By Scott Schaefer

Former Burien City Councilmember Jerry Robison has been quarantined on a cruise ship and in hotels since early February due to the coronavirus scare, and has been posting journals of his daily life on his Facebook page.

Robison served on the Burien City Council from 2011–2017.

He has been traveling since early February on the Holland America Westerdam cruise ship around Asia. The boat is currently docked in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where officials from the Cambodian Health Ministry completed testing for coronavirus COVID-19 on the 255 guests and 747 crew that are awaiting clearance.

One female passenger who left the ship was later found to be infected, and was hospitalized in Malaysia with a reported positive result. This led to fears that other passengers on the Westerdam might have been exposed to the virus. A viral outbreak on another cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, now quarantined at a port in Japan, is the biggest infection cluster outside China with more than 500 confirmed cases.

Out of an abundance of caution, Holland America canceled its planned Feb. 29 cruise of the Westerdam.

“We are closely monitoring the evolving situation with respect to coronavirus that originated in mainland China and our medical experts are coordinating closely with global health authorities to implement enhanced screening, prevention and control measures for our ships globally.”

Robison is fine, and he has NOT tested positive for the virus. However, he’s been sequestered in a hotel in Phnom Penh since Feb. 15, awaiting a flight home. The ship he was on was turned away from ports in four other countries, and is seemingly stuck in limbo while authorities grapple with the growing viral scare.

There were a total of 2,257 passengers and crew on the ship.

Robison is a practicing lawyer in Burien, and was appointed to replace Kathy Keene on the council in 2011. He served on the Burien City Council from 2011 – 2017. He has been active in many community and charitable affairs, and is or has been involved in the Chamber of Commerce (past president); White Center Jubilee Days; is a member of the Kiwanis, American Legion and Eagles Clubs; director and treasurer for MHCP (a non-profit corporation providing safe communities for nearly 200 low income families); director for Holly Street Co-op Preschool; law clinic; an organizer of the North Highline Unincorporated Area Council; and a former member of the Burien Planning Commission.

At times he’s not known exactly where the ship he’s on has been cruising, and said that “conditions on board are good but boring.”

On Feb. 15, Robison thought he was going to fly home.

“Nearly everyone was booked on one of two charter flights,” he said. “Ours was to leave Phnom Penh at 12:50, which would have put us in KL by 3:30 to catch our 5:50 flight to Hong Kong (HK). Malaysian Air checked us in, and our bags, we got a bite to eat, and went down the gate to wait. Everyone started to worry when the announced boarding passed with no airplane showing up. By 3 pm calls were being made, but HAL offered no help at all and Malaysian Air refused to say anything. Malaysian Air announced at about 5 that the charter flights had been canceled.”

Here are some excerpts from Jerry’s recent travels and travails, as posted on his Facebook page (NOTE: ‘HA’ and ‘HAL’ are acronyms for Holland America), in chronological order:

2/5/20: Far East cruise has been somewhat disturbed by the coronavirus scare. Had a good time in Hong Kong. Sailed from there headed to Manila. About two thirds of the way to Manila were told that Philippines would not allow ship to enter. Headed to Hualien in Taiwan. Halfway there were told we would not be allowed into Hualien. Went to Kaohsiung, Taiwan, instead. Stayed overnight. Went into town the first day (friendly people, reasonable prices). 7 am on the second day we were told that no one would be allowed ashore. Now killing time until the ship finishes refueling and resupply process, then headed for Ishigaki, Japan (Okinawa), skipping the planned stop in Keelung, Taiwan.

2/9/20: We are on the Westerdam. I think that we are somewhere east of Taiwan, but HA is not very informative. Except for being turned away everywhere, things are fine here on the ship. We were allowed to refuel and resupply before leaving Kaohsiung, so no worries there. There have been no reports of coronavirus on the ship. The checked everyone’s passports (passengers and crew) to make sure no one has been to mainland China in the last 14 days, but apparently still don’t have a port to take us to.

Now headed SWly (southwesterly) across the South China Sea. Still don’t know where we are going. Conditions on board are good but boring.

