‘Land, ho’: Md. cruise ship performer looks to help those still at sea

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Emily Freeman is now in her fourth round of quarantine, and she couldn’t be more pleased: In her current homebound state, she feels free.

“It doesn’t even feel like I’m in quarantine because I was in a 230-whatever square-foot room, and now I have my whole house and my yard so, like, I don’t feel like I’m quarantining at all,” she said this week.

Freeman is a performer for Princess Cruises who grew up in Bowie. Just days after boarding the Sky Princess cruise ship on March 8 for her second contract, the cruise line’s CEO, Jan Swartz, stopped the fleet’s operations, letting all passengers off while the crew remained.

She found herself adrift — isolated from the world on dry land as she knew it — for 56 days.

At first, Freeman thought it was just a matter of arranging travel for crew members to get home. She quickly found out it wasn’t that simple.

The CDC had enacted a No Sail Order in mid-March, establishing that cruise lines had to devise plans to be approved by the federal agency before any crew members disembarked.

Additionally, cruise lines have to sign documents stating that they are adhering to CDC guidelines as they repatriate their crews.

According to the CDC’s Attestation for Non-Commercial Travel or Crew Transfers Pre-Approval of NSO Response Plan, in order to get everyone off-board, senior management needed to sign a document certifying that:

  • The cruise line will transport all of their employees home through non-commercial means, and that they have informed any vehicle operators of the situation at hand
  • Crew members will not use public or commercial transportation, stay in hotels, rent cars, eat at restaurants or interact with the general public as they travel home
  • Notify local health departments of their crew’s pending arrival
  • Crew members are screened for symptoms of COVID-19 by medical professionals prior to their repatriation and will be provided personal protective equipment as they disembark
  • They have told repatriated employees to quarantine for 14-days when they finally make it home

The CDC said the document was provided to cruise lines in April. After a bit of time and several bouts of multi-week isolation, Princess signed the document, enabling the crew members aboard the Emerald Princess cruise ship to re-enter the U.S.

“So it was because they signed it, that we were able to actually come home,” Freeman said.
She began her disembarkation process last Saturday, which was a whirlwind.

Making the best of a long journey home

At 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, the Emerald Princess docked at the port in Fort Lauderdale — where Freeman had seen her hopes of repatriation dashed several times before.

She said it was surreal seeing city lights in the dark after floating in the “pitch black” for months, all of her fellow crew members at their balconies yelling, “Land, ho!”

Two women
The Floating Daughter: Nancy Freeman, left, and her daughter Emily Freeman, a cruise ship entertainer who was stuck at sea for several weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy Maryland Matters/Freeman family)

She and the other North American expats were ushered into the ship’s dining room for breakfast where they waited for the seven o’clock hour to roll around when all of the “walk-offs” — or people who lived within an eight-hour drive of the port — were able to finally repatriate. They were followed by the Canadians who took a charter flight to Canada.

Freeman said that the remaining Americans were disbursed between four charter planes, all paid for by the cruise line.

Freeman and 24 other U.S. citizens touched dry land for the first time in almost two months at 7:30 on Saturday morning.

This left them with a whole five hours to kill before the private airport in Miami was ready to receive them, so they hung out in the Customs and Border Patrol parking lot until 1 p.m. when a charter bus drove them away.

Freeman, as she does, looked on the bright side: This was the first time in a while that she was not isolated in her 231-square-foot bedroom. She was among friends, she was outside “and there was a plan in motion.”

“Honestly, I had way more peace of mind sitting on the side of the road than I’ve had in a long time, so, honestly, we made the best of it,” she said. “It was really fun.”

They arrived at the airport in the early afternoon, where they saw the charter plane that would take them to Atlanta land.

Freeman said that the flight was “the best flying experience” she’s ever had. Their charter bus drove them right up to their small private plane — equipped with an open bar — and members of the crew “had a photo shoot” of themselves walking up the steps.

“All things considered,” she said, Princess took amazing care of her as she re-entered the U.S.
From Atlanta, they flew to Newark, N.J., where both of her parents picked her up just hours before Mother’s Day. Both held welcome signs. Her mother’s read: ”She’s home! Best Mother’s Day gift ever!”

“I can’t think of a better Mother’s Day present in the world than to have her home,” Emily’s mother, Nancy Freeman, said. “It was something I could only hope for. Obviously, the most important thing was to get her home at all, but the fact that it pretty much happened on Mother’s Day just made it more special.”

Nancy had fought hard for her daughter to come home, contacting politicians and government organizations for any answers she could possibly find.

