Rachel and Tyler Torres counted themselves lucky among the quarantined passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
Sure, COVID-19 turned their honeymoon upside down. But at least they had a view.
“It was a little bit of an emotional rollercoaster,” Rachel Torres says. “We kind of went through some ups and downs.”
The Diamond Princess began its quarantine just days after one passenger, who had already disembarked, tested positive for the virus on Feb. 1. As the quarantine dragged on, the newlyweds would send pictures from their balcony to their neighbors-turned-friends, who were stuck in a windowless interior stateroom.
The ambulances scared Rachel Torres early on, before the couple’s COVID-19 test results came back negative.
“We were thinking it was a little bit like ‘The Hunger Games,’ just because we didn't know who was next,” Tyler Torres says.
But the couple from Irving, Texas, took the quarantine in stride. They blogged their way through the days and made friends with other passengers online. They shared pictures of the meals that were delivered three times a day and wrote about trying to entertain themselves without catching the virus.
“We made sure to wash our hands after touching everything and anything,” Tyler Torres says. “Anytime we had our outside time” — passengers were allowed on the ship’s deck in shifts — “we just stuck our hands in our pockets and stayed away from people."
Meanwhile, more passengers fell ill.
As of Thursday, with the ship’s quarantine drawing to a close, 634 people from the ship had been infected, according to Japanese officials. There were about 3,700 people originally on board. Two Japanese passengers died of the disease — both in their 80s with underlying health conditions, according to Japanese broadcaster NHK — and infectious disease specialists have questioned whether the quarantine was effective.
In their stateroom, Rachel and Tyler Torres remained healthy. But as the end of the quarantine drew close, the U.S. embassy gave them a choice: Evacuate on a plane and spend two more weeks in quarantine, or finish the quarantine on the Diamond Princess.
“That was a little bit of a tough choice for us,” says Tyler Torres.
If they had finished quarantine on the ship, they would have been barred from coming home for at least two more weeks.
“That was enough for us to just say, you know, maybe we should just cut our losses,” he says. “There's more cases on this boat, we're probably going to get exposed in the plane. Let's just get it over with. If we're gonna get sick, [let’s] get sick. Go to the hospital. Get it done with. Go home."
They took the flight home. Since Monday, they’ve been quarantined at Lackland Airforce Base, outside of San Antonio, Texas.
“The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], and the military, and the [Disaster Medical Assistance Teams] have been doing a really wonderful job of keeping us safe and healthy,” Rachel Torres says. “Quarantine here is a little bit stricter than it was on the cruise ship, so we’re really hopeful that this time the quarantine will work and that people will stay healthy over here.”
At Lackland, everything they considered normal before the cruise has become almost awe-inspiring.
“On the ship, you know, we got one or two of everything,” Tyler Torres says. “But here, if you ask for more water, they’ll give you a whole pack if you want it. They just have an endless supply, it seems like.”
He says staff in hazmat suits bring them meals three times a day, plus soda and water. There’s also laundry service and trash removal.
Rachel Torres says she’s a little concerned about the potential for stigma when they’re finally allowed to make the last leg of the journey home.
“I think that kind of hit me… that there might be a stigma around us having been on that boat,” she says. “And I know a lot of people may have some fear about the coronavirus, just because there's not a lot of information out there right now. Obviously, the CDC wouldn't release us from this base if they didn't believe that we were safe to walk around in public.”
But their jobs, at least, are safe. She just graduated with a master’s degree and has postponed her first day at a new job. And Tyler Torres, a nurse, says his boss has been understanding.
Meanwhile, Princess Cruises has refunded the cost of the cruise entirely. The couple says the free honeymoon helps make up for lost wages.
Princess has also offered them a free cruise, up to the value of their original voyage.
Tyler Torres says absolutely that they’ll go — “especially if it's free.”
But not quite yet, his wife adds. Maybe they’ll take a few road trips first.
This segment aired on February 20, 2020.