‘I literally was locked up abroad’: The diary of a cruise director during the coronavirus pandemic

May 31, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC
Courtesy Christine Streets

The past year in the life of Christine Streets, a onetime Mrs. Iowa and reality TV personality, has been nothing short of insane. A cruise and travel director for Holland America Line (HAL), the 147-year-old subsidiary of the Carnival Corporation, Streets, 39, escaped likely death last fall when she was medevaced from a cruise ship with a ruptured bowel. She went into septic shock and spent two months recovering in New Zealand before moving to the Netherlands in December to live with her now-fiancé, an engineer for HAL. She returned to work just as the threat of the novel coronavirus started to make news in America. On March 4—with her Iowan parents and her boyfriend, who proposed that day, along for the ride—Street set off from Fort Lauderdale aboard HAL’s largest ship, the Koningsdam, on a voyage that would eventually be upended by the global pandemic and leave her and 1,200 other cruise ship crew members “on a mental roller coaster,” indefinitely stuck at sea.

Streets and her American and Canadian colleagues were allowed, under strict conditions, to leave the Koningsdam on May 8, but hundreds of her colleagues remain, even today, at sea—refused entry by many countries, including their own. The ship, which in late April took on the crews of six other ships and is functioning as a repatriation ship, has had no reported cases of COVID-19. The situation is hardly unique: There are thousands of cruise workers stuck at sea around the world, unable to return home because of COVID-19-related restrictions. In the past few weeks, six of those crew members have reportedly died by suicide.

Streets, who is quarantining at her parents’ home in Eldridge, Iowa, spoke with Fortune in mid-May, days after returning home from her 55 days stuck at sea on the Koningsdam. She is in the process of filing for unemployment; she does not know when she will next be working for HAL. Days before her homecoming, her fiancé left to work on one of HAL’s ships in the Philippines.

Streets’ account has been edited for clarity and length.

Pre-pandemic

I went to Drake University in Des Moines for broadcast news, but I ended up doing some commercials for Holland America Line, and then I just started working for them about eight years ago. I worked my way up from event manager to cruise director to cruise and travel director.

Our ships range anywhere from 1,000 guests all the way up to 2,300 guests. We have about 823 crew members on board. It’s my job to represent all of the crew members and represent the company.

On my average day, I wake up around 6:30 a.m. I’m in full hair and makeup and in the office by 8. I’m walking around, saying hi to the guests, meeting and greeting, taking any questions they might have. I usually do two big presentations for them, teaching them about the ports of call where we’ll be visiting. I have a 5 p.m. announcement with the captain, basically updating everybody about what activities are happening around the ship. I am working a 14-hour day, running around the ship trying to mingle with every single guest I possibly can. I work three months on—every day, no days off—and then three months off. We’re used to being at sea for six to 10 days max.

I enjoy working there. I will tell you we live in our own bubble. Most of the shifts I work on have people of about 38 different nationalities. Everyone has a different background—it’s literally a perfect world on the ship. We all get along.

Obviously there are a lot of rumors about the cruise industry, and I would say 99% of the things people say are false. Everybody thinks we’re underpaid, which is not true. You know, let’s just say people of 38 different nationalities, they’re being paid in U.S. dollars—they take that back to the Philippines or Indonesia—that’s a lot of money they’re making per month.  They’re supporting families. They make a great living, and as an American citizen, I’ve made a great living and a great life on the ship.

March 4, 2020

My parents here in Eldridge and my now-fiancé boarded the ship with me on March 4 in Fort Lauderdale. (My fiancé proposed to me that day.) They were on an 11-day voyage with me. I was never really worried about COVID-19. On cruise ships we deal with “the GI” [norovirus] for example—a couple of people get it and then touch other people, and we’re used to making sure that it does not spread on ships. We’ve been trained in all this, so I was never worried that something was going to come on our ship and get everyone sick. But of course, reading the stories, there was a lot of news going around. We didn’t know what to believe and what not to believe. Our company was really good with getting us updates as we went.

I kept reassuring the guests because people were getting upset. They’re reading the news, and they’re like, “Just stop the cruise now. We need to get home.” The captain was doing updates to the cruisers, and he brought the nurses and doctors on in the last couple of days to explain what was going on.

It was a really good thing to have my parents on board. I kept saying to everybody: “My dad, he’s had cancer. He’s not in good health. If we had this virus on board, do you think that I would let my own father be walking around the ship right now? I feel safe. You should feel safe. You need to trust me and the captain.” We didn’t have any cases. A few people in the comments, which I get to read when they leave, said that I was the “calm in the storm.”

