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A Stranded Cruise Passenger on Staying Cheerful Through a Coronavirus Quarantine

Not what anyone bargained for when they signed up for a cruise. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

Susanne Bywater and her husband, Dan, are two of the roughly 3,700 passengers aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess, currently docked off the coast of Japan, which has become a floating symbol of the coronavirus epidemic sweeping China. As of Thursday, more than 44 new cases of the coronavirus were confirmed, upping the total to more than 218 who have been infected and transported to local hospitals.

The remaining passengers are enduring a two-week-long quarantine onboard — except those considered “medially vulnerable,” who are allowed to exit the ship and wait things out under observation at medical facilities onshore.

The couple had expected to disembark on February 4, only to be told by authorities that they had to stay put. But despite the monotonous routine that has been their life lately, they’re managing to keep things in perspective, and their sense of humor alive.

Where did you board? 
In Yokohama. We got on the Diamond Princess the first day of the cruise, January 20.

Was this a planned trip?
We’ve been planning this for about a year and a half. We’d always wanted to see some of Asia; my niece decided that she’d like to come, and then it became a family trip.

You’re with your husband, Dan. And as you said, you have other family on board too. How has this ordeal been for all of you?
We’re entering our ninth day. At first, the news was rather stunning. But the captain and the crew have done their very best to shift gears.

Is anyone leaving their room at this point?
Oh no, we haven’t been leaving our rooms since February 5. At 8 o’clock that morning, we were told that we needed to be confined to our cabins.

Do you remember how that was announced?
The captain came on at 6:30 a.m. and said, “Good morning” and he had some updates for us because we’d been quarantined one day, but we still were able to get out and about. He said, “I have an announcement. Everybody return to your cabin.” And then at 8 o’clock he came on, and told us that the Japanese Health Ministry determined that we would be under a 14-day quarantine.

Have you seen anyone who’s sick or know anyone who’s sick?
Once we came back to our cabins, we couldn’t talk to anyone other than by telephone, room to room. We’re part of a six-person group, and we’re all fine.

That’s good news. How old are you, may I ask?
I’m 63.

And your husband?
He’s actually 70. He had his birthday under quarantine. [Laughs.]

That’s sort of funny. 
No, it wasn’t funny.

I meant you’re together, and I’m sure making the best of it under the circumstances. 
Well, the funny part about it is, he was turning 70 and he really doesn’t like his birthday to be made a big deal. But all last year, I was planning to do something big for it. I was trying to do maybe a party at home, or maybe a small getaway. Just circumstances prevented us from doing that. I knew we’d be on the cruise — well, we should have been off the cruise by then. So I was trying to attempt a late birthday party. And as it turns out this happened so there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. Fortunately, we have internet. I posted on his birthday and could people please call him or send emails, Facebook wishes. So they did. We got a huge response.

What do you both do back in Arizona?
We’re both retired.

What did you do before you retired?
I was a court reporter.

And your husband?
He was in law enforcement.

So what are you doing with your days? Are you staring out the window? What are you 
We’re not staring out the window. We’re actually in an interior cabin.

Were things normal, even right before the announcement?
Yes.

Were activities winding down as the coronavirus was becoming more prominent?
The ship didn’t wind down activities. But most people did, because we were packing and expecting to get off. Then the evening of February 3, the Japanese health officials boarded the ship and started testing everyone. They asked deck by deck to go to our cabins and knock on each door to test us. We were supposed to get off the morning of the 4th. But on the morning of the 4th they told us we’re not going to be able to get off until they tested — not tested — but interviewed and took the temperature of everyone. That took about 24 hours to complete.

Has everyone managed to get along?
As far as I can tell. My husband and I are doing well. You have to think outside of the box, be a little creative. The first thing you have to do is get your mind straight. There was nothing we could do to change things. So you work through the shock of it all. You can’t be angry and think, “I’m going to bust out of here.” You can’t have those sorts of thoughts. We realized that for the next 14 days, there was nothing we could do to change the situation, so we had to make the best of it. The captain and crew have been wonderful.

Have there been any signs of people trying to commit some shade of mutiny?
No. There were a couple people who started a Facebook group for just the people on the ship. It’s kind of a safe place to communicate because we can’t leave our rooms. People are generally pretty encouraging to each other. People are like, “Have you gotten your food yet?”

