FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. The Holbrook family of Michigan stepped off Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas frustrated and angry after the cruise ship they were on returned to Port Everglades from its eight-night voyage.
Christopher Holbrook, 49, tested positive for COVID-19 while aboard and spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in his room in isolation. “It was the worst Christmas,” Holbrook said while putting his luggage into his truck to start his long drive home.
Holbrook, who is vaccinated, said he learned he had been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the ship’s music hall/nightclub. By the time he was tested for COVID-19 two days later, he was sweating profusely and had a headache. While the cruise line confined him to his room, his fiancee, Teresa Walatkiewicz, who shared his cabin, says she was not asked to quarantine, nor was she tested until 2 1/2 days after Holbrook learned he had COVID-19. “I still don’t have the results,” she said.
During its voyage from Fort Lauderdale, the cruise ship struggled to contain a COVID-19 outbreak aboard. On Thursday, The Odyssey of the Seas had 55 confirmed positive cases among guests and crew members, amounting to 1.1% of the total number of people on board, the cruise company said Thursday. An update has not been provided by Royal Caribbean but passengers said a public announcement on the ship said the number had jumped to 69 confirmed positive crew cases and 18 passengers.
The Sun Sentinel reached out to the cruise line for comment early Sunday but did not receive a response.
Nancy Holbrook, Christopher’s twin sister, also from Michigan, said she, too, was swabbed Saturday evening, even though she had been with her brother during most of the cruise. Holbrook said she is upset she didn’t get to spend Christmas with her brother, but was not confined to her room or tested by the cruise line until Saturday night.
“They told us they did 600 tests last night. People are getting off and going on planes and they don’t know the results,” she said. “I love cruising but I’m going to wait some time before I do it again.”
Signs of health concerns occurred early in the voyage.
The ship had docked on Sunday at CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s private island in the Bahamas but then returned to Port Everglades to disembark a passenger with COVID-19 one day after initially departing from Fort Lauderdale, Lyan Sierra-Caro, spokesperson for Royal Caribbean, told USA Today. The cruise had left the port on Dec. 18.
Passengers said the captain announced as they were departing the cruise line’s private island, CocoCay, that they would be returning to Fort Lauderdale for an ill passenger to disembark.
“The guest, who was symptomatic prior to boarding but did not notify us, reported to the medical center and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19,” Sierra-Caro said at the time. “He and his close contacts were quarantined and disembarked in Fort Lauderdale to return home.”
But Holbrook said that doesn’t explain how dozens of crew members tested positive for COVID-19. Royal Caribbean said in a statement that 95% of the passengers and crew on board the Odyssey of the Seas were fully inoculated against COVID-19.
“Mask wearing by passengers was not enforced from day one. … This was the most surprising and frustrating part given the number of cases and the fact that they kept us at sea instead of bringing us home,” said a passenger from South Florida. “I reported this to ship security on multiple occasions, along with the hotel captain, and was met with nonchalance. We just remained at sea and became a floating incubator.”
About a dozen passengers debarking Sunday told the Sun Sentinel numerous shows and planned activities on the ship were canceled. The remaining two stops on the eight-day cruise were supposed to be Curacao and Aruba, but instead the ship remained at sea.
“The decision was made together with the islands out of an abundance of caution due to the current trend of COVID-19 cases in the destinations’ communities as well as crew and guests testing positive on board,” the cruise line said in a statement.
The ship can carry more than 5,500 guests and more than 1,600 crew members. Although it has not been operating at full capacity, “it felt crowded, especially for six days straight,” said Alicia Silver, who cruised with her husband and three children. Silver, who is from Orlando, said the family has been on cruises previously and thought the ship would sail at a reduced capacity. “We are all vaccinated so we took a chance,” she said.
The Sutherland family, of Canada, said they, too, spent the last night, Christmas, in quarantine after learning they were exposed to someone who tested positive. “We are going to try to get a PCR test,” Kim Sutherland said Sunday. The family plans to stay in Florida until it learns the results.
The PCR, or polymerase chain reaction test, is considered by experts to be the most reliable COVID-19 test.
Kim Parker, of Kentucky, said she enjoyed the cruise and said she observed that most passengers stuck to the rule of wearing masks indoors. “It’s probably just as safe as going to the local grocery store,” she said.
Barb Paulsen, 78, of The Villages in Florida, said she felt the same way. “When someone tested positive, they isolated,” she said. “We have another cruise booked for the end of February and we’re going.”
The incident is the second coronavirus outbreak on a Royal Caribbean ship in less than a week. Royal Caribbean has a similar COVID-19 episode on its Symphony of the Seas that sailed from Miami. The cruise line said that 44 people on that ship tested positive for COVID-19 after it set sail on Dec. 11. The ship returned to port in Miami on Dec. 18 after a seven-night Caribbean cruise.