March 15

When my family left on March 15, I kissed them all goodbye, and then all of a sudden we weren’t starting a new cruise. The company had called the guests who were coming to the new cruise almost 24 hours prior—it was shut down really quickly. A lot of these people were coming in from far, far away because it was our special voyage around South America. I was supposed to be gone for two months.

The crew set sail on the ship, but we had no guests. I thought we’d be starting back up again in a week. I look back at what I documented on day three or day six, and I had so much spirit and fire, thinking, “Wooh! I’m having a day off!” I would end up having 55 days off.

At first, the company implemented social distancing. We knew we couldn’t be close to each other and things like that, but around the ship we kind of went on with normal life. We made sure the crew members had the gym to use—only 10 could go in at a time—and they were at the pool. They were lounging. They were sunbathing. For the first two weeks, it was literally as if the crew got to take over the ship like a mini-vacation.

Then things started to step up. Corporate said we were going to be on there longer and wanted all the crew out of crew cabins. We did our best to give everybody a cabin either with a window or a nice veranda. We didn’t know how serious everything was because, again, on a cruise ship, we’re all in our own little bubble. All we knew is that we were safe. No one was sick on the ship.

We had activities for the crew—different things every day, everything from lip-synch competitions to karaoke nights and bingo. Then, all of a sudden, I think it was week three or four, all that had to stop. There were other ships that were starting to send pictures out. Social media is everything these days. People were taking pictures where they weren’t social distancing, and they were doing all these activities. Finally corporate said, “We’ve got to stop this. Even though you’re a healthy ship, the ship needs to social distance as well.”

We took away all the basketballs and shuffleboard and anything that could be touched and locked all that away.  Every three days, we were sanitizing the whole ship. We went from this whole program to do-it-yourself: Do whatever you guys want, just please stay away from each other.

We didn’t know when we’d get off. The CDC was changing the rules all the time. I mean, the company would come up with a plan, and then the plan would get shut down or change the next day. Luckily, being on a cruise ship, we’re used to changing environments. But it was just constant, constant changing. [Editor’s note: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s No Sail Order for cruise ships in U.S. waters went into effect on March 14. The agency shared requirements with cruise lines on April 23 for disembarking crew members in the U.S. A HAL spokesperson said the company worked with the CDC to gain and maintain clarification on the agency’s various new requirements during this unprecedented time.]

For example, we thought we were going to go around South America, take our time, and then come up toward San Diego. But the weather was getting bad in South America, and we wanted to get to California as soon as we could to get our crew members home. So the company paid a tremendous amount of money to get us through the Panama Canal. We weren’t supposed to go through the Panama Canal. We’re the Koningsdam—it’s our biggest ship, and because of its size, it was never intended to go through.

The captain and the other engineers and the bridge officers had to do a lot of work to the ship to make sure that we could actually get through the canal. It was a really big deal. Once we got that done, we started heading up toward San Pedro. And we’re thinking, “Okay, they’re going to let the Americans and the Canadians off in San Pedro.” I did offer to stay because, obviously, as one of the heads of departments, I didn’t want to leave my team, but my captain was saying, “Chris, you need to leave. We don’t know when you’ll be able to get off again. If you get a chance, you’ve got to go.”

April 22

In the morning, the two other Americans and I got called down to the medical unit. They said we needed to sign health declaration forms for clearance. So we figured we’re going to get off. I told the others, “If I were you, I’d head to your room, and finish up packing now. I think something’s happening.” I got my airport clothes on. I took an extra shower to get ready for a long day of flying, and nothing happened. We sat, and we waited and waited. I’m sitting there looking at my bag sitting in my room—and nothing. We ended up sailing away from San Pedro that night. [Editor’s note: Though the CDC had not yet shared formal information regarding the process to disembark crew members on April 22—the agency issued the rules the following day—Streets says the Koningsdam was turned away because HAL hadn’t secured crew the private charter flights required to disembark.]

I’ve never felt so—I am a very positive person—but I was disgusted. I was upset. I didn’t understand. I’ve represented the state of Iowa as Mrs. Iowa. I’ve been to 103 countries, and I represent the United States everywhere I go. And here, I’m in the United States, and you will not let me in my country. It was the weirdest thing.

I handle stress very well—I just got done with two months in a hospital by myself in New Zealand after being medevaced off a ship—and I ended up downstairs in medical myself, sitting there smiling to one of the doctors but crying hysterically. They gave me a puzzle and sleeping pills. They said I needed activity because I’m so used to go, go, go, go, go.

