OKOTOKS – A Foothills couple is grateful to be back in their home after a three-week ordeal that began on the now-famed Grand Princess cruise ship.
“It’s like winning the lottery to be back home,” said Barb Goettler on March 25, the morning after they touched back down in Calgary.
Their two-week vacation, a cruise from San Francisco to Hawaii and back, began on Feb. 21 but when officials found out a California man who had been on the ship earlier in February had contracted and subsequently died from COVID-19, plans were immediately altered.
Passengers were placed on immediate quarantine protocol for the last four days of their cruise adventure, without contact with anyone else on board. Geno Goettler said they considered themselves two of the lucky ones, because they had a balcony and were able to at least talk to the people on either side or above and below, and get fresh air.
“I feel really sorry for the people who had rooms on the interior,” said Geno. “They wouldn’t have seen the light of day for that four-day period. They didn’t even get out for a walk and fresh air until the last day, they were allowed on the upper deck.”
He said the captain informed them two days out of Hawaii that the Mexican Port of Ensenada wouldn’t accept the ship, and they were steaming ahead to San Francisco. Off the California coast they were told that port wouldn’t allow the ship to dock, either.
For nearly two full days, the Grand Princess circled about 50 miles off the coast before being given permission to dock in Oakland, he said.
They spent those four days entertaining themselves the best they could.
“I watched more movies in those four days than I’ve watched in the last 20 years,” said Geno. “There was literally nothing to do except watch movies and listen to the news. We played cards a couple of times, but…”
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Barb said they had their iPads, which helped get through the long hours in their stateroom. The idea was to keep as busy as possible in order to stay positive.
“We needed to stay in good spirits for the crew having to deal with us, because they were doing the best they could do,” she said. “We limited our time listening to the news so we didn’t get so down that you wanted to jump off the ship.”
The ship docked on March 10, and they received notice the next morning to have their bags ready by noon. After disembarking the ship they were taken by bus to a U.S. cargo plane that had been equipped with a biohazard chamber, portable toilets and temporary seating to fly directly to the Canadian Forces Base Trenton in Ontario.
Once landed, the passengers were escorted through a health check to look for symptoms of COVID-19 and then bused to one of four barracks on the base, where they would spend two weeks. Anyone showing signs of illness was immediately quarantined.
They were allowed to go outside for allotted timeframes, three times per day for up to an hour and a half.
Many of the days were cold and miserable, and because their cruise had been in a sunny climate very few passengers had packed anything resembling boots, winter coats, or outerwear like toques and mitts, said Barb.
She decided to get innovative.
The Red Cross had brought large blankets to each person in isolation, and Barb asked one of the nurses whether they would be used again afterwards. She was told everything in the rooms, like bedding and pillows, would be destroyed when people left, so she got permission to cut holes into the blankets and make poncho-like jackets.
Besides getting out for walks three times per day, the Goettlers said there wasn’t much to do in Trenton. Their television channels were limited, so they watched a lot of reruns and older movies, and shows they might not typically turn on.
Their routine was simple, said Barb.
“You got up in the morning, you got the knock on the door that your breakfast was there, you ate your breakfast, you watched TV, watched some of the news, watched movies or shows on TV, went for your walk, had your two health checks a day, ate your lunch, your dinner, showered, shaved,” she said.
Every evening they received a newsletter with updates and information on fellow passengers who may have fallen ill. By the time they left, 13 people had tested positive for COVID-19 and everyone else was worried they would be next, said Geno.
He was less concerned about whether he would have a serious case and die and more about how much longer he would have to be locked up if he tested positive.
“I don’t think I would do well in jail,” Geno said.
They were ecstatic to be able to travel home via Toronto Pearson International Airport on March 24.
Geno said people were tense on the bus. Paranoia about contracting COVID-19 had made everyone afraid of any cough or sneeze, and he said most sat still the entire ride.
It got eerie at the airport.
“We were at the Pearson airport around noon and there was nobody in the airport except us,” said Geno. “It was really weird. I’ve seen Calgary that was around 2 or 3 in the morning, but I never thought I’d see that mid-day at the busiest airport in Canada.”
They made it to their Foothills home around 10 p.m. and were welcomed by a clean house and a pot of chili made by their daughter, who had been watching their home, a fridge full of food and a new plant on the kitchen table to help set them on the right foot with their home isolation.
On their first morning, there were two things they were grateful for: a good breakfast (not all the food had been great, Geno said) and coffee – which for some reason they hadn’t been able to get while at Trenton.
Barb said they’re happy to be back and isolating on their own turf.
“You don’t know how good you’ve got it at home until you’re away from it for that long and you don’t have a choice in the matter,” she said. “Truly, it feels like we won the lotto being able to get back here.”