Working on a cruise ship, getting to see all parts of the world, sounds like paradise. For Julia Whitcomb, a 2014 Belvidere North graduate, it’s become a personal hell.
Tuesday marked the 31st day that she was stranded on a Celebrity Cruises ship off the coast of Florida, confined to her cabin for 21 hours a day.
"For anyone who has been in isolation, they know it’s just a desperately scary situation," her mother, Lisa Whitcomb, said in a telephone interview. Julia is one of Lisa and Jim Whitcomb’s 10 children, all adopted. "I’m very, very concerned about her mental state."
After Belvidere North, Whitcomb earned a bachelor’s degree in musical theater from Millikin University in Decatur. She was an actor at the Hope Summer Repertory Theatre in Holland, Michigan, where she performed in productions such as "Hairspray," "Les Miserables" and "Intimate Apparel."
In August 2018, she began working as a musical performer for Celebrity Cruises, a cruise line owned by Royal Caribbean. The job has allowed her to see the world. She’s been to Alaska, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam, France, Italy, Greece, Spain and Morocco.
In a lengthy letter detailing her situation, Julia wrote that her ordeal began on March 13 when she was notified that all of the guests would be let off the ship because of the coronavirus and no new ones would be allowed on board. Celebrity Cruises staffers would have to stay on board for 14 days.
On March 23, the ship implemented social distancing guidelines and a staffer was taken off the ship because they showed signs of COVID-19, the respiratory disease that can develop from the virus. All social events were canceled. Restaurants on board were closed.
On March 28, Julia said staffers were told to isolate in their cabins with zero tolerance for leaving at any time. She had her temperature checked twice a day and meals delivered to her cabin. On March 30, staffers were told not to talk to the media and to use "good judgment" when posting things on social media. Failure to comply "may lead to termination."
At first, Julia spent those days in a lower level cabin with her boyfriend without a window or fresh air. Julia’s parents spent hours on the phone pleading with the company to relocate her to a room with a view. That finally happened on April 2.
On April 9, Julia was told that the ship was going to dock in Miami on April 13 to allow U.S. citizens off the ship as long as they had a way to get home. Julia found a friend in Miami willing to pick her up and take her to the airport, and she booked a flight back to Illinois.
On April 12, she said Celebrity Cruise’s human resource department called and said she couldn’t leave because the Centers for Disease Control was restricting seafarers from flying commercially. Celebrity Cruises had booked buses to take staffers to states such as North Carolina and Georgia, but Illinois was "too far."
"Going from looking forward to seeing my family to then being right back to where I was before — stuck on board until further notice — was one of the hardest moments of my life," Julia wrote.
On April 16, the company finally let those remaining on board out of their cabins — for three hours a day. One hour for each meal.
After repeated phone calls to the company, Julia was told on April 20 that she’d be able to leave on April 29. She called her mother, who told her not to get her hopes up. On April 21, she got a phone call, the 29th was out, too. She got an email from the company, "we will continue to work with CDC …. As soon as we learn more and can give you safe transport home we will communicate the same."
Her situation gets worse Wednesday. Lisa Whitcomb said Celebrity Cruises is chartering airplanes to take staffers to Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. Julia’s boyfriend, Bruno Cruells, is from Argentina and gets to go home, while Julia has to stay behind.
"I cannot fathom that this company can fly people to Brazil, Argentina and Mexico and not fly my daughter to Illinois," Lisa Whitcomb said.
The Whitcombs haven’t sat idly. They communicated with Illinois State Rep. Joe Sosnowski’s office. His staff communicated Julia’s situation to U.S. Congressman Adam Kinzinger and Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin. Lisa Whitcomb has been communicating with all three.
"We have no higher priority than keeping our guests and crew safe, healthy, cared for and well-informed," said Jonathon Fishman, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean, in an emailed statement. "We are working with all appropriate authorities to ensure the safe return home of all our crew members."
While people work behind the scenes, Julia spends every day like the one before, staring out the window, the coast of the U.S. in view.
"I have confidence people are doing what they can," Lisa Whitcomb said. "But because it’s imploded multiple times, I feel like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I won’t have any level of security until she’s literally off that ship."
Alex Gary is a freelance correspondent