Healthy passengers on coronavirus-struck cruise ship Diamond Princess will finally be allowed off after 25 days aboard - but elders get first dibs

diamond princess strolling on deck.JPG

Kyodo/via Reuters

Quarantined passengers stroll on the deck of the Diamond Princess docked at the port of Yokohama on February 7, 2020.

  • The Diamond Princess cruise ship was scheduled to dock on February 4, but was kept afloat, with everyone on board, after 10 passengers tested positive for coronavirus.
  • Since then, the Japanese Health Ministry has diagnosed more than 200 people on board with the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
  • Their quarantine is scheduled to last until February 19, but on Thursday health officials started a "voluntary disembarkation" of elderly people who want to get off the ship, so they can finish their quarantine on shore.
  • The food on shore will be in Japanese bento boxes, and "no Western meals will be available," health officials said.
  • Some passengers have already decided they'd rather stay on board the ship, where alcohol supplies are dwindling, but food offerings are more diverse.
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There's only one place outside of mainland China where more than a few dozen cases of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19 have been diagnosed.

It's a cruise ship.

At least 218 people aboard the Diamond Princess have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. That's far more diagnoses than any other country outside mainland China, where more than 60,000 people are sick, and more than 1,300 have died. Authorities suspect the outbreak originated when a man from Hong Kong boarded the ship for an earlier leg of the journey, then disembarked and was diagnosed.

"We clearly have a large number of cases in a very closed environment on that ship," Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization Health Emergencies Programme, told reporters on Thursday.

The ship, which is now carrying roughly 3,500 passengers and crew, has been on a 14-day lockdown since it was originally scheduled to dock in Japan on February 4.

diamond princess passengers on balcony.JPG

Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Passengers stand on their balcony on February 10, 2020.

Diamond Princess passengers over 80 years old are being offered the option to get off the boat ahead of schedule

The Japanese Ministry of Heath had previously been letting sick passengers with positive COVID-19 tests off the boat for care, but now some of the oldest, frailest individuals who are not sick will have the option to get off the waves too.

Soon, any passengers who are over 80 years old and staying in the interior, balcony-less cabin rooms, as well as anyone over 80 with a chronic medical issue, will be able to disembark, if they want to, the Japanese health ministry announced.

"It's a difficult thing for anybody to live in a closed environment like that, it's particularly difficult for an elderly person to do so," Ryan said. "We are working with Japan to try and get the most needy passengers off the ship."

People who want to leave the ship will first be tested for the novel coronavirus. If their test comes back negative, they'll be housed in "individual rooms" with "individual bathrooms" on shore until the end of the quarantine period, but they will not necessarily be offered all the same food and entertainment that exists aboard the cruise ship.

"The meals provided will be Japanese bento-style boxes," the Japanese health authority made clear. "No Western meals will be available."

Some passengers have decided they are not interested in any kind of rescue

"Maybe that would be okay for those escaping an interior cabin, but for our part, we'll stay right where we are," one passenger wrote on Twitter.

Food reviews on board the Diamond Princess appear generally positive, but there have been some complaints about moldy broccoli and dwindling liquor supplies on the ship lately. (One couple reportedly got a wine delivery by drone.)

The Valentine's Day dinner menu on the ship will include "cupid's avocado and shrimp salad" along with three separate entree options, including a choice between coq au vin and a "shrimp valentine Japanese style."

Conditions are still cramped, especially for people relegated to the windowless interior cabins, no larger than a shipping container. Even those who've been in close contact with people who've been diagnosed with the coronavirus are not allowed to get off.

Passengers are now being allotted an hour a day to escape their rooms and walk around on deck to get some fresh air, but they are asked to keep a safe distance from others, and wear masks when they go out. Guests have also been offered extra internet bandwidth to pass the time, eight new TV channels, daily Sudoku puzzles, and mental health phone counseling services.

Some are working remotely from the ship during their extra two weeks in the port of Yokohama, while others have taken to doing their laundry out on the balconies - as the wait for garment cleaning on the ship can be as long as 72 hours.

diamond princess clothes .JPG

Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Passengers aboard the Diamond Princess on February 7, 2020.

The 14-day quarantine is scheduled to end on Wednesday, February 19. By then, any remaining guests will have been on the ship for about a month.

"Another day's done, and we are one step closer to the end of our extended time together," a crewmember announced from the bridge of the ship on Thursday evening. "We truly understand that some must be very anxious ... we only have six days to go. Goodnight."

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