Julia Whitcomb's very unexcellent adventure on a Celebrity Cruises ship off the coast of Miami will continue for the foreseeable future.
Wednesday was “the worst day yet,” Whitcomb said by telephone after she said the company, which is a cruise line owned by Australia-based Royal Caribbean Cruises, refused to sign a document with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that would hold them accountable for her safety until she got home.
“I'm a U.S. citizen and I'm being held hostage by my own country,” she said.
Whitcomb is a 2014 Belvidere North graduate who has been employed as a singer on a Celebrity Cruises ship since August 2018. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, she has been confined to her cabin with her boyfriend for 21 hours a day for more than a month. Her situation is not unique. The New York Times published a story last week stating there are more than 80,000 crew members stranded on 100 cruise ships because of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Tuesday, the Rockford Register Star published a story about her plight. Whether it was because of that publicity or because of the efforts of the offices of Congressman Adam Kinzinger and Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, Whitcomb said she was told Wednesday morning — the day the article appeared in the print edition — that she would be getting off the ship that day.
She packed her bags and was instructed to go to the ship's payroll department to empty out her on-board account. A few hours later she was told that she couldn't depart. Shortly after that, a staffer stopped by her room and told her she could leave if she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital for 14 days because they are concerned about her mental state. She refused.
The ship was only scheduled to be docked in Miami for four hours. Kinzinger's office was able to get that extended for several more as talks continued. The ship finally left Miami at 9:15 p.m. Whitcomb told a local TV station that it will be at sea for a minimum of 15 days.
Kinzinger tweeted out his frustration last night.
"The extreme restrictions and nonsense excuses by the Infinity Celebrity Cruises have become deeply troubling and frankly unacceptable," Kinzinger said on Twitter. “My staff and I will continue to work with the Whitcomb family to bring Julia home safely and soon."
The extreme restrictions and nonsense excuses by the Infinity@CelebrityCruise have become deeply troubling & frankly unacceptable. My staff and I will continue to work with the Whitcomb family to bring Julia home safely & soon.https://t.co/bkRgZLrClX— Adam Kinzinger (@RepKinzinger)April 30, 2020
Thursday morning, Jonathon Fishman, manager of corporate reputation for Royal Caribbean Cruises, emailed the Register Star a copy of the CDC requirements that the company is trying to meet. It is a difficult task. The cruise ship operator must ensure that disembarking crew members:
• Will not stay overnight in a hotel before a flight or at any point until they reach their final destination.
• Will not use public transportation — including taxis or ride-sharing services — to get to an airport or charter flight.
• Will not enter a public airport terminal.
• Will not take commercial aircraft after an initial charter flight.
• Will not have a transportation layover exceeding eight hours.
• Have no interaction with the public during their travel home or to their new duty station.
“Our priority is getting our crew home safely,” he wrote. “We have been working closely with health officials to make sure this happens. We submitted a plan to the CDC and are awaiting their feedback. We continue to work with all appropriate authorities to establish a safe and secure way for all of our crew members to return home as soon as possible.”
Whitcomb is one of 954 crew members, three of them Americans, stranded on the Celebrity Infinity cruise ship.
Lisa Whitcomb said Thursday that her daughter has become part of a tug of war between the CDC and the cruise line.
"This all started six weeks ago. That's way beyond the incubation period for the virus," she said. "Whoever had it would be sick by now. I do not understand why these restrictions remain in place."
Alex Gary is a freelance correspondent.