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‘We are not cattle’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — We are speaking by cellphone when the bus crammed with passengers from the doomed Grand Princess cruise ship begins to roll slowly on the tarmac of an unknown airport to a pair of 737s from an unknown airline for a trip to an unknown destination.

Everything is unknown because of COVID-19.

“They’re not telling us anything,” Santa Fe resident Carolyn Wright says. “They are literally not speaking to us. It’s mind-boggling. We are being treated like cargo.”

It’s Wednesday evening, four days after she and travel companion Beryl Ward were supposed to return home to New Mexico, six days since their otherwise wonderful two-week cruise to Hawaii became a trip into the Twilight Zone with the discovery of the coronavirus lurking among the 3,533 passengers and crew aboard ship.

Carolyn Wright, left, and travel partner Beryl Ward spent most of seven days confined to their cabin aboard the Grand Princess after COVID-19 was detected among passengers and crew. “After being stuck 24/7 with the same person in a small room, we almost came to blows over a hand towel. But you have to keep your sense of humor.” (Courtesy of Carolyn Wright)

While the rest of us wonder where to buy our next roll of toilet paper, they are among the 21 New Mexicans from the Grand Princess who have wondered when the rolls of government red tape and secrecy will end.

“We’ve just been shuffled around arbitrarily and are given no concrete information about our situation,” Wright says. “They have taken away any control we might have over our lives. They have given no thought to worried friends and relatives waiting back home.”

After spending the last seven days confined to their state rooms as per orders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – with a total of just 20 minutes allowed on deck in all that time, drug-store face masks on, social distancing enforced – Wright says she and other passengers are packed into the bus with no apparent concern for close contact in close quarters save for the two rows cordoned off between them and the bus driver.

Passengers aboard the Grand Princess were allowed out of their rooms for a brief few moments on deck, where they were forced to wear face masks and ordered to keep their distance from other passengers to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We called over the CDC worker and asked why people were not spaced 6 feet apart. He said, ‘Don’t worry, with this virus it’s safe,'” Wright says. “We asked why the driver got safe distance. And the CDC man says, ‘Well, you can get off the bus if you don’t like it.'”

And, oh, how she wishes she could have.

Meanwhile Wednesday evening, Cindy and Mark Rizzo of Los Lunas are wishing they could get off the ship, their luggage taken somewhere that morning, Cindy’s anxiety medication out, the halls outside their cabin eerily silent.

In the days since the ship docked Monday at the Port of Oakland, they could hear other passengers yelling, stomping down the hallways refusing to stay in their rooms, throwing their food trays. Now they hear nothing, not even the announcements from the captain.

“We’re being treated like animals, like outcasts,” Cindy Rizzo says. “No one tells us anything.”

With no information forthcoming, both the Rizzos and Wright have reached a breaking point. They have asked friends, Facebook followers and journalists like me to beg Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to bring them back to New Mexico so that whatever COVID-19 testing or quarantine is necessary can be done closer to home. Passengers from other states, such as Nevada, are bringing their residents home, they say. The Rizzos’ traveling companions from Texas have already been flown home to Texas. Why can’t New Mexico do the same for them, they ask.

Earlier Wednesday, Lujan Grisham held a news conference to declare a public health emergency because of COVID-19. She took a question from a reporter about the New Mexican passengers on the Grand Princess and announced that they are to be taken to San Antonio, Texas, where they will be tested for the virus, then decisions made about their quarantine.

Neither Rizzo nor Wright know anything about that plan.

“When that decision point came, the guidance the governor had from the CDC and federal officials was that this would be an orderly process, that they would be tested, isolated for the requisite period and brought home after that,” governor’s spokesman Tripp Stelnicki says.

Only that isn’t happening.

Just after 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, Wright and Ward land at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station near San Diego – not San Antonio after state and federal officials decided that only Texas residents would be flown there. That information makes the news, but not the passengers affected.

“No one told us anything,” Wright says. “Just here you are. Get used to it. We have a right to know what is happening with our lives. We are not cattle.”

Both Wright and Rizzo refute Lujan Grisham’s news conference contention that she has spoken personally with each New Mexican on the ship. But minutes after the news conference, Rizzo says she received her first call from the governor, who promised to get medication sent to her.

“I’ve already had two panic attacks,” Rizzo says. “So I hope so. And getting information to us on what is happening would be even better.”

By 2:30 a.m. Thursday, Rizzo’s medication arrives. Wright and Ward are finally going to bed in what Wright describes as a “very nice hotel” with a wonderful staff somewhere near Miramar. It is, they are told, to be their home away from home as they quarantine for the next two weeks.

“Still some hiccups with the planning end – for example we must wear masks any time we interact with staff, but they don’t have any masks for us,” she says. “But the people on the ground seem to genuinely care and are working nonstop.”

Later Thursday morning, Lujan Grisham and her staff are rethinking the decision not to bring New Mexicans home. They have learned that Texas will not take non-Texas passengers. As soon as Lujan Grisham is given the phone number of New Mexican passengers she has not yet spoken with, she makes a call to them.

That includes Wright.

The news is good.

“They are chartering planes to bring us all home!” she tells me excitedly. “They are still trying to find where everyone is, and I’m sure the organization is going to be difficult and time-consuming, but they are shooting to actually have us leave California by late tonight or early tomorrow morning. We will still be thrilled, even if it takes a bit longer than that. Just the fact that she has reversed herself and is now willing to let us self-quarantine is making me feel downright giddy!”

Stelnicki confirms that Lujan Grisham has changed her mind, given the poor handling of the passengers.

“Knowing what we know now I’m sure the governor would’ve made a different” choice, he says. “The state will find a way to get them home, tested, etc.”

By Thursday afternoon, Rizzo is also hearing the news.

“Praise God and all of you who’ve been our voice through this,” she says.

Both the Rizzos and Wright say they have been on numerous cruises. But this is one they will remember for a long time – and will try to forget.

And so they wait to come home and whatever awaits them in New Mexico. It’s the best trip of all.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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