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Passengers sue Celebrity over 'heightened risk' of COVID-19 exposure

"They crammed the buffet area with everybody," a passenger said.

When Fred and Marlene Kantrow of Long Island, New York, boarded the Celebrity Eclipse on Feb. 29 in South America "getting sick was the furthest thing from (their) minds."

However, Fred Kantrow was hospitalized with the novel coronavirus just a few days after disembarking. Now, the once self-proclaimed "big Celebrity cruise fans" are now suing the cruise line for "negligently expos(ing)" them and "thousands of passengers aboard the Eclipse to COVID-19."

The lawsuit claims that Celebrity became aware that someone aboard the vessel was displaying symptoms "consistent with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis" at the beginning of the voyage, but that Celebrity still allowed a "full schedule of entertainment activities and dining options," including buffet-style meals.

During their trip, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a no-sail order because "the CDC Director (had) reason to believe that cruise ship travel may continue to introduce, transmit, or spread COVID-19."

The Kantrows said they didn't know something was wrong until a day after the no-sail order was issued, when their ship was forced to head to San Diego after being denied the ability to dock in Chile on March 15.

"We hit all the stops that we were supposed to hit along the way," Marlene Kantrow told ABC News. "It was a beautiful cruise, until we got back to Santiago."

Guests were still encouraged by Celebrity to enjoy free alcohol, internet and free bar service, according to the Kantrows.

"Our joke was it's Groundhog's Day," Fred Kantrow said. "You'd wake up, you'd look outside and there was just water."

"Everybody on the ship was right next to each other," Marlene Kantrow said. "The crew was out, everybody was applauding."

On their second-to-last day on the Eclipse, the Kantrows said Celebrity threw a "Mexican Fiesta."

"They crammed the buffet area with everybody," Marlene Kantrow said. "Everybody was touching each other."

At the time of the cruise, Celebrity was barring individuals from cruising who had had traveled in China, Hong Kong or Macau within 15 days of departure. The cruise line also said anyone who held a passport from China, Hong Kong or Macau would undergo "extra screenings" at the cruise terminal. In mid-February, the Department of Homeland Security had announced they would conduct enhanced entry screening at 11 major airports and at other airport and land port locations, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers would "remain alert" and notify the CDC and other public health officials when encountering passengers exhibiting signs of overt illness.

After spending a month at sea, the Kantrows were finally able to disembark in San Diego on March 30.

According to the Kantrows, Celebrity did not inform them of any positive COVID-19 cases until about one or two days after they got off the ship.

Fred then started running a fever and "just didn't feel right" so he decided to go to the hospital.

The lawsuit claims Celebrity's "egregious failure to protect its passengers" has already resulted in at least 45 passengers and crew who tested positive, and at least two COVID-19 related deaths.

In late March, the CDC said outbreaks on three cruise voyages had caused more than 800 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States among passengers and crew, including 10 deaths.

The CDC confirmed they were notified about COVID-19-positive travelers on the Celebrity Eclipse who had symptoms while on board these ships. The agency also has extended its no-sail order until late July.

Last month another lawsuit was filed against Celebrity, but on behalf of employees, alleging the company failed to protect its crew members working aboard ships amid the novel coronavirus outbreak. At the time, Celebrity said, it "does not comment on pending litigation."

Even though there are no passengers, there are still a a significant number of crew members stuck onboard cruise ships around the globe.

In U.S. waters alone there are still 85 cruise ships with over 54,000 crew members on board.

Celebrity did not respond to ABC News' request for comment about the Kantrows' lawsuit.

What to know about the coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
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  • Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map