That was my hardest day. Even thinking about it, it makes me very upset. Growing up American, even though I’m just from a middle-class family, I grew up more privileged than most of the people that I work with. Being American, I always knew that I had this protection of being from the United States of America. I was so proud. And I tried not to have harsh feelings toward my country because I love being American, but man, I thought, “I’m a citizen. And I’m just Christine from Eldridge, Iowa. Why won’t you let me in?” I’ve watched Locked Up Abroad my whole life—I literally was locked up abroad.

Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley’s office tried to help, but their hands were tied with the rules from the CDC. There were about three emails that came from Grassley’s office that were like, “Christine, we just want to touch base. There’s nothing we can do, but we wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

On the Internet, everybody is going back and forth—it’s the cruise line’s fault; they don’t want to spend money; or it’s the CDC’s fault. I’m not trying to stick up for my company, but when you look at the rules from the CDC of what they needed to do to get us ashore, it was absolutely impossible. There were all these rules. They basically wanted private charter jets for every single person. We couldn’t use the bathrooms or walk into any place, from point A to point B. If the state of Iowa had sent me a private jet themselves, I still couldn’t have gotten ashore because they would have needed to work with the ship and with the CDC with a 72-hour notice. But we couldn’t give a 72-hour notice because we never knew when we were going to be in a port. [Editor’s note: All of the CDC’s requirements are spelled out here. An agency spokesperson said while the CDC requests 72 hours’ notice, the organization has approved many requests to disembark crew with a same-day turnaround.]

The attestation form Christine Streets had to sign before disembarking from the Koningsdam. On the right, the attestation form the CDC requires cruise ship companies to sign before disembarking crew members. The CDC shared the attestation forms on April 23, the day after Streets’ San Pedro experience.
Courtesy of Christine Streets; CDC

That night, I stood on my balcony, I took a picture, and I literally watched my country in the background as we sailed away. I was so upset, but then once we got back out to the sea, past international waters, I was fine because I knew I was back to seafarer status. I knew that next day, I was going to have 965 people wondering how I acted because I was just not let in by my own country, and they were all going to be watching how I handled this. l put a smile on my face and I’m like, “It is what it is. I guess I’m not meant to be on land yet, and I’m supposed to be here. I’m supposed to help out.” And that’s what happened.

April 27

Holland America Line decided that the Koningsdam was going to be a repatriation ship. We ultimately had crew from seven different ships on the Koningsdam—1,200 employees from 70 different countries.

I was the head person to take care of every ship crew that came onboard. We had already sent away all of our Asian crew members to different ships—to coordinate the process of getting people home, one ship took Indonesians, one ship took the Filipino crew, and then our ship took all non-Asian crew. We had lots of people from South America, South Africa, Europe. We brought the other crews over in 48 hours. We made sure that when they came on, no one cross-contaminated with another crew. We have fire zones on a ship, and so we all were in different areas. We had different eating times. We got 30 minutes to eat meals. My dinner was at five o’clock. I’ve never eaten at five o’clock in my life, but I had to because there was so many ship crews on board. I had 15 minutes to get my food, 15 minutes to sit down and eat it. But they fed us well. I ended up gaining 15 pounds.

We were all self-isolating. I was known as “the Lean Mean Christine” by the captain because I kept going over the PA system and saying, “Okay, it seems like some of you don’t know what self-isolating is. Let me explain.” I was having to be the main person around the ship keeping them in check—letting people know there couldn’t be cabin parties. No, you cannot go to your neighbor’s place. No, you cannot sit and socialize with them. I was having to hammer them with rules 24/7.

We had stuff on TV, over 300 movies to watch. But there’s only so much you can do in your room, and a lot of these people had other issues going on with family back home. I remember hearing about a crew member whose wife was having twins, and she had died in labor. He had to stay on the ship. He’s still on the ship, and he’s had to mourn there. We’re used to that as seafarers, but we had a lot of people who had deaths of brothers, sisters, parents, and they have to sit in their room and mourn. When you’re stuck in a cabin and you can’t do anything and you’re by yourself all those hours, that’s a lot.

What I was going through was different than my colleagues. My colleagues were sitting in a room with no work, not doing anything. I was working a crazy amount of hours. I had created WhatsApp groups on the ship, and I was trying to answer questions. They’re reaching out to me: “Christine, I need to get to Argentina. I need to get to Peru. Any news on Europe?” I didn’t have answers for them. The captain didn’t have answers for them. No one had answers for them. The problem is that they couldn’t see an end in sight.

The hardest part was not having an answer. I was the one they could get at to ask questions, but I didn’t know anything. We’d be sitting in the meetings every morning, and the hotel director and the captain would say, “I don’t have an update for today.” Everyone was doing everything they could to keep people updated, but when information came in, it was coming in last minute. You don’t know anything until 24 hours in advance. I don’t know how headquarters was dealing with this or even how they’re continuing to do it. It’s just a complete mess.