What are you having for your meals? Not MREs, I hope. 
The ship had to shift gears because now everything is literally room service. They had to streamline it.

Are you eating American food? Japanese? A mix?
It’s definitely a mix, because half the passengers are Japanese. The food all along has been a good mix for Japanese and Western food.  During the cruise part we had miso soup every day. There was obviously rice available every day. Seaweed, stir fry-type things. Fish. And since we’ve been quarantined, it leans toward that. Breakfast has always been an egg, bread, bacon, or scrambled eggs and veggies. We get fruit with every meal.

Oh can you hold on? We’re getting an announcement.

A CASCADE OF DINGS FROM A DIGITAL BELL…

Speaker with British/Australian accent: “We’re now ready to call our first guests to spend some time on the upper decks. Guests in balcony staterooms on leader deck, Deck 14, you may proceed to the open area of Deck 7, promenade deck on the port side. Deck 8, you may proceed to the open area of Deck 15. Before heading out please re-familiarize with requirements by the Japanese quarantine officials by reading the notice on the upper deck schedule. A kind reminder that the time to return to your state room is 9 o’clock this morning. Thank you.”

That’s been a typical announcement to announce our time to go out on the decks.

ANOTHER CASCADE OF DINGS FROM DIGITAL BELL

(Sighs) They’re going to announce it in Japanese now, hold on.

So you can go out on the decks? 
In small groups. There are restrictions …

They have us on specific decks. There’s one deck under the lifeboats, actually. It runs most of the length of the ship. But it’s only 10-12 feet wide so we walk walk walk back and forth just to get blood flowing. [Laughs.] The other group goes on the top deck that goes around the pool. But they’re still confined to one side of the ship. I don’t know the reasoning behind that. Those are the rules.

How many times are you able to go out to get the walks?
Since the beginning of the quarantine we have been out five times I believe. We get to go out for an hour and a half at a time. We can breathe the sea air and look at the sunshine. That has been a Godsend. That was the one thing that was beginning to bother me. But we decided to get a schedule. We get up in the morning. We turn literally all the lights that are in here so it’s as bright as possible for the circadian. I know it’s not natural sunlight, but it helps. In the evening after dinner we turn off most of the lights. We still leave some one. As we approach bedtime, we turn everything off except the two bed stand lights. And work our way into evening, I mean night time. It is totally dark in here. It’s kind of a cocoon. It’s pitch black. The beds have feather mattress toppers and feathered duvet things. So it becomes soft and squishy and just becomes a little cocoon.

What has been helpful is that the cruise ship has large flatscreen TV in every room. They have on there as a matter of regularity, you can choose “Bridge Camera” and it looks forward from the ship. And so during the day a lot of times we’ll just turn that on and leave it on. It acts kind of like a window for us. But at night it’s all dark.

You’re in this mini bubble that’s become your room. At least you’re not with a stranger. 
You’ve been married for how many years?
Let me count! [Laughs.] Thirteen and a half years.

It seems very ad hoc, but everyone seems to be abiding by the rules. Forgive the comparison here, but is everyone walking around almost like a prison yard?
We don’t have quite that much room. Today we’ll be able to experience the other deck. But so far we’ve been experiencing the same one. And it really is a long deck along the side of the boat — the ship. It’s probably 10 feet wide at most. So it’s more back and forth — straight back and forth. There are no corners to turn.  

How many other guests are with you?
Danny, what would you say, maybe 100? They’ll let out like all of the interior rooms on our deck — however many that is. We go out in those kinds of groups. Then we’re out in a specific period. They tell us what time to be back. And I want to say it’s the honor system. [Laughs.] But, if we don’t come back there will no longer be an honor system.

There’s no dinner bell or horn signaling you have to return to your cabin. 
If it takes you 15 minutes to get ready, everybody goes at their own pace. And if you want to come back early that’s fine. That’s left up to us.

They’re keeping you there for 14 days. And after that time, if you show no symptoms, you anticipate being released. But you don’t know. 
We’ve been told at first it was a minimum of 14 days. And then in the last few days they have come out and said, word form the Japanese Ministry of Health is that we will be released and cleared for future travel home. So, once we get home we shouldn’t be under any further quarantine, because we’ve done the 14 days. From what I understand that’s what the World Health Organization is recommending. And the CDC.

