‘Significant number’ of US crew still stuck on cruise ships, State Dept. says

(NEW YORK) — Twenty-seven-year-old Matthew Gordon is a performer on Holland America’s Volendam. Gordon is one of a “fairly significant number of U.S. citizen crew members” still stuck on cruise ships around the world, Ian Brownlee, the head of the State Department’s repatriation task force, told ABC News on Thursday.

Due to restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic local governments “are simply refusing to allow the ships to come in and dock,” Brownlee explained.

The Volendam is currently off the coast of the Bahamas and Gordon said the captain told employees this week it is likely the crew will be on board for up to another month.

“As an American citizen, I should have the freedom to go home and spend this quarantine in my own home,” Gordon told ABC News.

The State Department is working with governments where these ships are trying to dock so that U.S. citizens and others can get home, according to Brownlee.

“We’re continuing to press to let these folks get off the ships,” Brownlee said. “In the meantime, they’re on board the ship where they’re being fed and taken care of by the cruise lines themselves.”

Gordon called life aboard the Volendam “eerie” without guests — the casino, theater and dining room are now all virtually empty. His contract only entitled him pay through April 16.

“A lot of people seem to think we’re on vacation, but this is not a fun, frivolous thing,” Gordon said.

The Volendam has not been able to dock in Port Everglades since guests disembarked from its last cruise almost a month ago, according to a Holland America spokesperson.

“We believe the ship will be able to come into Port Everglades this weekend for normal ship operations and provisioning,” the spokesperson told ABC News. “We are working to obtain permission to repatriate as many crewmembers as possible when the ship is in, and we will keep crew updated on board as to the status of this request.”

On Monday, the U.S. Coast Guard said it is monitoring 25 cruise ships anchored in U.S. waters with 18,900 crew members on board, 26 cruise ships moored in U.S. ports with 20,900 crew members on board, and eight cruise ships underway in U.S. waters with 8,300 crew members on board.

Julia Melim from New York was one of seven U.S. citizens allowed to disembark Celebrity’s Infinity in Miami on Monday. Melim said they called themselves “the lucky seven.”

Less than a month ago her fellow crewmember died after being medically evacuated from the Infinity. The U.S. Coast Guard said the employee was exhibiting COVID-19-like symptoms.

“it just really feels like being in a prison,” Melim said when asked about being quarantined on the ship. “We don’t have the full ability to communicate with the outside world, even with each other, because we’re all isolated in our cabins.”

Melim is the first U.S. citizen to join a class-action lawsuit against Celebrity filed Tuesday on behalf of over a thousand Celebrity Cruises employees alleging the company failed to protect its crew members working aboard ships amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“Celebrity egregiously failed to take even the most basic steps to protect its crew members from the rampant spread of coronavirus,” Michael Winkleman, a Miami-based maritime attorney, said in an interview with ABC News.

The lawsuit claims that the cruise industry received an “early warning of how easily COVID-19 could spread on massive ocean liners” when the first cases were reported on Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess.

From Feb. 7 to Feb. 23, the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases outside mainland China were on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The ship was placed under quarantine for more than two weeks in Yokohama, Japan.

“Despite having notice that COVID-19 was and/or likely was present aboard the vessels,” the complaint alleges the company allowed its employees to attend crew parties aboard the ships, eat in buffet settings and mandated their participation in shipboard drills.

When asked for comment, Celebrity Cruises said it does not comment on pending litigation.

According to the CDC, over the last two months outbreaks on three cruise ships have caused more than 800 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States among passengers and crew, including 10 deaths.

“COVID-19 on cruise ships poses a risk for rapid spread of disease, causing outbreaks in a vulnerable population, and aggressive efforts are required to contain spread,” the agency said.

The CDC recommends that everyone should defer all cruise travel worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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