May 8

My hands were shaking, and my face mask wet from crying when I reached land in Los Angeles. HAL made arrangements, and our charter plane made stops in Indiana, Connecticut, and Toronto. I got off in Indiana, walked through the small terminal and yelled, “That’s my Uncle Ron!” He drove me the six hours to Iowa.

I don’t quite know how I got off the ship. Out of 1,200 employees from 70 different countries on board, we only had 53 Americans and Canadians. So, 53 of us were able to get off. I think it had a lot to do with the press. Some people went against the company’s social media policy before they said it was okay that we could talk and caused a stir. It made headlines all over. We were also close to our country. It left a bad taste in a lot of my crew members’ mouths—why do Americans and Canadians get to get off and we’re still stuck here?

Four crew members from cruise ships stuck at sea have committed suicide. [Editor’s note: At least two more crew members from ships around the world have reportedly taken their lives.] If only they could have just gotten home or gotten off their ships. It doesn’t shock me at all that this has happened. What they’re going through on the ship of being in self-isolation—I mean, sitting here in Iowa, this is the easy life. I’m in a house. I’ve got all the amenities. I can walk around. I’ve got family around me. If I wanted to, I could get into a car. I couldn’t go in places right now because I’m supposed to be self-isolating, but I have things I can do.

On a ship, you are literally handed your food three times a day. You are lucky if you have fresh-air breaks three times a day. Otherwise you’re in your room. You can talk to your friends and family on the Internet, but the Internet connection is so bad.

Most of these people are providing for a whole family at home. And now they’re stuck on a ship with no pay. They can’t get home to even get a job to help their family, and they’re getting very desperate. I’ve seen the WhatsApp chats going through, and our crew right now is like, “Please know that if you need to talk to someone, we’re here. We’re all in this together.”

I think the company was generous with what they did do. My contract was supposed to be until May 23. We need a certain amount of people to stay on the ship, roughly 200 people to be our minimal crew so their contracts kept going. For the rest of us, our contracts all ended on May 9. We signed a sheet and got 30 days’ notice. I got paid full up until then, and 50% of my pay until May 23. So, you either got 50% of your pay or $500, whichever was greater. [Editor’s note: HAL would not disclose specific wage details, but a company spokesperson said HAL had exceeded its contractual obligations in terms of compensating crew members waiting to be repatriated.]

I’m not trying to boast about my company, but I will say they did absolutely everything they could possibly do. Their hands kept getting tied. Every single time they would try to do something, new rules would come into play. There were all these emails from corporate saying, “We’re sorry, we tried this. And now we’ve been shut down on this so we’re going to try plan B now plan C, now plan F.”

The ship is going to be docking in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and 200 crew members, mostly European crew members, are expected to get off. Another one of our ships is pulling into South Africa. They’re taking people to Cape Town. For cruise lines to have to literally sail around to all these different ports—if they just would have let us get one commercial flight to take people places. For my private jet, it was $10,000 an hour.

Some countries have completely closed their borders; some have been more open. With the U.S., there was a ship that was trying to dock in Fort Lauderdale a month and a half ago trying to get passengers off. There were sick people on there. They made it a big deal. They didn’t want anybody to get off in Fort Lauderdale. It’s the No. 2 cruise port in the whole United States. No one was wanting us in, and it caused even more problems when they kept closing borders. It’s just adding to this.

You get all these people who think they know the cruise industry. And they all want to have their opinion on Facebook or in the comments even though it’s based on ignorance. I started the battle of responding as nicely as I could to different people. But then I knew I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t keep up with fixing every single person’s opinion of the cruise industry.

Of course, our cruisers are excited to come back. People are saying the cruise industry is done now, but we’re going to be fine. Holland America has been around for 147 years, through two World Wars, the Great Depression. I just hate seeing everybody wanting to come back right away because I know my colleagues are still out there not even able to get home yet.

I was never scared of the coronavirus. I guess I should have been. I have people that I know that have had it. One woman on one of the HAL ships did have it and she survived. From the start we were a healthy ship, and we maintained that for 55 days.

[Editor’s note: A HAL spokesperson says approximately 550 crew members aboard the Koningsdam are still waiting to be repatriated. The company expects to have repatriated the vast majority of crew members by mid-June and is currently providing telephone counseling and other support services to crew, including those experiencing loss and grief. The CDC says it has worked with cruise lines to help over 7,000 crew members, 277 of them Americans, return home during the pandemic.]