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Norwegian Jewel Passengers Stuck At Sea, Loved Ones Ashore In Limbo

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Passengers aboard the Norwegian Jewel had dreams of palm trees and sunny beaches in the South Pacific. Now they’re just dreaming of making it to solid land somewhere. The cruise ship has been turned away from multiple ports over coronavirus fears. As Colin Dwyer reports, thousands of passengers and their families are trying to understand what’s going on.

COLIN DWYER, BYLINE: This was supposed to be the perfect honeymoon. Jay Martinez and his wife are from Texas, but they long dreamed of an exotic destination.

JAY MARTINEZ: French Polynesia has been a lifelong dream of ours to explore.

DWYER: So two years ago, they booked a trip to a slew of South Pacific islands through Norwegian Cruise Line.

MARTINEZ: Of course, in two years, a lot can change. And in two days, a lot can change.

DWYER: Martinez is on board the Norwegian Jewel right now. Since he and more than 2,000 other passengers set out from Australia late last month, the new coronavirus has become a global pandemic. Businesses all over the world have closed their doors, and many of those islands have closed their ports to cruise ships, afraid that a swarm of tourists could overwhelm their medical resources. The Norwegian Jewel has not had any confirmed cases of COVID-19, but it was denied entry to French Polynesia a few days ago, then New Zealand.

MARTINEZ: We went to the bridge, and we did notice that about half an hour before that announcement was made, our cruise ship made a 180-degree turn.

JOLINE PINTO ATKINS: So they were basically at that point, as my mom was joking, lost at sea – and nowhere to land.

DWYER: Joline Pinto Atkins says her parents are aboard the ship, too. She woke up to a flurry of text messages from them but no information from the cruise line itself, even when she and her sister tried calling.

ATKINS: They even communicated that they didn’t even know that this was happening.

DWYER: Others who are stateside also complain about a lack of communication from Norwegian Cruise Line. Later, when asked for comment, the company told NPR that the ship is headed to Fiji. It says the ship is now expected to end its trip there on Tuesday.

Last week, Norwegian and two other major cruise lines announced that they were suspending new voyages. Meanwhile, Atkins has had only occasional messages from her parents to know what was even going on.

ATKINS: You know, their texts to us are kind of just the facts. You know, this port closed. This closed. This closed.

DWYER: In this sense, the Norwegian Jewel is not alone. Other ships have found themselves stuck in limbo in recent weeks after the virus was found on board. Some sat for long spells offshore after passengers tested positive. At least confirmed cases have not been a problem for the Norwegian Jewel, and Martinez says the crew on board has been diligent about trying to keep it that way.

MARTINEZ: Many guests are not allowed to get their own plates or serve themselves their own food. Condiments are now left off of the table. There’s no salt and pepper shakers. You cannot fill up your own water cup.

DWYER: Still, Martinez says the company has left them all to the wolves. Access to the outside world is hard to come by. Fights have broken out between passengers. And chaos, he says, feels right on the doorstep.

MARTINEZ: It feels a little bit like we’re on a powder keg. People are walking on eggshells. We’re a long way from home. There’s a lot of uncertainty that’s following us right now, ambiguity as to when, where this is going to end. But we’re trying to take it in stride and remain positive and keep spirits up.

DWYER: He says that he and his wife are trying to enjoy what’s left of their honeymoon, but they just can’t wait until they’re home again.

Colin Dwyer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.