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Pandemic unexpectedly alters once-in-a-lifetime trip for EC couple

It was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for Paul and Veronica Marshall-Potter of Eau Claire.

A world cruise aboard the Arcadia, a ship operated by P&O Cruises, that was to last more than three months and include 28 different ports of call.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, which reared its head in the middle of the cruise, caused the couple to miss 16 of the 28 ports. And some of the 16 ports were changed from the original itinerary because of the coronavirus.

At one point, the Eau Claire couple’s ship was at sea for 31 straight days because ports wouldn’t allow it to dock.

“No ships, no boats, no birds, nothing. Just blue water and blue skies,” Veronica said.

“They did a really nice job of keeping us busy,” she said of the ship’s staff. “We were never bored.”

Veronica was proud of her fellow cruisers on the Arcadia.

“The group we were with was not an angry group,” she said. “For the most part, they were soldiering on.”

And unlike other cruise ships, the coronavirus did not touch the Marshall-Potters or their shipmates.

“We got news of other ships that had issues,” Veronica said. “But nobody got sick on our ship. We were an island of health.”

Departing before COVID-19

The Eau Claire couple’s trip began on Dec. 29. After visiting friends for a couple days, they flew to London and got on their ship Jan. 3 at a port in Southampton in the United Kingdom.

“Everything was fine,” Veronica said. “I don’t think there was any clue at all that we were going to be part of a pandemic.”

The first inkling the couple had that the cruise was not going to go as planned was when a stop at American Somoa was canceled because of a measles outbreak there. The ship instead went to Tonga and the Fiji Islands, Paul said.

Besides that minor hiccup, everything was as planned as of the middle of February, when the Arcadia was in New Zealand.

“Still everything was fine,” Paul said. “No hint of any trouble.”

The couple’s ship left New Zealand. After two days at seas, they were in Sydney, Australia, for two days.

“That’s when it started to hit the fan,” Veronica said.

Changing course

The Arcadia changed its captains while in Sydney.

“The new captain got the lucky job of telling everybody on the ship that our itinerary was going to change,” Paul said.

Southeast Asian stops such as Shanghai, Manilla and Kuala Lumpur were being scratched because of the coronavirus.

That translated into several unscheduled days in Australia.

“One of our crew members said we were now doing a world tour of Australia,” Veronica said. “At this point, we weren’t too upset.”

The Marshall-Potters were becoming well aware of what was happening around the world with the coronavirus because they got BBC news reports in their stateroom.

“We were up to date on what was happening,” Veronica said.

While in Fremantle, Australia, the Arcadia’s passengers were told they could end their cruise, leave and fly home because of the changes. The Marshall-Potters thought about that. But the ship was still supposed to make stops in the Middle East, the Suez Canal, Sri Lanka and South Africa.

As it turned out, the ship would not see another port for the next 31 days until it got to its final destination in Southampton, Paul said.

“But we didn’t know that at that time,” he said.

Staying out at sea

During their 31-day float, Paul said they were told that many countries were closing their ports to cruise ships.

Authorities in Cape Town, South Africa, wouldn’t let their ship stop there, as well as a second port in that country. They were only allowed to pick up food and fuel.

At one point, Paul said, a physician wearing a hazardous materials suit was flown by helicopter out to the ship to check everybody who was in the sick bay.

“He wanted to make sure nobody had the coronavirus,” Paul said. “Apparently, that went well.”

The ship just floated outside Durban, South Africa, for five days because it wasn’t allowed to port.

“We were basically making circles out in the sea,” Paul said.

The Eau Claire couple’s ship dropped anchor on April 8 near the Canary Islands.

“We took on fuel while we were at anchorage,” Paul said. “The fuel barge came out to the ship.”

The Arcadia then made its way to Southampton to allow its passengers to disembark.

Paul and Veronica got off the ship at 10 a.m. on April 12.

“Our cruise actually lasted the full amount of days is was supposed to,” Paul said.

The next mission now was to get from London to Eau Claire, and that was an adventure in itself, the Marshall-Potters said.

Flight troubles

Their flights back home were booked a year ago. The couple was to fly by Air Canada from London to Toronto. That would be followed by flights from Toronto to Chicago and then Chicago to Eau Claire.

Now the fun began.

The Marshall-Potters were set to fly to Toronto on April 13. A 16-hour layover was in store for them before they could fly from Toronto to Chicago.

It was then that Air Canada told them they couldn’t leave the Toronto airport to catch some sleep at a hotel before heading to Chicago. If they did, they would be quarantined in Toronto for 14 days.

“At that point, we thought, it is what it is,” Paul said.

The couple then prepared to hang out at the Toronto airport for 16 hours.

But as they were checking in at a kiosk for their flight from London to Toronto, the Marshall-Potters learned the border was closed for two weeks for Americans flying to Canada.

“Nobody from Air Canada told us that,” Paul said.

