinese children wear protective masks as they wait to board trains at Beijing Railway station before the annual Spring Festival on Jan. 21, 2020 in Beijing, China. The number of cases of a deadly new coronavirus rose to nearly 300 in mainland China Tuesday as health officials stepped up efforts to contain the spread of the pneumonia-like disease which medicals experts confirmed can be passed from human to human. The number of those who have died from the virus in China climbed to six on Tuesday and cases have been reported in other parts of Asia including in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.
113/113 SLIDES © Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images
Disinfection professionals wear protective suits whilst spraying an anti-septic solution against the coronavirus (COVID-19) at a National Assembly on Feb. 24, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea.
113/113 SLIDES 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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