This fight to get Freeman back into the U.S. garnered a fair amount of media attention.

Freeman said talking to the press “was fun” at first, but it quickly turned. She explained that she felt like her only hope of getting home was spreading her story as widely as possible, so she pushed through, repeating it in interviews with new reporters all the time.

“I felt like I had to keep doing them just so that the word would get out and I had to kind of remind myself why I kept telling the story, but it was pretty exhausting,” she said.

“It’s not a story that I want to tell every day.”

Freeman had also been relaying her journey through videos on the social media app TikTok, some of which went viral. She said that she made sure to let everyone on the app know that she got home safely.

“TikTok is the best thing to come out of this, I have to say,” Freeman joked.

Not only did the app help her spread the word, but it also kept her and some of the other crew members sane as they were isolated in their rooms.

“Honestly, I just think it made it even better getting to share everything with everyone in kind of a more lighthearted-manner than a formal interview, and getting to do it in my own spin, like, to the background of bubblegummy pop music,” she said.

‘It’s very weird to see someone’s full face’

Freeman expressed shock at the lackadaisical way some people on land have been practicing social distancing measures.

She said that because of the stringent guidelines put in place not only by Princess but also by the CDC, she feels “ahead of the game as far as safety precautions” go.

“OK, for example, this woman is walking in front of my house right now without a mask, this is not OK,” she said as she interrupted an unrelated thought during an interview with Maryland Matters.

Because restrictions were so tight on the ship, she sarcastically likened seeing a person without a mask to immodesty.

“It’s like, it’s very weird to see someone’s full face,” she said. “I keep making the joke that it looks like I’m, like, in medieval times and a woman is showing her ankles, and I’m like ‘The shame!’”

Maryland Matters spoke with Freeman over the phone Wednesday evening, about 30 minutes after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr (R) announced he was lifting the state’s stay at home directive. She was surprised, to say the least.

“Oh heck no, I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “No way.”

Freeman said, in her opinion, it’s way too early to go out.

She also has cruise ship friends who are chomping at the bit to hit the seas again. But Freeman said there are still Americans on Princess cruise ships who have yet to be repatriated because their ships weren’t sailing near the coast of the U.S.

She’s been in touch with a number of crew members still adrift, including a dancer who is stuck on the Sea Princess outside of Asia. Freeman said that, since the ship is so close to the coast there, the fleet’s first priority has been repatriating the crew members aboard who are citizens of Asian countries.

“The Americans there, they still don’t know what they’re going to do. They have to wait, basically,” she explained. “All the ships just have to deal with the problems right in front of them.”

And it’s not just Americans who are facing problems now.

Freeman’s best friend is a citizen of Zimbabwe whose family lives in South Africa. She said because of her citizenship, South Africa won’t let her enter and because Zimbabwe is landlocked she can’t get there by ship.

“They told her to prepare to stay on [the boat] until the end of July because there’s just no plan,” she said.

Advocacy in action

Freeman said the stories she hears have ignited a fire in her to advocate for other cruise ship employees, especially when it comes to their mental health.

Earlier this week, several news outlets reported that four crew members across different cruise lines have died non-COVID-19 related deaths in the span of 10 days.

According to Princess spokeswoman Alivia Owyoung, one of these was a 39-year-old female Princess crew member from Ukraine who jumped overboard the Regal Princess anchored near the Port of Rotterdam on the coast of the Netherlands.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of the crew member. We activated our Princess Crew Care Team to assist to family during this difficult time,” Owyoung wrote in a statement.

Freeman said she’s been making calls to try to figure out how she can help Princess provide mental health resources for those who are still stuck at sea.

She saw firsthand on the Emerald Princess instances of people “not doing well at all,” but being afraid to go to Human Resources for help out of fear that they would derail any efforts the department was making to get them home.

“I don’t think this has ever happened before,” Freeman said. “There needs to be a lot of attention paid to [the] mental health of the crew members on board who have no idea when their situation is changing.”

According to Freeman, something as simple as having access to reliable WiFi to reach out to friends and loved ones makes a difference.

“There needs to be something done about just checking in with everyone on board, and crew members need to know that they’re not forgotten,” she said.

In spite of it all, the experience has not deterred Freeman from returning to the industry.

She said that even now that she’s back on land, in the “perfect world” where the virus is eradicated the first place she’d want to go is back on a ship.

“That job changed my life, and it, like, opened my eyes to traveling and like all these other cultures, just all the other cultures onboard,” she said. “And, like, getting to say that I have friends in every country, basically, and just all the exposure — 1,000 percent. I’m not done with cruise ships at all.”

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