The couple was quickly able to find an alternative plan, taking United Airlines flights from London to Newark, N.J., and then from Newark to Chicago.

What really struck the Eau Claire couple was going through security at 9 a.m. at Heathrow Airport in London, one of the world’s largest and busiest airports.

“It was just Veronica and I in security. It was surreal,” Paul said.

“It was eerie,” Veronica said.

The flight from London to Newark had just 20 passengers, so social distancing was not an issue.

“There was probably as many crew on the plane as passengers,” Paul said.

A representative from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention got on the plane, gave the passengers masks and a form to fill out and took their temperatures.

The form asked what countries they had visited and if they had any symptoms, Paul said.

The flights from London to Newark and Newark to Chicago went smoothly.

Finally home

While they were in Chicago, waiting for their final flight to Eau Claire, the Marshall-Potters got a call from a woman with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

The couple finally got to the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport on April 14.

“A friend of ours picked us up at the airport with a face mask on. And we were wearing face masks too,” Paul said.

The Marshall-Potters called the Eau Claire City-County Health Department after they arrived in Eau Claire.

The couple was instructed to take their temperatures twice a day. For the next 14 days, a representative from the Health Department emailed them twice daily so Paul and Veronica could report their temperatures and indicate whether they were experiencing any symptoms.

“Eau Claire County was very thorough,” Paul said.

The couple passed their local quarantine last weekend.

Before they got off the ship in London, Veronica said, they bought world cruise T-shirts that indicated all the ports their ship was supposed to stop at.

“We got them cheap,” she said, “because half of it didn’t happen.”

Any regrets?

Getting all the visas they needed for all the scheduled stops was expensive and a hassle. And the only ones they used were for New Zealand and Australia, Paul said.

“The rest were basically worthless,” he said. “That was the only regret. The fact that we completed the whole cruise was a plus.”

Ironically, two passengers on the Eau Claire couple’s ship did die during the cruise.

One was an age-related stroke and the second one was a heart attack while playing table tennis, Veronica said.

“But no coronavirus whatsoever,” she said.

For Bill Withers

Almost a month ago, the singer-songwriter Bill Withers passed away. His death was no doubt overshadowed by the COVID-19 quarantine, President Trump’s daily news briefings, and, on April 7, the tragic loss of another massively influential singer-songwriter, the great John Prine (who not so many years ago, graced the Eaux Claires stage in a pouring rain).

While Prine was an outgoing showman, Withers all but completely withdrew from the public eye from the late 1980s on. The outpouring of tributes in the wakes of their deaths seems somewhat relative to their exposure in their final years. While Prine soaked in the adulation of younger artists and his wide audience base, Withers famously played just a single concert in the last 30 years, and that before the governor of Michigan on the occasion of the politician’s 40th birthday (do yourself a favor and read Withers’ Rolling Stone obituary).

My wife and many of my close friends were Prine devotees, but his wasn’t the death that affected me most. It was Withers I mourned all through early April and even today, as I write this. Withers who grew up in a West Virginia mining town where blacks lived on one side of the railroad tracks and whites on the other. Withers who was a pronounced stutterer until he was about 30, and always an asthma sufferer. Withers, whose songs had been something of a soundtrack to my life, in both my darker, most confusing moments and moments of pure happiness and celebration.

When I lost my beloved grandma, Wither’s song “Grandma’s Hands” was an ideal emotional salve. His warm humming at the entrance of the song, his bittersweet vocals and wise lyrics all combine to create one of the most soulful, upbeat dirge-like homages I’d ever heard, and it sounded like he was somehow singing about my own grandma.

A few years later, I was teaching Tim O’ Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a seminal keystone in 20th Century American literature. The novel is a meditation on the Vietnam War, on duty, on loss, on patriotism, love … But as a man who was born in 1979, what did I really know about Vietnam? And how could I buttress my teaching of that classic with other cultural artifacts from that period of American history. Then I came across Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” The song absolutely leveled me with its empathy, its power, its voice. Forty years after Withers wrote that song, I could play it for a classroom of undergraduates and I could see them better understand a conflict they were even more removed from temporally than me. I could see them imagining themselves in Vietnam, fighting a people they did not hate and a war they did not understand.

These strange quarantine days, “Ain’t No Sunshine” feels like a fitting emotional tapestry: “Wonder this time where she’s gone/ Wonder if she’s gone to stay/ Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone/ And this house just ain’t no home/ Anytime she goes away.”

Or maybe you need a more upbeat tune, like his “Lovely Day”: “…I look at you/ And the world’s alright with me/ Just one look at you/ And I know it’s gonna be/ A lovely day…”

Withers was one of the silky-smooth singer-songwriters whose pop successes sounded so effortless that they have both endured for over half a century while also possessing qualities that make his music almost camouflaged — the patterns are so good they almost disappear. A person could be excused if they didn’t know Withers’ name, because his songs were so omnipresent, so universal and free they had the quality of air. Essential and everywhere.