I want to thank everyone for their good thoughts, comments and reactions. The shipboard wifi was iffy to begin with, and certainly is not up to handling a couple of thousand users (it has been free for everyone to use for the last couple of days) so communication is hit and miss right now. We hope to have a destination tomorrow. In the meantime there seems to be plenty of food and drink and the crew is doing a great job of continuing to provide the same level of service.

2/10/20: Hot news. We have been cleared to dock and disembark in Bangkok, as long as everyone’s temperature is normal and no one gets sick before we get there. We’re scheduled to reach Bangkok on the 13th.

2/13/20: The current update (now several hours old due to the wifi being clogged up). We were denied entry to Bangkok and are now on our way to Sihanoukville. HA will arrange for charter flights to take us to Phnom Phen to connect with flights home from there, which they are arranging and paying for. That may take a few days. In the meantime we will remain on the ship, but will be free to go into town.

We will not know our schedule at least until tomorrow and possibly the next day.

Does anyone have friends in Sihanoukville?

2/14/20: We are now in Sihanoukville, but still on the ship. The first people have been left for their flights home and we are just waiting for the information on our flights.

They let passengers off the ship from about 11 am. We went ashore for a couple of hours (rode a Tuktuk and went through the public market) but is very hot an humid. There is an 8 pm curfew for passengers, so we decided to stay aboard the rest of the day. Then we got our travel information at about 6:30. We leave her at 5 am tomorrow, bus to the Sihanoukville airport, then fly to Kuala Lumpur, then to Hong Kong, then non-stop from Hong Kong to SeaTac (it looks like about 19-20 hours in the air).

2/15/20: Very frustrating day today. HAL told us and another 200 or so people to meet at particular spot at 5 am, we would leave the ship at 5:15, would travel by bus to the airport in Sihanoukville, would fly out of there at 7:00 to Phnom Penh (PP), they provided no other information on what would happen in Phnom Penh, but gave us flight numbers for our trip home from Kuala Lumpur (KL).

As it turned out the passengers all showed up on time or a little early. When the HAL crew showed up a few minutes after 5 they made everyone leave the room, line up, and come back in so they could scan our ship cards and check our temperatures. We finally made it onto our bus at about 6, then sat in the bus until 7 before heading to the airport. At the airport we went straight from the bus to the airplane, and about a half hour later took off for PP. The flight was nice and short.

Landed in PP abut 9:30, and were told we would need to pick up luggage from baggage claim then see the HAL rep for information on our flight to Kuala Lumpur (KL). Baggage claim was the usual mess, but no too bad, then we lined up get our flight information. Nearly everyone was booked on one of two charter flights. Ours was to leave PP at 12:50, which would have put us in KL by 3:30 to catch our 5:50 flight to Hong Kong (HK).

Malaysian Air checked us in, and our bags, we got a bite to eat, and went down the gate to wait. Everyone started to worry when the announced boarding passed with no airplane showing up. By 3 pm calls were being made, but HAL offered no help at all and Malaysian Air refused to say anything. Malaysian Air announced at about 5 that the charter flights had been canceled.

Staff from the US Embassy showed up shortly after that and announced that they were working with HAL, other embassies and the Cambodian government to find a solution.

Around 7 pm, or so, the embassy staff led us back down to baggage claim to retrieve the luggage we had checked that morning, and got us onto busses. After a more than 1 hour bus ride across PP we spent another half hour waiting in the bus, before being checked into the Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel and Residence, We won’t know anything more until tomorrow.

I am writing this from living room of a suite in the hotel. I have no idea what their room rates are (the place is apparently in the late stages of renovation and updating), but is gorgeous and the service cannot be beat.

HAL really fell down on the job here. They had no contingency plan for the possibility of something going wrong, and do not appear to have concerned themselves much with the fix they left their passengers. They never even sent a representative talk to us or explain anything about what was going on.

Malaysian Air should be ashamed of itself. They canceled the flights from PP to KL at the last minute (apparently after the planes were already in PP) but said nothing to those waiting. It was only after the US Embassy stepped in that we received any explanation (Malaysia decided to not allow any Westerdam passengers in based on an unconfirmed report that a passenger who earlier had contracted the coronavirus), from the Embassy, of what was going on, and it was only then that Malaysian Air changed the status on airport signs to “canceled”.

