OCEAN CITY – A local couple caught on a cruise ship as coronavirus turned into a global pandemic is finally home.
After weeks of uncertainty as their cruise ship was turned away from port after port, Ed and Dottie Pinto are now enjoying isolation at their home in Ocean City.
“We’ve had plenty of adventures in our lives,” Ed Pinto said. “This was just another one.”
The Pintos, avid travelers when they’re not at their oceanfront condo, arrived in Australia in late February, looking forward to their ship’s departure on Feb. 28. While coronavirus was an issue in China, they didn’t anticipate it impacting their Norwegian Jewel cruise to Fiji, Bora Bora and Tahiti.
“We had no idea the virus was going to grow like it did,” Ed Pinto said.
They got an inkling of its mounting reach, however, when they realized the ship was prohibiting anyone—crew member or passenger—with a Chinese passport from boarding. A few days later, the ship’s crew instituted what Pinto called “significant sanitation procedures,” even washing the walls every morning. His wife recalled her surprise at the crew not only cleaning her hands when she arrived for a lunch buffet, but putting each piece of food on her plate themselves.
“They even put the mustard on the hot dog,” she said.
Ed Pinto said that after seeing the measures that were put in place, he was confident the ship was clean.
“Those procedures work not only for coronavirus but for any illness you’d see on a cruise,” he said.
The Pintos enjoyed the cruise’s initial stops, visiting Brisbane, New Caledonia and Fiji, before the captain announced what was meant to be a three week cruise was over. The ship was pointed toward Tahiti to dock but was denied entry. The captain then headed for New Zealand, where the ship was also denied approval to dock.
“So then we headed for Fiji,” Ed Pinto said.
But Fiji, a country the ship had already visited, where its passengers had already toured the sights and mingled with residents, wouldn’t let the ship dock.
“Fiji wouldn’t take us back after we’d unloaded our wallets to the local economy,” Pinto said.
Despite essentially being stranded at sea, the Pintos were still enjoying their voyage. They savored lavish meals, socialized with fellow travelers and spent their days sitting by the pool.
“Meanwhile, we’re seeing the news from the states and getting more and more worried about you all,” Ed Pinto said. “Some of us started thinking if we did make it (to the West Coast) we’d have to rent a car and drive across the country.”
The couple stopped sending pictures home, considering it “bad form” to show themselves having an enjoyable time while their friends and relatives were anxiously watching coronavirus work its way into their communities.
From Fiji, the Norwegian Jewel was directed to American Samoa. While there were plans for the ship to refuel, passengers had little hope the country that experienced a major measles outbreak at the end of 2019 would let them in.
“They wanted nothing to do with anything that might possibly bring in a germ,” Pinto said. “There were police on the pier making sure nobody got off.”
He and the other Americans onboard were optimistic about finally disembarking when they learned the next potential port was Hawaii, but the ship’s captain cautioned against booking flights right away. Pinto said that from his point of view, it was only when the ship reached Hawaii that the trip became something of an ordeal.
Though planes from the U.S. were landing at the airport, the state didn’t want the ship to unload. Passengers waited for days, wondering if they’d be allowed to leave.
“The good news was we broke a propeller,” he said. “The conspiracy theorists among us said we’d like to meet the engineer who did that.”
Because it was too dangerous for the ship to go far with just one propeller, Pinto said Hawaii decided to let the ship unload—much to the relief of passengers.
“It had gotten to the point some of us were looking for an American flag on the ship,” Pinto said. “We were going to take off the last star.”
They never did find a flag but on March 24—after nearly three days of waiting for approval from Hawaiian officials—the ship was finally able to let its passengers off in Honolulu. They were to go directly to the airport, avoiding the main terminal and taking chartered flights to a handful of destinations. While Europeans were sent to Frankfurt, Americans were sent to Los Angeles and New Zealanders were sent to London.
“They didn’t want us touching the ground,” Dottie Pinto said. “We leave the ship, step directly onto a shuttle bus, then there’s a police escort—with lights flashing—to the airport. Our plane was all the way at the end.”
When they got to LAX, sporting masks and gloves, the Pintos—who had seen firsthand the global fear the pandemic was creating—were concerned to see very few airport workers wearing protective gear.
“I asked the TSA agent and she said, ‘I’m young, I’ll be ok,’” Pinto said.
From the West Coast, the Pintos made it without incident to Baltimore’s airport before they encountered yet another delay.
“I go to pick up my car,” Ed Pinto said, “and it won’t start. I’ve got electricity, lights, but it won’t start. I just started laughing. What else could go wrong?”
He used his AAA membership to arrange a tow and rent a car for the last leg of the trip back to Ocean City.
The couple had a pleasant surprise upon returning to their condo, as their pantry—which had been left empty in anticipation of their long vacation—had been stocked by American Legion Post 166 Commander Tom Wengert. In the days since, friends have dropped off more food as the Pintos self-quarantine.
“We’re on our eighth day of quarantine,” Pinto said. “We’re doing fine.”
They got a kick out of a call from their mechanic, who informed them their Honda Accord hadn’t started because it’d been damaged when its catalytic converter was stolen.
“And this was the beat-up old car I deliberately took because we were going to be away close to 30 days,” Pinto said.
Needless to say, the couple is happy to be home after what they described as nothing but some mild discomforts in their journey back. They’re even looking forward to reuniting with some of their fellow travelers once the current health crisis is over.
“We met two couples from here,” Pinto said. “One from Bethany and one from Cape May. We’re all planning to get together once this passes. We had a pretty good time.”