Sault Ste. Marie couple finally back home after cruise plagued by coronavirus

Bill Purnis and Flo MacLeod of Sault Ste. Marie were among nearly 250 Canadian passengers on the MS Zaandam and Rotterdam cruise ships.

Bill Purnis and his wife spent more than 2 weeks sailing with passengers infected with COVID-19

It's been a long journey for Sault Ste. Marie's Bill Purnis. He and his wife Flo MacLeod thought they were safe from the pandemic because they were at sea. But the virus was on board their Holland America cruise ship, sickening about 200 people, and killing four. (Bill Purnis)

Sault Ste. Marie's Bill Purnis says it's good to be home, after being on a cruise that started March 7, around the same time the world was being alerted of a global coronavirus pandemic.

Purnis said he and his wife Flo MacLeod thought they were safe from the pandemic because they were at sea.

But the virus was on board, sickening about 200 people, and killing four.

First week of cruise 'wonderful'

Purnis said the the cruise line, Holland America was 'terrific the whole time,' and that the first week of the cruise was wonderful.

Once the captain determined he needed to get his passengers home, he attempted to dock at numerous ports.

"The captain headed down to the tip of Argentina when he was told that Chile was going to close its borders at a.m. the next morning, so he turned around and went back where we were and got there in time. But they said, 'Oh sorry. We changed our mind. We closed them at 12:00. You can't dock," Purnis recalled.

"So the captain said, 'well we can't sit here for 14 days ... and sailed up the coast of Chile toward Fort Lauderdale, eventually."

The big worry ahead was whether or not the ship would be able to make it through the Panama Canal.

"We had to go through at night," Purnis said.

"The captain came on and directed everyone to turn out all their lights. The inside ones and the outside ones, because we had to pass by a sensitive area where people didn't really want us to go through. If they couldn't see us they couldn't know we were there."

After passengers aboard the MS Zaandam began falling ill with COVID-19, the cruise ship line Holland America sent another ship to isolate passengers who were not sick. About 800 people were moved, including Sault Ste. Marie's Bill Purnis and his wife Flo MacLeod. (Bill Purnis)

Waiting for help

Being on board with sick passengers was stressful for everyone.

"We were only worried once the captain said that four people had died," Purnis told CBC Morning North radio host Markus Schwabe.

"We didn't remember who we were in contact with. There were more crew sick than passengers at one point."

Finally they were told another ship, the Rotterdam, was coming down from California to meet them and help them out.

"So they transferred 800 of us over. You had to be healthy and pass the screening to be allowed on the other one," he said.

"We thought maybe they were going to be limited to 100 ... but they did get 800 over."

Passengers were confined to their rooms.

"But you could look down the hallway and see little arms and head come out to take in the food trays," Purnis added.

"We did get a beautiful balcony when we moved to the Rotterdam ...  we were right at the back of the ship with a tremendous view of the water ... that's all we saw for several days."

Once the ship reached Florida, things were still tenuous, as there was talk that the Americans weren't going to let passengers leave.

"I guess it came down to a lot of letters that had gone from Canadians down to the governor of Florida and all those involved," Purnis said.

"It was interesting going from the ship to the airport. We had 24 police motorcycles escorting the seven buses." 

Getting home

It took the couple about four hours to get through the airport process, including customs. The plane back to Canada was packed, which raised people's stress level even more. Physical distancing was not an option. Gloves and masks were essential for everyone.

Once the couple landed in Toronto, they thought they were home free. Ten minutes before take-off, they were told they couldn't board their flight to Sault Ste. Marie.

"Even though we had clearance with Health Canada, Transport Canada had not [and] it was not going to let us on." 

When the clearance memo finally came through, they managed to get a flight to Sudbury. Two of their children drove two vehicles down from Sault Ste. Marie and they were able to drive the rest of the way home.

Purnis says he's grateful for the support they've received from family and friends throughout the ordeal.

"It would've been different without e-mail or phone. It would have been quite scary."

He also said it's a relief to no longer be wearing face masks all the time.

"It's so nice to be talking without a mask," Purnis said.



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