American cruise workers denied disembarkation: 'Treating us like disease vectors instead of humans'
Melinda Mann is one of more than 750 crew members – nine of whom are American citizens – stuck on board Holland America's MS Oosterdam after it disembarked its last passengers in March amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Mann, a 25-year-old youth program manager from Georgia, boarded in late February and worked until her contract ended on April 18. But due to the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing orders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she's had to remain on board, only venturing from her room for meals.
It seemed that relief was near as the Oosterdam sailed toward the Port of Los Angeles set to disembark on Tuesday. Then, things changed.
"CDC canceled our disembarkation at the last minute," said Mann, who was scheduled to get off the ship with the other eight American workers. A copy of her airline ticket, obtained by USA TODAY, shows she was booked to fly from Los Angeles to Atlanta on Tuesday, April 28.
On Monday, she and the other Americans each received a phone call from Holland America's human resources department informing them they would not be getting off after all.
According to the vessel-tracking site MarineTraffic.com, the Oosterdam, which had no confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, left the Port of Los Angeles Tuesday afternoon and is now off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico.
Mann said that on Tuesday, the Americans received a visit from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents, who said they might still be able to disembark. But ultimately, the CDC didn't allow it.
"The first set of CBP agents told me they would not arrest me if I walked off the ship," she said. "I went back to my room, spent a few hours packing my bags, and when I tried to leave the ship, security wouldn't let me."
Mann believes that the CDC violated her rights, so she decided to protest.
"As an American citizen, I have the right to enter the country," she said. "So I think the CDC's order is illegal as it pertains to American citizens."
She went to the gangway with a backpack holding her laptop, phone, chargers and her wallet. And she live-streamed her approach on Facebook, since she was worried security would get "physically aggressive."
Three guards blocked her exit. When she approached them, a "three-stripe" security officer – the chief security officer on a cruise ship – began "berating" Mann for attempting to leave, she said.
"He called me a 'silly little girl' among other things before he realized I was recording," she said. "I told him and the security guards that I am an American citizen and that the ship cannot lawfully detain me. They are not a government agency, nor do they have political power." Mann said the security guard told his officers to stop her physically if she tried to "make a run for it."
She asked to be placed in the custody of the Los Angeles Police Department or CBP since being placed under arrest would avail her of a lawyer.
"If I have to be arrested to stand up for my civil rights, then so be it. I consider my actions in demanding to be let ashore to be a form of civil disobedience," she explained.
At least if she were arrested, she'd be be dealing with a government agency and have access to a lawyer.
"On the ship, I don't get a lawyer," she added. "I don't get any options. I have to just do what they say."
She was kept on board by ship officials, though she says she doesn't harbor any ill will against them.
"The captain told us that he could personally be arrested for allowing me to break quarantine. The ship is just following the CDC orders," she explained.
Mann said she willingly returned to her room after security stopped her from leaving. She added that human resources called her to make sure she was OK.
"My intention was never to get into a fight with ship security. We're all ultimately on the same side: getting crew home," she said. "They just don't want to get arrested or in trouble for letting me go right then and there."
In a statement provided by Erik Elvejord, a spokesman for Holland America Line, the cruise line, which confirmed no crew disembarked Tuesday, said the CDC's current no-sail order prohibits the line from allowing crew off the ship – even the US. citizens. The cruise line says it is working with the CDC to obtain approval to do so.
CDC spokeswoman Jasmine Reed told USA TODAY that the agency "has informed all cruise lines operating ships in U.S. waters, including Holland America Line and its parent company, the Carnival Corp., of these safety requirements, which includes arranging nonpublic transportation."
She added, "While these plans are under review, CDC permits cruise ships to disembark their crew members if cruise line executives – including the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Compliance Officer, and the Chief Executive Officer – attest that the cruise line has complied with requirements for the safe disembarkation of crew."
Reed noted, "In the last two weeks, other cruise lines have provided signed attestations to disembark crew members. And CDC has approved those disembarkations. Neither Holland America nor Carnival provided the attestation despite requests from CDC."
Holland America and Carnival told the agency that arranging travel for its crew without using commercial aircraft was proving too expensive, she added.
"Because Holland America and Carnival failed to provide the safety attestation, disembarkation would have violated the No Sail Order and federal laws, which carry criminal penalties," Reed explained. "Therefore, CDC, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, California Department of Public Health, Los Angeles County Health Department, and the Los Angeles Police Department worked together to enforce the No Sail Order. Rather than comply with the No Sail Order and disembark its American crew, the Oosterdam departed."
Elvejord said that the No Sail Order doesn't prevent disembarkation but has "such onerous requirements" that Holland America is "not able to debark crew."
The CDC requirements that Elvejord refer to include:
- Repatriation of crew members on government or industry chartered private flights or private transport.
- 72 hours notice to state and local health departments with jurisdiction for the seaport, the state, county or city of residence for disembarking crew members.
- Cruise ship operators must ensure crew members do not:
- Stay in a hotel before going home.
- Take public transportation to get to charter flights.
- Enter a public terminal.
- Take commercial flights after charter flights are done.
- Have a transportation layover of more than 8 hours.
- Have any interaction with the public on the journey home.
- 72 hours notice to the CDC for U.S. residents who plan to take private vehicles home.
- Any commercial travel used by crew members on their journeys home must be approved by the CDC on a "case by case" basis.
The crew on the Oosterdam are not alone in their predicament, Elvejord told USA TODAY: "Virtually every ship we have has crew members on it. You have to have crew on the ship to operate it, even at anchor … it's called 'safe minimal manning.' "
There are 48 American crew members on Holland America ships, 11 of whom will remain on board for "minimal manning."
"Our remaining U.S. crew members are all over the country so the requirement to fly everyone home only via charter flights/private plane is very challenging," Sally Andrews, spokesperson for Holland America added. "We continue to work with the CDC for an option to use commercial airlines for healthy crew to travel home like other U.S. citizens are allowed to do."
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Mann has been told that on Thursday, she and the other Americans will be moved to the MS Koningsdam, which is anchored in Ensenada, where they will wait for the U.S. to readmit them. But she hasn't been given a time frame or an idea of how that would work. And after being burned once, she's skeptical that the crew on the Koningsdam will be allowed to disembark.
"It feels like the governments of the world are treating us like disease vectors instead of humans," said Mann. "It's easy for the CDC to say 'no ships allowed' because that verbiage doesn't bring to mind the hundreds of people stranded on board."
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