The 31 days Diana and Allan Chow spent quarantined together in tight, nerve wracking conditions were some of the most emotionally harrowing in their 36-year-long marriage.
For the first 16 days, the Toronto spouses were confined to their cabin on the Diamond Princess in Japan, where more than 700 people were stricken with COVID-19 last month. As infection spread rapidly among their fellow passengers (including a friend on board), the couple refused to leave their cabin for the walks staff had allowed outside in designated areas. Stuck in their tiny room, they monitored the news non-stop and disinfected everything that came to their door, their panic mounting that the “virus is at our feet,” said Ms. Chow, a 59-year-old retired banking manager.
After she and her husband disembarked from the Diamond Princess with no symptoms, their quarantine continued: 15 days in a spartan room at a conference centre in Cornwall, Ont.
While the spouses are grateful for their good health, the crisis tested them, forcing them to operate as a team – to lift one up when the other was down.
“I could see my wife, a couple of times she got almost close to a nervous breakdown,” said Mr. Chow, a 64-year-old retired computer engineer. “I’m not saying I’m not scared – I am. But I just cannot show it. [I had] to become a stronger person to look after her.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates worldwide, many more spouses will likely find themselves quarantined together for prolonged periods of time. Couples who’ve emerged after weeks confined in cramped ship cabins and sparse rooms at military bases described intense fears of being infected, frustration at not knowing what comes next and unrelenting boredom, with little but Netflix and meal deliveries to look forward to. For some spouses, the strain of being trapped together for weeks in small spaces tested their relationships in unexpected ways, and their experiences offer a window into getting through a modern-day quarantine.
Holed up in their cabin, the Chows spent much of their time scouring the news, reaching out to government officials and strategizing with family over social media. Using the cabin’s land line phone, they shared information with other Canadian passengers. They also created a Twitter account – CabinE207PrincessCruise – to give outsiders a glimpse into quarantined life.
The husband and wife did their best to give each other space in the teeny cabin. The bathroom offered a sliver of privacy. Mr. Chow got his exercise by pacing the room while his wife sat on the bed. Stressed out, they had trouble sleeping at night, napping in 20-minute spurts instead.
Occasionally, tempers flared. Mr. Chow would wipe down anything that came into the room and insisted on doing all the couple’s laundry by hand, including the bathroom towels. Sometimes, Ms. Chow would let her guard down on the cleaning protocol, prompting a scolding from her husband. “I have to remind her, ‘Wash your hands!’” Mr. Chow said.
John and Assunta Gerretsen of Kingston, Ont., were isolated for 100 hours in a windowless cabin aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship in California, where more than 3,000 passengers were quarantined earlier this month.
“For those 100 hours, other than to let food in, we were away from daylight,” said Mr. Gerretsen, a 77-year-old retired politician. “There’s no question you get to know each other a lot better.”
A typical day in the couple’s cabin involved lots of internet-surfing, card games, Downton Abbey and video-guided t'ai chi.
Fears of the unknown made for some tense moments on board, but Mr. Gerretsen said nothing the quarantine threw at them could shake their 52-year-long marriage: “You get cooped up with anybody and somebody may just say something that’s a little bit rough around the edges. That’s no different than the rest of life.”
Disembarking from the Grand Princess on March 9, the husband and wife were then quarantined for another two weeks at a military base in Trenton, Ont. Last Wednesday, Ms. Gerretsen passed the time knitting while Mr. Gerretsen did their laundry. They took walks outside, within a perimeter designated around the motel-like lodgings. Amid reports that a fellow cruise passenger tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving at the base, the Gerretsens decided against watching the barrage of TV news. Instead, they kept spirits up FaceTiming with family. “My four-year-old grandson said, ‘Oh, Grandpa and Grandma are trapped!’” Mr. Gerretsen said.
Other couples are hunkering down at home, like Toronto’s Shirley and William Ma, who voluntarily self-isolated for 14 days after returning from a family vacation in China last month.
To avoid contact with the outside world, the couple asked their daughter to deliver groceries before they arrived. Later, they shopped online for food, ensuring deliveries were left outside.
While Ms. Ma, a 54-year-old construction estimator, worked from home, her husband read, wrote, cooked and cleaned. After two weeks of self-isolation, husband and wife were symptom-free – and thankful for the time together. “We enjoyed the two person’s world as an extension of our vacation,” said Mr. Ma, 54.
Thornhill, Ont.-based psychologist and relationship expert Sara Dimerman urged spouses herded into quarantine to try and balance their time as a couple and as individuals, to read or eat separately whenever possible.
Resting is critical, but Ms. Dimerman advised couples to maintain some structure in their days. Cards and board games help keep the mind occupied, she said, as does decluttering or tackling a to-do list, for those at home.
After completing their quarantine in Cornwall on March 6, the Chows voluntarily decided to self-isolate at their Toronto home for at least one more week, to be triple sure they are virus-free and pose no risk to anyone. They’ve been cooking, cleaning and sifting through mountains of long-neglected paperwork around the house.
With newscasts turning more dire by the day, Ms. Chow has turned away, watching “happy stuff” like The Price is Right instead. She and her husband are anxious about re-emerging to the outside world.
“We’re both still paranoid of the whole situation,” she said. “This is our new way of life.”
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