A look back: Stuck on cruise ships, local couples relied on wavering hope as COVID-19 became a shocking reality

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(KTXL) — Roughly one year ago, thousands of people were trapped on cruise ships just waiting to go home.

They would spend weeks, some months, in tiny rooms with the world watching as the coronavirus became all too real.

On Jan. 20, 2020, the Diamond Princess cruise ship left Yokohama, Japan, with 3,700 passengers and crew members on board. Five days later, a passenger left the ship in Hong Kong, where he tested positive for COVID-19.

A month later, the Grand Princess cruise ship had gone to Mexico before setting off for another voyage with most of the original 1,111 crew and 68 passengers still on board. Days before they were meant to return to San Francisco, they were informed two people who were on the first voyage were symptomatic and one had tested positive for COVID-19.

In the end, both cruise ships reported more than 800 COVID-19 cases and at least 10 deaths.

Among those on board were local couples who spoke to FOX40 during their long and uncertain days at sea.

Otis and Carol Menasco from Granite Bay

For nearly two months in February and March 2020, Otis and Carol Menasco were trapped in two tiny rooms with just each other for company.

While on the Diamond Princess cruise ship just outside of Tokyo, Japan, the Granite Bay couple shared their cabin with a sofa, a desk and a dining room table.

Passengers on the ship carrying thousands were starting to test positive for the novel coronavirus. At one point, the ever-climbing number of those infected on board was in the hundreds.

So, the Menascoes chose to avoid the crowds. Instead, they watched multiple movies a day and walked out on their balcony when they needed a change of scenery.

“We’ve had a lot of fear. … That’s why when they allow us out of the cabin to go out on the deck with other cabins we don’t go. We just go on our balcony and that’s it,” Otis Menasco said.

Two to three times a day they would check their temperatures to make sure they had not contracted the virus.

When they were finally allowed back into the U.S., the couple was detained at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas for further testing. San Antonio’s mayor made the last-minute call to retest all people under quarantine at the base when a Texas patient who recently traveled from Wuhan, China, tested positive for COVID-19 after two negative tests.

Once again, the Granite Bay couple was confined to a single room, this time at a hotel.

“We chose two or three days in a row not to ever leave the room,” Otis said. “And it was a very small, ugly room. It really was.”

On March 4, after celebrating their anniversary and Valentine’s Day in quarantine, Otis and Carol Menasco landed at Sacramento International Airport.

“It’s been so long since I’ve been home, it’s just crazy,” Carol Menasco told FOX40. “We keep thinking we’re coming home and then we’re not. So, it’s been hard.”

“Oh, the feeling is so good, to smell the air of Sacramento and to be back, and after seven weeks,” Otis Menasco said. “And not having to wear a mask and actually be able to talk to someone without them having a mask.”

Alice and Dale Barnhart from Carmichael

Alice and Dale Barnhart did their best to stay busy on the Grand Princess cruise ship. For five days they were trapped in a tiny cabin, playing gin rummy and watching movies to pass the time.

“Well, I think both of us are pretty positive people normally,” Alice Barnhart told FOX40. “So, when something like this happens you just have to go with the flow. You can’t change it, it is what it is.”

Those on board were waiting to undergo medical screenings. A loudspeaker announcement by the captain made it clear the Carmichael couple would need to wait a little while longer to disembark after the ship pulled into the Port of Oakland.

“You were with a lot of people,” Alice Barnhart explained. “There were people coughing around the ship. We feel fine, so we will just keep our fingers crossed.”

On the day they were meant to leave, they woke up at 3:30 a.m. and waited 12 hours before they could finally disembark.

They were then taken to Travis Air Force Base, where they had to be away from home for another 14 days for quarantine.

“Do the best you can, just keep each other company and stay positive,” Alice Barnhart said.

Steven and Michele Smith from Paradise

Steven and Michele Smith stepped onto the Grand Princess’s dock March 9, cheering and snapping photos as they passed under the Golden Gate Bridge.

“Oh, exhilarating, the fresh air. Everyone else when they went outside there was nothing to look at, just water,” Michele Smith said about the experience, a huge smile on her face. “I really felt like God was blessing us, I really did. It was extraordinary.”

They had spent more than four days trapped inside their cruise ship cabin.

By the time they left, they too would need to quarantine for two weeks at Travis Air Force Base.

The couple was just eager to get back to Paradise to build new homes for those who had lost theirs in the Camp Fire.

“We’ve been married a long time and we raised nine children together, so we know what it’s like to be patient,” Steven Smith said.

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