Hundreds of Canadians left stranded on a California cruise ship were set to return home Monday night as the federal Public Health Agency warned all Canadians to avoid cruise travel amid a growing global outbreak of COVID-19.
The Grand Princess finally docked in Oakland on Monday afternoon after nearly five days spent sitting in the waters off the Northern California coast. California officials had refused to allow the ship to dock at its regular terminal in San Francisco because of fears that some aboard had contracted the novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 infection. At least 21 people – 19 crew and two passengers – have since tested positive for the virus.
All 230 Canadians on board the ship were set to disembark midafternoon Monday and ordered to wear thin face masks as they left. A crew announcement later Monday indicated all Canadians had left the ship.
Those who cleared medical screenings were expecting to be bused to an airport hangar in Oakland and then board a plane later that evening. They were set to arrive at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, an air base in Eastern Ontario, at 5:15 a.m. Tuesday to start a 14-day quarantine. Passengers who failed medical screenings would be treated in U.S. health-care facilities before they would be allowed to return home, Canadian officials said.
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Monday that the cruise line would shoulder the cost of repatriating Canadian passengers. Mr. Champagne said it was “very exceptional circumstances” that prompted the federal government to step in to help, including a request from the U.S. government and the need to act to prevent the spread of disease in North America.
Princess Cruises, operated by Florida-based Carnival Corp., said it would give passengers on the ship full refunds for their cruise and other travel expenses, including most on-board purchases and gratuities. The company said it would also offer passengers a credit for a free cruise.
Monday marked the beginning of the end of the multiday ordeal for the 3,500 passengers and crew who were aboard the Grand Princess for a 15-day Hawaiian cruise that was cut short after the crew learned that a California man who was on the ship for a previous voyage to Mexico in February had died after contracting the virus.
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Health authorities in several provinces have tied at least nine cases of COVID-19 to cruise-ship travel, most of them to the Grand Princess. They include four cases in Alberta, two in British Columbia, two in Ontario and one in Quebec. At least two other Princess cruise ships have been held off the coast of Florida in recent days while they awaited test results from crew who had transferred from the Grand Princess.
The growing concern over outbreaks of COVID-19 on cruise ships prompted Canada’s chief public health officer Theresa Tam to officially recommend Monday that Canadians avoid all cruise travel.
“Cruise ships have passengers from around the world who may be arriving from areas with known or unknown spread of the novel coronavirus,” Dr. Tam said. “The virus can spread quickly on board cruise ships due to the close contact between passengers.”
The U.S. State Department issued a similar advisory against cruise travel Sunday.
On the Grand Princess, several Canadian passengers said they were expecting to remain on board for at least another day. California officials previously announced plans to prioritize disembarking sick passengers first, followed by local California residents. Passengers were surprised to get a notice from the ship’s crew at noon asking them to immediately pack up their belongings and be ready to leave within hours.
Former Ontario attorney-general John Gerretsen, who has been confined to an interior cabin since Thursday, said he finally got to take a 30-minute walk on the ship’s deck to get fresh air Monday morning before he and his wife rushed to pack their bags.
Retired Toronto teacher Myra Manly, travelling with her husband, also packed her bags hastily, anxious to get home. “I never appreciated so much how much I want to be back in Canada," she said. “I just want to get home and hug my grandchildren. That’s all I want. Every time I think of them I start crying.”
But Canadian passengers will likely have to wait another two weeks to see their family members, as federal officials have told the ship’s passengers that they won’t be allowed to have visitors during their two-week quarantine in Trenton. Ms. Manly, who was not experiencing any flu-like symptoms, said she wasn’t worried about the prospect of spending another two weeks confined to a military base with fellow passengers. “My husband said look at it like you’re going back to camp,” she said.
With reports from Laura Stone, James Keller and Adrian Morrow