Minnesotans stuck on coronavirus-stricken cruise ship return home

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It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime.

But for Cathy Armajani from Minnetonka and her friends, Sheila O’Brien from Richfield and Jeri Longfellow from Burnsville, it turned into a COVID-19 nightmare.

“It just came so fast,” she said. “Nobody knew. Nobody knew it was going to hit us this way.”

When the Holland America cruise ship Zaandam left Argentina on March 7, all seemed well.

A week later, passengers began feeling ill.

The trio had no idea they’d be stuck on board nearly a month.

“From the onset, nothing was different,” Armajani said. “There were a few people sick on board, but it was not anybody jumping to the conclusion it was COVID-19 at all.”

At the time, only a few cases had surfaced in South America.

Then, days later, an ominous announcement.

"When the captain came on and told us of the deaths, that whole day, it was gut-wrenching,” Armajani says. “Just this awful feeling of sadness, and that we couldn’t help anybody.”

Four people had died, nine would test positive for COVID-19, and hundreds would report flu-like symptoms.

At first, the captain tried to find a port of safety in South America. But in country after country, they were turned away.

"They told us that they were not going to take us, and that was kind of a shock to everybody. That’s when we knew things were happening,” Armajani says.

As news of the Zaandam’s plight — now anchored at sea, with nowhere to go — went worldwide, Armajani’s party and hundreds of other passengers were confined to their cabins.

"We were in our rooms contained. We weren’t out and about with other people, they brought us masks,” she remembers. “So every time we opened up the door, we were to have our masks on.”

But at least they felt safe, with three solid meals and fresh towels every day. A turning point may have been when the ship finally got permission to make a seven-hour trip through the Panama Canal.

“It did turn into a kind of covert operation, where they did finally accept them to go through the Panama Canal,” Armajani said. “But we were under strict rules of what we could do. We had to stay in our cabins, we had to keep the lights down low.”

More from KSTP.com:

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Minnesota passengers stuck on ill-fated Zaandam cruise ship

By late last week, several U.S. Coast Guard vessels were escorting the ship to Port Everglades, Florida.

Once there, healthy passengers, wearing masks and gloves, were allowed to disembark to undergo a health screen and temperature checks.

"We had a form we had to fill out, with basic questions on there: if we had any symptoms, if we felt we had any temperature or not,” Armajani says.

Those who were cleared received a CDC health alert card, which outlined strict instructions.

“You have traveled internationally and are at higher risk,” it read. “Covid-19 is a respiratory illness that can spread from person to person.”

The passenger received instructions, which included:

  • Stay home for the next 14 days, monitor your health, and practice social distancing.
  • Take your temperature with a thermometer two times and day and watch for symptoms.
  • Avoid contact with others. Do not go to work or school.
  • Keep your distance from others (about 6 feet).

Armajani, her friends, and others walked through an airport terminal, where they went through an immigration and customs check, then were required to show their passports.

“They had it all cordoned off, a specific area where we had to walk,” Armajani says. “They had people every twenty feet directing us.”

Then, it was back on the ship, where rooms had been sanitized. Later, they left the ship by sections to board a plane back home.

“We didn’t know what to expect there, because we thought they would start social distancing people, but to be honest, the plane was full,” she says.

But it was an unusual boarding. Everyone — the pilots, crew, and passengers were all wearing protective gear.

“They were masked and had gloves on, just like we all did,” she says. “Everybody seemed okay with that. It wasn’t like they were standing off.”

Finally, hours later that Friday night, Armajani and her friends were posing for a picture at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, clearly happy to be home.

She says she’s just started her two weeks of self-quarantining.

“I don’t want to make anybody feel uncomfortable or that I’m now earmarked because I was on that ship,” she says. “I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Armajani says she’s grateful that she’s safe and sound, and back in Minnesota.

She’s also thankful for the support she’s received during her long, strange voyage.

And yes, she says, she will be going on more cruises.

“It’s just so humbling. It was just an experience, and it’ll probably be a nice journal piece that I’m working on for myself to share with friends and family,” she said. “Now that I’m back, I’m hoping I can pay it forward, a lot of the goodness that was given to me throughout this whole trip.”