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Cruise ships taken off course as anti-virus controls widen

Last Updated Mar 7, 2020 at 8:47 am PDT

FILE: Officials in protective suits ensure the temperature of foreign passengers disembarked from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship before boarding to buses at a port in Yokohama, near Tokyo, Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. Passengers tested negative for COVID-19 started disembarking since Wednesday. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

BEIJING (AP) — The spreading new virus — or fears of it — immobilized cruise ships or left them searching for ports on four continents Saturday as the bug that has infected more than 100,000 people shifted its travel patterns.

Iran declared a “sacred jihad” against the virus after its case numbers spiked anew. Italy shut down its courts, and the Vatican decided to livestream the pope’s Sunday blessing. Cruise ships faced trouble in waters of the United States, Malaysia, Egypt and Malta as those aboard got tested or confined to cabins.

In China, the number of people recovering from COVID-19 mounted. But hopeful signs had not erased the scope of the recent crisis in the country where the new virus emerged late last year.

A hotel used for the medical observation of people who had contact with infected patients collapsed Saturday in southeastern China on Saturday, trapping some 70 people, news reports said. There were no immediate reports of deaths.

At least 23 people were rescued from the wreckage of the Xinjia Express Hotel in Quanzhou, the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily and other outlets reported.

Western countries are increasingly imitating China – which has suffered the vast majority of infections — by imposing travel controls and shutting down public events to contain it.

After the city of Venice canceled its cherished Carnival and governments warned citizens against travel to Italy, the epicenter of Europe’s outbreak, the country is facing a possible recession. Hotel occupancy rates in the lagoon city are down to 1%-2%.

″’The surface of the Grand Canal is like glass because the boats that transport merchandise are not there. On the vaporetti (water buses), there are only five or six people,” Stefania Stea, vice president of the Venice hoteliers association, said.

Cruise ships filled with passengers confronted different virus-related problems.

Officials in California were deciding Saturday where to dock the Grand Princess cruise ship, with 3,500 people aboard, after 21 tested positive for the virus. There is evidence the ship now idling off San Francisco was the breeding ground for a deadly cluster of 10 cases during an earlier voyage.

“Those that will need to be quarantined will be quarantined. Those who will require medical help will receive it,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said. President Donald Trump said he would have preferred not to let the passengers disembark onto American soil but would defer to medical experts.

In Egypt, a cruise ship on the Nile with more than 150 aboard was under quarantine in the southern city of Luxor after 12 tested positive for the virus. The passengers include American, French and Indian travelers.

Also Saturday, the port of Penang in Malaysia turned away the cruise ship Costa Fortuna with 2,000 aboard because there were 64 passengers from Italy, the center of Europe’s epidemic.

It was the second port to reject the ship after Phuket in Thailand. Now, it’s heading to Singapore.

And in Malta, which reported its first case of the virus Saturday, the MSC Opera ship agreed not to enter the Mediterranean country’s port – even though there are no infections confirmed on board.

Transmission of the virus, which started as a one-way journey outward from the Chinese city of Wuhan, is now going in every direction. New cases in Asia are being imported from Italy. Global travel hubs like Dubai reported cases imported from multiple continents.

The global death toll has risen past 3,400, though most people who have contracted the virus since December have now recovered.

As of Saturday, nearly 90,000 cases have been reported in Asia; more than 7,000 in Europe; some 5,000 in the Mideast; about 400 in North America; about 50 in Latin America and the Caribbean, and fewer than 50 cases reported so far in Africa.

The virus is still much less widespread than annual flu epidemics, which cause up to 5 million severe cases around the world and 290,000 to 650,000 deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.

In Iran, fear over the virus and the government’s waning credibility has become a major challenge to leaders already reeling from American sanctions. More than 1,000 infections were confirmed overnight, bringing the country’s total to 5,823 cases, including 145 deaths.

South Korea, the hardest-hit country outside China, reported 448 new cases for a total of 7,041. The government reported four new deaths for a total of 48.

China now has more recovered people than infected people. China reported 99 new cases on Saturday, its first daily increase of less than 100 since January. The government reported 28 new fatalities.

Western countries stepped up efforts to control the outbreak.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging older adults and people with severe medical conditions such as heart, lung or kidney disease to “stay home as much as possible” and avoid crowds.

Four U.S. universities said campuses would hold classes online instead of in-person, after schools in Asia and Europe did the same.

Pope Francis will deliver his next two public blessings via video, rather than in person, to prevent crowds from gathering.

Austria confiscated 21,000 disposable masks that a Turkish company smuggled aboard a tour bus, seeking to profit from soaring demand. Turkish police, meanwhile, said Saturday they would take legal action against social media accounts accused spreading false virus information.

Nine countries that contribute troops and police to the U.N.’s 95,000-strong peacekeeping operations are delaying bringing in replacements for three months.

Global markets are enjoying a weekend respite from market panic, but the world economy faces mounting damage.

China, the world’s biggest trader, reported Saturday its exports tumbled 17.2% from a year earlier in January and February. Imports sank 4%. Beijing’s decision to keep factories and offices empty as its outbreak advanced sent shock waves to production of the world’s smartphones, toys and other consumer goods.

A total of 78 million migrant workers have since returned to work, and Chinese manufacturers are reopening. But they aren’t expected to return to normal production until at least April, and most people in Wuhan still are barred from leaving their homes.

Off the California coast, passengers on the Grand Princess waited in their cabins for word on its fate.

Steven Smith and his wife, Michele, a couple from Paradise, California went on the cruise to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Crew members wearing masks and gloves have been delivering food outside their doors, while the Smiths have been watching television, reading and looking out the window.

“Thank God, we have a window!” Steven said.