Paul Feiner may not have realized that he was one of the first local public officials in the United States to be called upon to help responding to problems with the COVID 19 Pandemic when I called upon him for assistance from a cruise ship looking for a port to allow the ship to dock in the South China Sea on February 6, 2020.
In mid-January 2020 my wife and I boarded Holland America’s Westerdam in Singapore for a two month Asian cruise visiting Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, The Philippines, Korea, Taiwan and departing in Japan in March. We first heard about Covid-19 in Cambodia. When we visited two ports in Vietnam, people were increasingly wearing face masks but tours continued and no one on the ship was ill or overly concerned. However many of us started to wear masks during the Vietnam stops.
After a one day stop in Hong Kong on February 1, everything changed. Government officials in every scheduled port refused to allow the ship to dock. They did not want to risk having their people exposed to this new virus. We were sailing from port to port but never allowed to dock.
On February 6, the captain informed everyone that Holland America had decided to cancel the balance of the cruise and that Holland America was working with the US and Dutch governments to find an appropriate port that would allow the ship to dock so its passengers could return home. The Captain reassured everyone that the ship was not in quarantine and that no one on board had Coronavirus symptoms. He also said we had adequate food and fuel for as long as necessary.
I contacted Paul on February 6 to update him on our problem and said that if he could share our plight with the media I would be grateful. Paul contacted Isabel Keane from the Journal News who started the ball rolling. In the meantime, a number of other passengers on our ship were posting on social media as well as contacting the media in their hometowns. And, eventually, USA Today and several network TV shows picked up the story.
The ship was finally allowed to dock in Sihanoukville Cambodia on February 13. The ship was met by the Cambodian Prime Minister, US Ambassador and media representatives. We then were flown to Phnom Penh and onward through Seoul Korea to JFK airport. Our temperatures were monitored at every stop we made on the way to New York. Asians were very concerned about monitoring and controlling COVID.
Arriving at JFK on February 15, there were no special precautions or questioning by ICE officers. The Westchester County Board of Health quarantined us for two weeks after arrival, monitoring our temperature twice daily for the first 10 days and then ending the quarantine. We ventured out to a few stores and a restaurant after our quarantine ended. There did not seem to be very much concern about the virus in America at this point.
A few days later everything changed!!!!
A few years ago I became an onboard Tai Chi Instructor for Holland America and Princess Cruise Lines. I developed a unique Tai Chi program, Tai Chi to Reduce Fall risks and Improve Balance, a major issue on ships. A few years ago I also started teaching this program for the Greenburgh Department of Parks and Recreation. While mostly remaining in my house during the pandemic I am able to continue to teach the program via Zoom every Wednesday morning at 11:00 for Greenburgh’s Park District’s programs for senior adults.
My wife and I have now received our first COVID vaccination and are looking forward to resumption of whatever life’s new normalcy will be in the near future.