National

As some head home after COVID-19 ship quarantine, one slams U.S. 'flip-flopping'

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

While some Americans aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, quarantined in Yokohama port, left Monday on chartered flights back home, others opted to stay.

One passenger who chose to remain was Matthew Smith, who said he felt an “about-face” by the U.S. government risks undermining the quarantine program put in place by Japan.

Based on the seating capacity of buses that transported passengers wishing to leave, Smith estimated there were still roughly 50 to 60 Americans still on the vessel. The Japan Times could not independently confirm the number.

“My wife and I were satisfied with the quarantine that was established on board the ship — and, in fact, we have been receiving information from the U.S. Embassy supporting that, and telling us that the best place to be is within the cabin,” he said by phone.

But in what struck him as a change of policy, the U.S. government announced over the weekend it would give American nationals the option of returning home on chartered flights, placing them under isolation for another 14-day period upon their arrival on U.S. soil.

“They said they were going to send some planes to take us off, they were going to take us out of the quarantine before the period was over, throw us on the buses, all mixed together, throw us on the plane, all mixed together, take us back to the U.S.,” he said. “We’re not going to do that.”

Smith’s concerns appear to have been validated by a statement released by the State Department on Monday saying that 14 Americans who tested positive for the COVID-19 infection after leaving the ship and after they “initiated transport to the airport” were allowed onto the same flight as other passengers, albeit in a specialized containment area.

“The State Department made the decision to allow the 14 individuals, who were in isolation, separated from other passengers, and continued to be asymptomatic, to remain on the aircraft to complete the evacuation process,” it said.

Smith believes the announcement shows he made the right decision.

“US Gov’t said they would not put anyone on the planes who was symptomatic, and they ended up knowingly and intentionally putting on 14 people who actually have the virus,” he said on Twitter. “Decision not to be evacuated = best decision ever!”

Despite his resolve to stay, Smith, whose wife is also on board, said he understood why some passengers might prefer to leave. Although he and his wife are in a suite, others are cooped up in smaller rooms with no windows that could become “very confining.”

“So it’s quite different from the experience we’re having, and I understood people were just worn out by that situation,” Smith said.

A 43-year-old man from Hong Kong aboard the Diamond Princess, who asked to remain anonymous, knows first hand how emotionally draining it can be to be locked up in a room not as well appointed as Smith’s.

Like the U.S., Hong Kong also announced a plan to send aircraft to Japan to repatriate passengers from the cruise ship, and to place them in mandatory quarantine for an additional 14 days after they arrive in Hong Kong.

Having been stuck in a “windowless room” all along, the man said he wants some “decompression and movement” before beginning another quarantine. He said he has wondered if home quarantine might be allowed, “particularly for those of us with children or for the elderly.”

“We also want to know what will happen if we choose to not take the chartered flight and return to Hong Kong on our own. … We prefer to return to Hong Kong on our own if possible,” he said.

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