Panic crept in as Miguel Gonzalez realized that the cruise ship he was reading about in the news was the same one that had just taken his parents to Mexico and back.
Gonzalez learned that several people who had been on the Grand Princess cruise ship at the same time as his parents had later tested positive for the new coronavirus. His father Lucio had begun feeling ill a few days after he got off the ship on Feb. 21, 2020 and returned home to San Rafael.
“We thought, ‘God forbid, but we’d better take dad to the hospital,'” Gonzalez said, recounting those frightening moments that continue to haunt him a year later.
“We were thinking we’d take him in, they’d diagnose him with the flu and then we’d all have peace of mind that he didn’t have the virus,” he said. “Well, that was the exact opposite of what happened.”
Lucio, 73, tested positive for the coronavirus at Kaiser hospital in San Rafael. It was the first confirmed case of the new virus in Marin County.
By that time, the Grand Princess had captured the world’s attention and made the coronavirus real to millions in the United States when thousands of passengers were quarantined as the ship idled off the California coast. In Marin, health officials warned that the 56 passengers who had been on the ship’s prior voyage had likely been unknowingly exposed to the coronavirus before returning home to the county. That included Lucio and his wife Margrit.
Hours after the Gonzalezes disembarked in San Francisco, a new group boarded for a 10-day trip to Hawaii. The Grand Princess was headed for a stopover in Ensenada, Mexico, when officials ordered it to reroute to California on March 4 after a 71-year-old Rocklin man who had been on the same trip as the Gonzalezes died of COVID-19.
Worried about the virus, officials blocked the ship carrying 2,400 passengers and 1,100 crew members from anchoring at its home port of San Francisco. President Donald Trump said he didn’t want the passengers to disembark on American soil “because I like the numbers being where they are,” but that he would yield to health officials’ advice.
Ultimately, more than 100 people who were on the ship were infected with the coronavirus. At least eight died.
Margrit Gonzalez, 82, tested negative for the coronavirus after the trip. But her fear ratcheted up as her husband’s stay in the hospital dragged on. Within two days of his arrival, he slipped into a coma and doctors put him on a ventilator. He died three weeks later, the first death from COVID-19 in Marin.
“I so wish we had not gone on that sea voyage,” she said.
The couple began taking cruises after Lucio retired in 2012 from his career with California State Parks, where he worked for 25 years maintaining trails on Mount Tamalpais. Both avid hikers, the Gonzalezes often took road trips around the western U.S. to explore new trails, but cruising became another favored way for them to travel after they took their first trip to Alaska.
Now, the Gonzalez family is suing Princess Cruises and owner Carnival Corp. for negligence and wrongful death — one of dozens of lawsuits by passengers and surviving relatives. Carnival declined to comment on pending litigation.
Princess Cruises said in a statement that its response to the pandemic was based on “the directives of governments and public health authorities and consistent with industry standards. As new information about COVID-19 became available, we continually adapted our policies and protocols to reflect the latest understanding of the virus.”
Gonzalez family attorney Mary Alexander said the Grand Princess should not have sailed after an earlier outbreak on Carnival’s Diamond Princess off the coast of Japan.
“They knew more than anybody else about what was going on with COVID and what was going on on cruise ships and they should have never sailed. They didn’t take any special precautions to protect the passengers, they didn’t warn them about the virus. People died as a result,” Alexander said.
Miguel Gonzalez said he wants to make sure the industry is held accountable and future passengers aren’t put in danger as his father was.
“I’ve been thinking about him a lot because we’re just starting to think of everything that happened a year ago,” Gonzalez said. “I just miss him and I just wish I could have more time with him.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.