The beleaguered New Mexicans whose Hawaiian cruise aboard the Grand Princess sank into a morass of confusion, frustration and silence over COVID-19 concerns may finally be headed home this weekend, a full week after they had been scheduled to return.
The New Mexicans had been among the 3,533 passengers and crew aboard the ship, docked since Monday in the Port of Oakland with ever-changing and rarely communicated plans on what to do next after two passengers and 19 crew members tested positive for coronavirus.
At a news conference Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she had secured two charter airplanes and that her goal was to have New Mexican passengers home by Friday or Saturday.
But late Friday, her spokeswoman, Nora Meyers Sackett, said the state was having difficulty obtaining approval from federal authorities to release the New Mexicans from the three military bases where they are being housed.
Four New Mexicans housed at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego had been expected to depart Friday night, Sackett said.
“The situation is in flux,” she said. “We are still working on it around the clock.”
Other New Mexicans remain at Dobbins Air Force Base, in Georgia, and Travis Air Force Base, in Northern California, although it is unknown how many passengers were at each.
“There are a lot of numbers going around,” Sackett said.
But as of Friday night, eight of the New Mexicans’ whereabouts were unclear, after several of them staged a protest late Thursday aboard a transport bus.
Cindy Rizzo of Los Lunas, whose ordeal was featured in this column Thursday, said she, husband Mark and six other New Mexicans had been among the last to disembark from the ship and put on a bus heading to an airport to be flown to Miramar. But when they were told they would be flown instead to Dobbins, the passengers refused to leave the bus.
“Please HELP!” Rizzo posted in Facebook.
Rizzo’s last Facebook post said simply: “Forcibly removing me.”
Attempts to reach Rizzo since then have been unsuccessful. Her friends in Albuquerque also say they have not heard from her.
Sackett said the governor and her office were aware of the situation but did not say what had become of the passengers on the bus.
Lujan Grisham’s decision to bring the New Mexicans home was a reversal of her earlier plan to have all New Mexicans flown to Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, in Texas, to be tested and quarantined there.
But after Texas refused to take passengers from other states and complaints by passengers grew louder about how disorganized the federal agencies tasked with handling them were and how they were not being told what was going to happen to them, Lujan Grisham ordered that arrangements be made to bring the New Mexicans home to be tested, treated and self-quarantined.
“They are frustrated, tired and exasperated, and it is a fair emotional response,” Lujan Grisham said.
All New Mexicans are expected to be tested and receive a public health escort to their homes, where they will self-isolate, Hackett said.
As news of their pending homecoming, whenever it comes, spread Friday, several New Mexicans responded with relief and surprise.
“We’ve been in the same clothes for four days, and we just learned our luggage is in Miramar, so going home is a good thing,” said Donald Sattler, who arrived at Dobbins earlier this week with his travel partner, Antje Muir.
Both say they have heard little about their fate since the ship went under quarantine March 5 and was diverted from San Francisco to Oakland. The two-week cruise had been scheduled to return March 7. The cruise began in Los Angeles, traveled to Hawaii and was diverted from a stop in Ensenada, Mexico, after COVID-19 was detected.
Muir said she and Sattler have not been tested for COVID-19.
Across the country in Miramar, Carolyn Wright reported that she and travel partner Beryl Ward were tested Friday afternoon.
“The med techs told us that they had been instructed to prioritize testing for New Mexico and Nevada residents,” said Wright, whose experience was also featured in Thursday’s column.
“We are hoping that means that we are one step closer to getting back to New Mexico.”
It’s just that no one yet knows how many steps it will take to get them home.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org.