Frank Brown doesn’t mind if people have nothing to do with him or his wife Buena for the next two weeks.
After all, the St. George Island couple just returned from a two-week - wait, correct that, a month-long - trip to South America, which turned out to be even more of an adventure then they expected when they took off in late February, aboard Celebrity Cruise’s Eclipse.
“I don’t have a problem with anybody who wants us to avoid us,” said Brown. “Yeah, avoid us, that’s perfectly fine.”
He’s pretty confident that he’s got a clean bill of health, since no confirmed cases surfaced while they were aboard the 2,500-passenger vessel, from the time it set out from Buenos Aires, Argentina on Feb. 29, to round Cape Horn, past the southernmost lighthouse in the hemisphere, in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, and then on north, in the Pacific, to San Antonio, the port of Santiago, Chile.
The Browns had heard of the coronavirus but it didn’t affect their embarkation. “At that time it seemed like an isolated thing, that perhaps was going to be contained or dealt with,” he said. “It never crossed our minds, it wasn’t an issue.”
The trip, which I once took with my father, who lectured on the ship, I found remarkable, but that’s for another time. If it were like ours has been, the trip was fascinating,; for example, you could take in the sight, and smell, of a vast stretch of penguins. Frank didn’t talk much about those moments, the sharing of wonders of a faraway place, which of course immediately became of less importance the moment the captain made an announcement at 7:36 p.m. on Sunday, March 15.
“I know this because I kept a personal record,” he noted. “The captain said everyone will be spending the night on board.”
That meant they would not make their flight from Santiago back home to Atlanta and the island the next day
Brown said for two days the cruise line kept passengers updated on negotiations with Chilean authorities and the U.S. consulates. On that Tuesday, St. Patrick’s Day, they were advised the Port of San Antonio had made a final decision to deny entry, and the Eclipse would be headed to San Diego, California.
“I think that people were concerned, but there was far from any sense of panic,” he said. “There were just a lot of questions to be expected into a situation you can’t control, and you don’t know what the outcome is going to be.
“It was noted that no one had reported symptoms and no one had been quarantined or anything like that,” he said. “That made it more of an acceptable situation.
“A lot of it was like science fiction movie,” Brown said. “It really hit me hard to Chile. Not only would they not let the boat dock, we didn’t even moor in the harbor. I believe we circled. It was so unreal when these little vessels came up and started with little cranes lifting pallets of food and supplies.
“I just hit like a ton of bricks that we were living through a bad movie except now it’s real,” he said. “People were just kind of dumbfounded by it.”
As a retired railroad public relations officer with the Norfolk Southern Railroad, Brown, 63, is familiar with message delivery, and what he saw impressed him.
“They were patient, optimistic and positive,” he said. “It was timely and it was effective communication. It answered the questions you wanted answered. They dealt with the situation.
“I thought it was so impressive I actually bought stock in Royal Caribbean cruise lines,” he said.” These people know what they’re doing.
“We have had our incidents and crises (at the railroad) so I’m familiar with disaster planning,” Brown said. “They knew what to do, they did it well and with grace.”
On March 2, RCL stock was trading at $80.56, and on Tuesday, it closed at $32.17, and sometime in-between Brown made a modest stock buy. “I immediately lost money on it, it went down even further the next day,” Brown said, matter-of-factly.
“People weren’t going around pulling you apart,” he recalled. “It was noted that was a good strategy. There’s only so much social distancing that you can do.
“It was not like at the airport where people were standing six feet apart,” he said. “People were conscious of it. And since there were no cases and no ill people or anything, we actually had the thought that perhaps we were in a safer and more fortunate positon than people elsewhere.”
No one left the ship between Chile and California, until on Monday, March 30, at 11 a.m. they disembarked at San Diego,
The passengers filled out a form indicating whether they had any symptoms, and then had their temperatures take with a forehead thermometer. “If it was below a certain threshold, you were A-OK, and if not then on to a secondary investigation,” Brown said. “I don’t know if anyone was.
“We got scanned and we moved on and there was no muss or fuss,” he said.
He said his wife told him he that there had been a case on board, and as it turned out, on Tuesday, they did learn from the cruise line that a passenger had tested positive. The letter did advise, that “out of an abundance of caution,” the Browns stay home for the next two weeks, and take their temperature twice a day and monitor for fever.
“Also watch for cough or trouble breathing,” says. “Stay home and avoid contact with others. Do not go to work or school. Do not take public transportation, taxis, or ride-shares. Keep your distance from others (about six feet).”
Brown marvels at how smoothly the cruise line, and its employees, drawn from this country and from around the world, handled the entire process.
“Celebrity arranged for flights, they had it all set up for us. We knew it all several days in advance,” he said. “They bused us to the airport, we went through the TSA pre-check. got on the plane and made it back 2 a.m. the next morning.”
The Browns flew American Airlines to Charlotte, typically a bustling airport hub, and found it quiet as an empty cathedral.
“I walked around Charlotte Airport and there were more people in there working then there were passengers walking around,” Brown said.
Even more unusual, on the flight from Charlotte to Tallahassee, the flight crew outnumbered the passengers, of which there but the Browns and another young lady.
“There were four people flying this plane to get three of us home,” said Brown.
Right now, Frank and Buena, a retired graphic designer, are staying put.
“We’re just a bunch of fortunate lucky tourists,” he said. “It’s just so impressive what these people from other countries and what Americans can do.
“If anyone can come back from it it’s these folks. I’ve seen how they handle a bad situation and it impressed me,” Brown said. “It’s a sign people can get things done and they know what to do.
“It gave me optimism that we may pull out of this. We will defeat it and possibly even come out on the other side even stronger.”