So why am I writing about Bill Withers, a West Virginia-born California-made singer in this very Wisconsin newspaper?

I’m writing about Bill Withers because in these days of quarantine, when all there is are days unfurled, one after the next, and all of our best laid calendar plans canceled, one thing that is getting me through until tomorrow is music. Exquisite music. Maybe it’s helping you too.

And I am discovering in these challenging days that I experience the music differently, that I feel every note and lyric more than I ever had before. To be honest, I played Bill Withers to my children a few weeks ago and his voice just about cut my heart in two. It was the most beautiful thing that had happened to me all day, and his voice came down through the decades like a promise that the challenges we endure now, have been endured before, and will be endured long after we are gone. And that while we are here, we have to find beauty where we can, and that we have to make our own beauty, too.

I was extremely hearted to learn that Withers’ hit “Lean on Me” has become something of an anthem for this time. I’ll leave you with his lyrics for that song, but then, I entreat you, go listen to all his music. You’ll feel better for it.

“Sometimes in our lives/ We all have pain, we all have sorrow/ But it we are wise/ We know that there’s tomorrow.”

Biden declares sexual assault 'never, never happened'

This video framegrab image from MSNBC's Morning Joe, shows Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaking to co-host Mika Brzezinski, Friday, May 1, 2020. (MSNBC's Morning Joe via AP)

WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Friday emphatically denied allegations from a former Senate staffer that he sexually assaulted her in the early 1990s, declaring flatly “this never happened.”

Biden’s first public remarks on the accusation by a former employee, Tara Reade, come at a critical moment for the presumptive Democratic nominee as he tries to relieve mounting pressure after weeks of leaving denials to his campaign.

“I’m saying unequivocally, it never, never happened,” the former vice president and senator said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Biden said he will ask the National Archives to determine whether there is any record of a complaint being filed, as Reade has claimed. He said the Archives was the only possible place a complaint would be, and that his Senate papers held under seal at the University of Delaware do not contain personnel records.

“The former staffer has said she filed a complaint back in 1993,” Biden said. “But she does not have a record of this alleged complaint.”

Reade did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. The Archives deflected inquiries to Capitol Hill, saying, “Senate personnel complaints from 1993 would have remained under the control of the Senate.” A spokeswoman for the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights said confidentiality rules bar the office from commenting on “whether specific claims may or may not have been filed.”

Biden, in his TV interview, said “there are so many inconsistencies” in Reade’s various accounts. But he said he does not “question her motive.” He said over his five decades in public life, none of his employees was asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

Republicans worried about President Donald Trump’s increasingly precarious political standing are casting Democrats as only defending women who allege wrongdoing against conservatives. They’re digging in despite the possibility of renewed attention on the multiple sexual assault allegations lodged against Trump, who denies the accusations.

In light of his own situation, Trump himself is stepping delicately around the Biden controversy.

“He’s going to have to make his own decision,” Trump said in a podcast interview Friday with Dan Bongino. “I’m not going to be telling him what to do.” The president added that it would be a “great thing” if Biden had records that could “dispose” of Reade’s allegation.

Democrats, meanwhile, are in an awkward position of validating women who come forward with their stories while defending Biden in what many in the party consider the most important election of their lifetimes.

Former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile said before Biden’s interview that his silence was “damaging,” but afterward said he handled the matter well.

“He responded, he denied it, and there’s nothing more to be added to it,” Brazile said, before alluding to Reade’s repeated public statements. “If you add to the story the way Tara Reade has, it only brings more confusion.”

Karen Finney, who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016, described Biden as “very clear and consistent” and “sincere,” but said, “I wish they had done this a little bit sooner.”

The November presidential election will be the first of the #MeToo era, during which numerous women have publicly disclosed experiences of sexual harassment and assault.

Women are a core constituency for Democrats. Biden wrote the Violence Against Women Act as a senator, but came under criticism for his handling of Anita Hill’s 1991 Senate testimony against now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Just before he launched his 2020 campaign, Biden apologized after several women said he’d made them uncomfortable with unwanted touching.

He has pledged to pick a woman as a running mate, and the Reade allegation has left those thought to be in contention in a tough spot.

“Women deserve to be heard,” said Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia Democratic governor candidate, “but I also believe that those allegations have to be investigated by credible sources.”

Republicans seized Friday on the prospects of scouring Biden’s records, showing aggressiveness that was harder for them four years ago while Trump was having to deny varying levels of sexual assault and harassment.

Trump joined fellow Republicans in arguing that Democrats aren’t being consistent, pointing again Friday to the aggressive questioning of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when he faced an allegation of sexual assault.

Biden said Friday that women “should start off with the presumption they are telling the truth. Then you have to look at the circumstances and the facts. And the facts of this case do not exist.”