Everyone else we have dealt with have been helpful and friendly. The Embassy staff deserves the highest praise for getting involved and getting us out of the airport and into this great hotel. The Cambodian has been great, and the Cambodian people have been great, and seem to really like Americans.

2/16/20: Watching movies on the TV in our room. No one can fly out until everyone has passed a more through health screening (nose and throat swabs, in addition to asking how you feel and checking your temperature). No work on flights out until then.

HAL says they are paying for the room and will reimburse up to $50 per day, per person, for meals. Based on the prices in the hotel, that probably will not be enough.

Finally finished the health screening, but there a lot of people left to screen. Tomorrow is still a possibility but the next day is more likely.

2/17/20: Still waiting to hear what travel plans HAL has arranged. All they are telling us is that they are working on it.

The mayor of Phnom Penh provided a bus tour around the main tourist district (we could not get off the bus), and HAL is hosting a cocktail meeting with the company President in about an hour. So maybe something will happen soon.

We have passed the health inspection, but there are still a number of people who have not done it yet. That means we can leave the hotel, but cannot fly out yet. The worst part is that we have no idea of when will have to be prepared to go to the airport. If we had that information we could take the hotel shuttle bus, or hire a tuktuk, to go into town to look around and shop. As it is, I don’t want to take off to do something and return to find that we have missed our flight out, so we just hang around waiting for further instructions.

The President of HAL flew in today and hosted a meeting to provide more information on what is going on. They are moving ahead with trying to arrange flights out, but it is slow going because of the volume of flights needed and the desire to avoid another debacle where HAL lines up a flight only to have the receiving country (or an intermediate stop) refuse to allow the flight enter their country (as happended when Malaysia decided at the last minute to not accept our flight).

He also reported that of the more than 400 passengers who have completed the more comprehensive testing (which included nasal and throat swabs) not a single case of coronavirus has been found. There is a strong suspicion (on the part of HAL, the Cambodian government, and the other passengers) that the Malaysian report was a false positive. Especially considering that everyone else on that flight, including everyone else on the ship and the woman’s husband, tested negative for the virus.
We will now get twice daily updates on travel plans, but no commitent as to when we might fly out of here.

The HAL President drew heated criticism at the meeting for deciding to continue the cruise after Hong Kong and not getting the passengers out sooner, but the general mood seemed to be supportive of what HAL has done so far to deal with the situation. I am disappointed that HAL has, up to now, seemed generally clueless about to handle it and somewhat inept (HAL seems to have been surprised when we were turned away from ports as we approached, including being turned away from Bangkok when we were reportedly within a couple of hours of docking) even after Kaohsiung ordered that no one could leave the ship after our first day there. The debacle at the PP airport caught them completely by surprise and hundreds of passengers were left stranded there for hours while HAL provided no information at all.

So for now we just bide our time. After hearing from the HAL President we had a very good sushi dinner, followed by drinks on the roof top terrace. The food here is excellent. The service is interesting. Everyone is very helpful and seems eager to do their best, but often seem clueless (orders, and bills, get mixed up, and service is generally very slow). It is a special experience. I want to come back here sometime for an actual vacation.

2/18/20: Another day of waiting. Apparently travel plans are complicated because several countries will not allow us to land in their country (South Korea, Phillipines, Malaysia, etc.) which complicates the flight arrangements. Especially since most flights to Seattle seem to connect through South Korea.

Going to dinner in a few minutes (probably Chinese tonight), then for massage. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.

A number of people were sent off on flights today. It remains to be seen if they are allowed to make their through connections, but HAL and the passengers are confident. It appears that HAL is setting up blocks of plane tickets for passengers, then summons those passengers to muster at a specific location in the hotel to load onto the bus to the airport. I have no idea how they are arranging things, except that they post of list of room numbers for the passengers who have flight arrangements along with the flight departure time and the time to be ready to board your bus. For example, a little before 8:00 pm they posted a list of room numbers for a flight departing at 11:45 pm, and telling those passengers to be in the lobby with their luggage by 8:45 pm for their ride to the airport. We did not get a flight today and will need to spend the entire day tomorrow waiting to see if get notice to be ready leave in an hour.

