Home News Cruise Passengers Are Held at Italian Port in False Alarm Over Coronavirus

For an entire day, passengers on the cruise ship were blocked from disembarking after a woman onboard became sick. She did not have the disease, but Italy did identify its first two cases in Rome.

The Costa Smeralda cruise ship in Civitavecchia, Italy, on Thursday.
The Costa Smeralda cruise ship in Civitavecchia, Italy, on Thursday.Credit…Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

By Emma BubolaElisabetta Povoledo and Jason Horowitz

CIVITAVECCHIA, Italy — Thousands of passengers stuck on a towering cruise ship. Doctors racing to the scene. Confusion and fear spreading.

For more than 12 hours on Thursday, the travelers aboard a ship docked north of Rome were ensnared in what was an ultimately false alarm after a Chinese national came down with a fever.

The episode prompted by a single sick passenger illustrates the fear that is spreading around the world along with the outbreak of the coronavirus, which has sickened nearly 9,800 people globally, the vast majority of them in mainland China. All 213 deaths have been reported in China.

For much of the day, Italy was gripped by fears that the coronavirus had arrived in the country. At least 68 cases have been reported outside mainland China, but there had not yet been any confirmed cases in Italy — though that changed later Thursday, when the government announced the first two cases, which were unrelated to the ship.

Giuseppe Ippolito, scientific director of the Spallanzani Hospital, which specializes in infectious diseases, said late Thursday that the two confirmed coronavirus cases, two Chinese tourists visiting Rome, were being held in isolation at the hospital.

“They were put in isolation as soon as the diagnosis was verified,” he said at a late night news conference with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Health Minister Roberto Speranza.

The officials offered reassurances that they would investigate the movements of the two Chinese tourists and attempt to identify those they may have been in contact with, “to absolutely avoid any further risks,” the prime minister said.

Mr. Conte said that Italy had blocked all flights to and from China. “As far as I know we are the first country in Europe to adopt such a precautionary measure,” he said.

The scare on the cruise ship began Thursday morning after Italian health officials stopped passengers from leaving the ship, the Costa Smeralda, when it landed in the port town of Civitavecchia on the western Italian coast.

The ship, carrying 5,023 passengers and 1,628 crew, was part of the way through a seven-day cruise, with stops in Italy, France and Spain. It left the Spanish port of Palma de Majorca and arrived at 8 a.m. Thursday in Civitavecchia. More than 1,143 guests had planned to end their cruise on Thursday, but were prevented from disembarking.

Later Thursday, a health ministry task force that Italy instituted to counter the spreading virus announced that tests on the passengers for the coronavirus were negative. Italian maritime health authorities said that passengers were allowed to disembark.

Costa Cruises said in a statement Thursday night that passengers who wished to disembark from the ship could, while passengers who wished to remain onboard would be accommodated and could begin their return home Friday. The ship will remain docked in Civitavecchia until Friday evening, skipping the port of La Spezia.

The company apologized for the inconvenience but said they had acted to “ensure maximum safety for all our guests, crew and the community as a whole.”

Onboard the Costa Smeralda, reactions swung wildly.

Maria Cartagena, a passenger on the ship, said that the situation on board “was tranquil.”

“They are doing checks on 2 Chinese passengers and for now (logical) they don’t tell us anything else,” she wrote on Twitter.“Kind of stressful.”

Other passengers took to social media to vent concerns and frustrations and share photographs from onboard the ship.

The all-clear came after controls were carried out by experts from the Spallanzani hospital. It is part of a coronavirus task force, which includes health, transportation and civil protection agency officials, which the health ministry set up earlier this month for just such an event.

In Civitavecchia, some passengers waiting to board the Costa Smeralda were scared about what awaited them.

Graziana Iuso, 39, from the southern Italian town of Torremaggiore, said she was nervous.

“I don’t want to get on that boat,” she said as she waited to board. “A couple of hours is not enough to do checkups.”

Another woman who was set to board the ship for a vacation, Antonella Libardo, the owner of a pizzeria in Puglia, said she trusted the company and would board without hesitation if the authorities gave passengers the green light.

“This virus thing is becoming a psychosis,” she said.

Emma Bubola reported from Civitavecchia and Elisabetta Povoledo and Jason Horowitz from Rome. Megan Specia contributed reporting from London.