Are you hoping to get a refund for this trip? 
We now have notice that Princess will refund the cruise for everyone. That includes cruise, hotels, airfare — everything that we purchased on the ship on the cruise even. Like drinks at night.

When you go out, is everyone wearing their masks?
That is a requirement by Japanese officials. At first we were required to wear disposable gloves and masks. And we were supposed to stay one meter from a person, even if we stopped to talk. About the second time we went out they changed that. We no longer had to wear gloves. But they have hand sanitizer, both when we go onto the deck and when we come back. And they require us to wash our hands with soap and water when we get back to our cabin. That restriction had been lifted. They brought back the face masks, before we went out. They brought out new ones now that are better masks.

When did you get those?
The ship has provided them. In fact, I have four sets of masks here. [Laughs.]

Really? Nice that they’ve done that. You said when you first went out you all had to wear protective gloves.
Those thin disposable ones.

When you went out, it was one meter between a person, but could you talk?
We could talk, but just couldn’t stand in close proximity to the others.  If you want to, we can stand around in groups and talk. We don’t have to walk up and down the deck. Most of us choose to.

But in the beginning they kept it a but more rigid. 
As the captain explained the more we comply with the Japanese Ministry of Health’s requirements and we show we’re willing to comply, the less restrictive they are with us. The current requirements are that we use a mask, we use the hand sanitizer coming and going and I’m sure before they let us not use the gloves, I’m sure they went out and sanitized the deck so we’re not bringing new germs to the deck. Or picking up new germs.

It may seem a little odd, but are you feeling somewhat suspicious of other people because you just don’t know who may be sick or not? I know in New York when SARS was spreading, people were ducking for cover on subway trains whenever someone sneezed. Has some of that paranoia kicked in, even subtly?
I don’t think I’ve seen that kind of behavior. Dan and I try to be careful that we maintain that meter thing. And if we stop we make sure we’re a way away from people. I honestly don’t remember any sneezing or coughing happening.

Those coughs or sneezes could be innocent. But under the circumstances… 
Exactly. I suppose after the fact and turn around and think about it. but generally it’s not on my mind. I’m hoping to never take it for granted. We take all of those things in life for granted. I’m hoping I will never lose that feeling.

The ship has just been so generous. They’re doing their best to make the best of a bad situation. The evening of the 3rd, when the health officials decided they wanted to test everybody before we were officially quarantined, the ship opened up their Wi-Fi to everyone. Before, it had been on a purchase package kind of thing. But they opened it up so we could call our airlines and let them know we weren’t going to be there in the morning. Since then they have left it open, 24/7. They’ve gone to the extra effort of purchasing more bandwidth, because it was kind of slow.They’ve done everything they can to make life comfortable for us. They have an on-demand section on the tv. They’ve added movies daily, a TV series. They always printed crossword puzzles and Sudoku — now they print them daily and distribute them to the cabin. And they had the crew record like stretching segments, Tai Chi, little dance — 10, 15 minutes of dance moves.

Are you guys partaking? 
Yeah, why not. We’ve started to do the Tai Chi stretching thing.

Ever do that before? 
No. We’re more of a traditional exercise type people. It’s really cute, they have a kind of “Good Morning America” program that they do for the ship – even on the cruise. Giving you weather conditions. Interviewing the chef or something like that. They’ve continued doing that. And added in all this extra physical movement type videos just to give us something to do.
And then they started printing international news and articles so we can stay up to date.

They slide that under your door?
Outside every room is a little rack. We call it our mailbox. That’s how they deliver papers and the dinner menu and things like that. They just put it in there. Yesterday they delivered a copy of the New York Times and it’s incorporating the Japanese Times. The literal newspaper.

You should keep those. They will become mementos.  It’s nice to have a paper to read rather than on the internet. 
They brought by — I think it’s mostly for the interior cabins —multivitamins.

Why do you think they did that just for the interior? 
Our assumption was for the vitamin D.

Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask you. 
We’re not getting the same amount of rays of sunshine compared to others. That’s impressive they thought of that. They are thinking day and night to make things better for us. We have nothing but praise for Princess’s response.

Staying Cheerful Through a Coronavirus Quarantine