2/19/20: A few hundred more people, the last of the passengers, arrived around 7 after spending all day traveling by bus from Sihanoukville. This isn’t Seattle. The 11 km (6.6 miles) ride to the airport takes about an hour, the 138 mile drive from Sihanoukville apparently took about 7 hours.

The Cambodian Ministry of Culture brought in troop of dancers who performed traditional Khmer dances for about three hours this afternoon, and says they will provide similar entertainment every day until we get out of here. I cannot say enough good things about the welcome we received to Cambodia and hospitality of the Cambodian people.

It looks like about 110 people are flying out tonight. Still no news for the rest of us.

At 10:00 am HAL told us they had a flight out scheduled for 5 pm, and at 1:00 pm they would put up the list of those who got seats. At 1:00 pm they said that the 5:00 pm flight was out, and they would post an update at 2:30. So just waiting now.

They also told us that the remaining passengers, and apparently some of the crew, were being released from the ship and will arrive here this afternoon. I did not hear any clear information about how many people are here now and how many are coming, it we will probably end up with 700-1,200 people here in the hotel. The hotel seems to have the capacity, but it will get a lot more crowded.

If they can only fly out about 120 people a day it take 6-10 days to get everyone out of here. HAL says they are doing all they can, but won’t give any specifics. That is leaving more and more of us wondering just how hard they are trying, especially when other cruise lines seem to be able to get their passengers out of whereever they are, and anyone can go on-line and find flights out of PP with seats available.

HAL refused to let passengers board in Hong Kong who had been in mainland China, which is probably why there have no cases of covid-19 on the Westerdam, but do not seem to have done any advance planning for what to do if the ship was blocked from entering ports and passengers were not allowed to fly through airports in certain countries.

Here are Jerry’s closing thoughts on the coronavirus scare:

“The whole scare has been blown way out of proportion by the media, and government officials have pandered to the panic in their effort to make it look like they are doing something. I get angry every time I see the media reporting something like 75,000 cases and 1,800 deaths worldwide, when the real story is 74,500 cases and 1,798 deaths in China, and 500 cases and 2 deaths in the entire rest of the world. For all those people outside China who are sitting undisturbed in their home countries it has no impact other than what they do to restrict their own freedom. For the thousands (or millions) away from home it is very distressing and could be financially disastrous. Even though reasonable precautions are justified (including monitoring travelers and restricting travel from the hotspot in China) The panic response of the media and government has and will cause a lot more damage in the rest of the world than the disease will.”

Here’s a statement from Holland America’s Westerdam website:

“Guests at a hotel in Phnom Penh have all completed the COVID-19 screening. Results are being returned when completed, with the first batch of 406 all being negative. Cleared guests may travel home, and arrangements are being made for those guests.

“Guests in both locations are being very well cared for, including assistance with any medications needed. A full team is on the ground in both Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh, including Holland America Line’s President Orlando Ashford. We are communicating updates regularly as new information becomes available. A special hotline has been established for families.

“One female guest remains in a hospital in Malaysia with a reported positive result for COVID-19 according to Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. She is currently in stable condition. Her traveling companion tested negative for COVID-19.

“On Feb. 10, 2020, all 2,257 passengers and crew on board the Westerdam were screened for illness including the taking of individual temperatures. No individual was identified with an elevated temperature. Also during disembarkation in Cambodia guests underwent an additional health screening including the completion of a written health questionnaire. Furthermore, the passports of everyone on board were reviewed to ensure no one had traveled through mainland China in the 14 days prior to the cruise. During the voyage there was no indication of COVID-19 on the ship. The guest who tested positive did not visit the ship’s medical center to report any symptoms of illness. An additional 20 guests who reported to the medical center during the cruise were tested by health officials for COVID-19, and all results were confirmed negative.

“However, testing done on Feb. 16 in Malaysia on a Westerdam guest who disembarked the ship to fly home was reported positive for COVID-19, as confirmed by a statement by Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail at a press conference. The guest departed Westerdam February 14 and later reported feeling ill at the Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia airport. The guest was taken to the hospital and is reported to be in stable condition. The guest’s traveling companion tested negative for COVID-19.”

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Scott Schaefer

Founder/Publisher/Editor. Three-time National Emmy Award winning Writer (“Bill Nye the Science Guy”), Director, Producer, Journalist and more...