Coronavirus has stranded thousands of cruise line workers offshore after no sail order went into effect

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The number of cruise line employees still stranded aboard ships off the coasts of the U.S. would populate the Chicago suburb of Cicero: about 80,000 people.

They are all caught in COVID-19 limbo, in places most people save their pennies to enjoy.

In the case of these cruise line workers, it's no vacation. They don't have a choice.

There are more than 100 ships being held at sea by government order. Most cruise line employees are unable to come ashore after a federal "no sail order" was put into effect on March 14.

Among them is Belvidere native Julia Whitcomb who spoke to the I-Team Wednesday and gave a video tour of her COVID captivity on board the Infinity, a Celebrity cruise vessel currently docked in Miami.

Whitcomb says she does not have coronavirus. She and most of the other 950 crew members have to stay in their cabins except for during socially distanced meals.

"I've been working for the company for almost two years now," she told the I-Team. "I started August of 2018, it was my first contract, and I work as a production cast vocalist, so I sing on the mainstage regularly to entertain guests."

Since the no sail order last month, thousands of passengers on her ship and many others around the world have been removed. However, most employees have been held onboard.

"We are strictly to be in our cabins," said Whitcomb. "We were not to leave our cabins for the first 20 days. Now we have three hours a day to leave the cabin, one for each meal but then we have to be back in the cabin. They will do temperature checks twice a day, once in the morning and in the evening. We get three bottles of water a day."

A spokesperson for Royal Caribbean, the company that owns Celebrity Cruises, told the I-Team Wednesday that "We are working with all appropriate authorities to ensure the safe return home of all our crew members. We are also eager to set sail again and are working to ensure that from day one, we offer our guests and crew safe and enjoyable vacations."

By the end of Wednesday Whitcomb said her ship is expected to sail from Miami to dock in the Bahamas.

"The captain or the cruise director will make an announcement over the intercom every morning to just give us a day to day update, and it's not usually really much of an update. It's basically you are to stay in your cabin and they don't talk about much about us coming home. They'll host bingo events and things like that," said Whitcomb.

Cruise-liner games and a telephone help line offered by her employer are not doing anything to help Whitcomb sleep or cope, she says.

"Mentally and emotionally it's taking a really big toll. I have never dealt with the anxiety that I've been dealing with I've never dealt with some of the thoughts I've been having, really dark thoughts that I don't recognize as being mine," she told the I-Team. "So, yeah, I really don't feel well. So, while the ship has kept me physically well, when I leave, mentally and emotionally, I'm going to have to tackle a lot."
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