In late February, as the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in the US, Melinda Mann, a crew member with the cruise company Holland America, boarded the Oosterdam in San Diego, to take a job working with youth staff and children on board.
More than 50 days on, Mann is still at sea. Her contract ended in mid-April but she’s not allowed to leave. Passengers—the first priority—were allowed to depart in March, but crew members, covered by separate safety guidelines, cannot. Mann, who spoke to Quartz from a ship moored in international waters off the Mexican coast near Tijuana, is one of tens of thousands of cruise ship employees and their family members stuck on vessels throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Most are not being paid.
The days go by, one by one: She passes the time reading, playing her Nintendo Switch, and occasionally browsing Reddit, when the internet connection—which costs her $10 a GB—can support it. A few times a day, she told Quartz, she and the other hundreds of crew members on board are allowed to walk around the outside deck, providing they wear masks and keep their distance. “That is our only opportunity to see each other, beyond leaning over the balcony and yelling at each other.”
Food comes to her, three times a day: a salad or fruit, a main course, and a small dessert. “It’s hard to get clearance to dock for supplies,” she says. Her current ship—she transferred from the Oosterdam as Holland American consolidated crews—will restock in the next few days then “meet up with other ships at sea and share the supplies.”
Mann has done everything she can to get off, including asking friends and family to share public Facebook posts explaining the situation and hanging homemade banners from her window, which were later removed. “I filmed myself trying to leave the ship, and was threatened with forcible detainment by ship security,” she said.
More desperate appeals have also been unsuccessful. “I even asked to be arrested and taken into custody,” she said, “but they would not let me into the US.”
There may be as many as 100,000 people in precisely the same situation—stuck at sea, with no clarity on when they’ll be able to go home. Some boats are within spitting distance of a port, while others are out in international waters.
Whose fault it is depends very much on who you ask. Cruise ship workers are allowed to disembark in the US—but only if cruise lines submit a stringent signed attestation, which commits them to a variety of requirements, as set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These include paying for crew members’ transport home and ensuring each person commits to responsible social distancing. Workers may not stay in hotels, use public transport or commercial flights, or enter airport terminals, committing their employers to chartering planes instead.
Perhaps most importantly, cruise companies’ chief medical officer, chief compliance officer, and CEO must sign an agreement to these terms that notes: “False or misleading statements or omissions may result in criminal and civil actions for fines, penalties, damages, and imprisonment.”
The CDC feels these requirements are necessary, given the potential scope of the problem; cruise companies and some crew members alike have decried them as needlessly draconian, not to mention eye-wateringly expensive, especially on ships where no one is unwell.
“I completely understand why [the companies] have been unwilling to sign,” Mann told Quartz. Instead, she lays the blame with the US: As a citizen, she said, it seems “a violation of my civil rights” to refuse her entry to her home country. “I’m as American as it gets. And my own country sent me away against my will.”
In an interview, Jim Walker, a Miami-based maritime lawyer, was more critical of the companies’ failure to pay up to get their employees home. “The last time I checked, all of these cruise lines, they literally made over a billion dollars each last year,” he said. “They don’t pay US taxes, they don’t comply with US wage and labor laws. Suddenly, they decide—this crazy sector that makes $10 or $20 billion a year—they say, ‘We’re not going to pay for them to have a private charter.’ I think it’s outrageous.”
There’s a legal question here too, he says: According to maritime law, cruise lines have a “fundamental obligation” to get their employees safely home. “It doesn’t say they get to make a decision not to do that if they think it’s too expensive.”
Gradually, however, the cruise lines are beginning to fold. The CDC keeps a running tally online: In the past week, multiple cruise lines have bitten the bullet and signed the form, allowing more than 40 ships, and thousands of crew members, to have their disembarkation approved. Mann has been told that her current ship, the Koningsdam, will be cleared to disembark on May 8.
In an email to Quartz, Jonathon Fishman, a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean, acknowledged there were still thousands of crew members at sea, but said that 12,000 had already returned home via commercial flights, charter flights, and direct sailings. The others would be “going home in coming weeks,” Fishman said, as work with governments and health authorities continued. Other cruise companies, including Carnival and Holland America, did not respond to requests for comment.
Erika Monet Butters, a former singer with Holland America, has a particular challenge: She has spent the last seven or so weeks on board with her two-year-old, Ezra. (Her husband is a navigation officer; the family travels together on his contract.) Her son has struggled with the changes, she said: “He went from getting all of this attention from everyone, playing with whoever he wanted, being in the pool all day, to social distancing, wearing a mask each time we leave the cabin, and no more pool.”
Instead, they are making do with toys from home and crayons, paper, and other craft items supplied by the crew. To pass the time, and let family and friends know she is safe and well, Butters has filmed herself singing dozens of covers of favorite songs, for a series she calls “Melodies at Sea.” The crowning jewel among them is a Moana cover seen by thousands, filmed against a background of infinite blue ocean, in which she implores the CDC to let them come home: “I’ve been staring down at the water, long as I can remember,” she sings. “Is today gonna be the day?”
In the abstract, it doesn’t sound so bleak—sunny weather, crystal skies and seas, free room and board. The escape is, after all, why so many people choose to go on a cruise in the first place. Aboard both the Holland America and the Emerald Princess ship she is currently on, Butters says, the companies have handled it amazingly well, down to providing her child with his favorite snacks. “They have kept us healthy and safe on board, and we are so grateful for that.” But after more than 40 days in limbo, it’s not hard to understand why she’d be desperate to return to the car waiting for so many weeks in the parking lot of the Fort Lauderdale port.
For Mann, who has spent more than two years working on ships, choosing to speak to the media against her employer’s wishes may put an end to a career that she otherwise adores. “I have really, really enjoyed working on a cruise ship,” she said. “I actually truly loved my job—before all this happened.”