Kiwon Nahm says her parents have been stuck aboard a Princess Cruise ship for weeks, though no one on board has displayed coronavirus symptoms

By Jason Duaine Hahn
March 26, 2020 02:22 PM
Kiwon Nahm

Like many travelers around the world after the outbreak of coronavirus, Peter and Grace Nahm had an important decision to make in early March.

Each year, the New York-based couple — who are both 71 — help to organize a cruise trip for a group of about 60 alumni from Peter’s High School in South Korea. This year, their March 5 vacation with Princess Cruises was set to take them from New York to South America, making its final stop in Buenos Aires, Argentina on March 19.

Twenty-one days later, they’ve found themselves stranded at sea.

Days before they were set to depart, news of the rapidly spreading coronavirus compelled some of the group’s members to cancel their tickets. While those from South Korea were able to receive a full refund, the group in the United States allegedly could not.

“The 14 people from the States tried to cancel their trip,” Peter and Grace’s daughter, Kiwon Nahm, 40, tells PEOPLE. “But they were not allowed to get refunded, even with travel protection.”

Kiwon’s parents were faced with a choice — should they go on their trip to South America and risk potential exposure to the virus, or stay home and potentially get nothing in return for what they had already spent?

“They had planned the trip over a year ago, so it was a lot of money just to throw away,” adds Kiwon’s husband, Aaron Korn, 37. “They didn’t think it was that high of a risk at the time.”

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When reached by PEOPLE, Princess Cruises disputed the suggestion that guests were not allowed refunds. Instead, the company says passengers were offered a 50 percent credit to use toward a future cruise if they canceled before departure.

Peter and Grace Nahm, Kiwon Nahm, Aaron Korn
Kiwon Nahm

“In light of their extraordinary circumstances, and as their cruise was canceled mid-voyage, we can confirm that they have been offered a full refund for the canceled days,” the company said in a statement to PEOPLE. “$150 USD was also applied to their account as a refundable onboard credit. Further, Princess Cruises is covering all costs associated with travel home, and is providing complimentary internet access for the remainder of the voyage.”

In the days leading up to the voyage, the majority of coronavirus cases had been primarily detected in mainland China — where the virus is believed to have originated — and in Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan. While cases were less prevalent in the United States, the CDC had begun issuing warnings to Americans about a “need to prepare for a significant disruption” to their lives if the virus wasn’t contained.

“We were concerned,” Korn recalls. “We tried to convince them not to go.”

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The couple chose to move forward with their plans, and by the time they boarded the Coral Princess cruise ship on March 5, there were only 228 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, according to the New York Times.

Just over 20 days later, that number has now ballooned to over 68,000 confirmed cases as of Thursday morning.

When the Coral Princess finally reached Buenos Aires on March 19, only guests with Argentinean passports and those who had departing flights that day were allowed to disembark, according to a statement posted on the cruise line’s website. There have been no known cases of coronavirus aboard the ship.

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But with the Argentian government issuing a decree going into effect that night that would prohibit passengers from stepping off the ship for an undetermined amount of time, the Coral Princess made its way to Uruguay in the hopes its 1,024 remaining guests could disembark there. The cruise line called the situation “unprecedented.” After arriving in Uruguay on March 22, the outcome was the same.

“Coral Princess is currently sailing a South America voyage and continues to encounter challenges disembarking guests due to port closures and changing regulations,” Princess Cruises said in a statement at the time.

When the ship tried to disembark in Rio de Janeiro two days later, they were once again denied. This has left Peter and Grace — who had already purchased plane tickets from the different countries to increase their chances of disembarking and immediately flying back home — in a state of uncertainty.

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“It’s less about their physical health since everyone’s pretty healthy on the boat, it’s more about their mental health,” Korn says of his in-laws.

“My mom was crying. My dad regretted going,” adds Kiwon. “It’s frustrating. We’re anxious. We’re trying to help them here . . . they’ve given them false hope at three different ports.”

The Coral Princess is now on its way to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where it is scheduled to arrive on April 5. It is unclear whether passengers will be able to immediately disembark or be kept on board.

Another Princess Cruise ship, the Grand Princess, was held for days off the coast of California earlier this month, but that boat had known cases of COVID-19 among crew and passengers on board.

“There remains no known risk of COVID-19 on board,” the company said of Peter and Grace’s vessel on March 24.

Grace Nahm, Kiwon Nahm, Aaron Korn and Peter Nahm
Kiwon Nahm

“Princess Cruises continues to work through diplomatic channels to ensure guests return home safely despite the ongoing challenges of quickly evolving port closures and changing regulations,” added in their statement to PEOPLE. “We are taking every effort to ensure our guests remain comfortable and are quickly informed through Captain announcements. Both internet and guest stateroom telephone service remain complimentary so that guests can stay in touch with family.”

For Kiwon, Korn, and their two children, the prolonged time away from her parents is proving difficult.

“When they’re in the middle of the ocean, I can’t reach them,” admits Kiwon, who has reached out to state officials for assistance in the situation, with disappointing results. “I can FaceTime with my parents, and all this stuff, but that’s not the same.”

With the outbreak causing so much unpredictability, Kiwon is simply hoping to have her parents close by once again.

“It’s amazing the emotions that we’ve gone through — the hope we had, then the disappointment, and the hope again and the disappointment,” she says. “It’s incredibly saddening, but knowing that we’ll see them in a few weeks gives me hope that it’ll be fine; I’ll get to spend time with them.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDCWHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.