I am not the kind of person who chooses to go on cruise ships. I have been on long ocean voyages as a boy three times between Sri Lanka and England but that was back in the day when travel by ocean liner was the cheapest or only way to go to distant places. The idea of being on a ship for days and even weeks on end without any specific destination in mind that I could not reach any other way does not appeal to me. This is perhaps because I am not a very sociable person and these cruises seem designed, if the many advertisements I see are any indication, to be essentially floating holiday resorts that cater to people who enjoy spending most of the day in the company of others, many of whom they have never met before, and taking part in all manner of social gatherings and organized entertainments.
I am sure it must be great fun for those who enjoy such things and can afford them. I know people who go on them every year and I have discovered since coming to Monterey and playing the game of bridge more often that bridge players seem to be big fans of them. There are cruises catering to them, and I have started getting inundated with ads for bridge cruises where experts offer lessons. The people at the bridge club exchange information about the various cruises.
You would have thought that the pandemic would have put a damper on cruises, especially when you recall that when the pandemic broke out in early 2020, there were cases of people being stranded on ships that were not allowed to dock because of infections on board. But it appears that people love them so much that when things seemed to be getting better on the pandemic front late last year, people started going on them again. That I find hard to understand. Even though all passengers have to show proof of vaccination, we know that breakthrough infections occur. Given that you have no choice but to mingle with a lot of people who are leaving the ship for excursions at various ports of call, the environment seems ripe for rapid infectious spread. Couple that with limited medical facilities on board and the great difficulty of getting to a major hospital if one falls really sick, I would have expected people to avoid cruises, even if they were the kind of person who liked them.
And it appears that those apprehensions are well-founded.
A surge in Covid infections on cruise ships is causing mayhem across the industry, leaving passengers stranded aboard ships, exacerbating staff shortages and prompting the CDC to warn US passengers against all cruise travel.
The CDC director said this week that Covid cases have increased 30-fold in just two weeks. Every one of the nearly 100 cruise ships currently carrying passengers in US waters has reported enough Covid-19 cases to merit investigation by the CDC, according to the agency’s website.
Over the holidays, passengers found themselves floating around on ships that couldn’t dock because foreign ports were turning them away or facing long, onboard quarantines before being allowed to come home, after testing positive for Covid. Dozens of cruises have been cancelled and some ports in the Caribbean and South America are turning ships away from making daily visits.
“It wasn’t the cruise we signed up for,” said Janet Silver Ghent, a Palo Alto retiree and editor who was stuck onboard a South America cruise for eight days, when ports in Chile and Argentina refused to let passengers disembark because of Covid cases.
On December 30, the CDC issued its highest travel warning, advising the public to avoid cruise ship travel even if vaccinated. The agency said, at the time, that the number of infections reported on cruise ships had jumped to 5,013 between 15-29 December – up from only 162 in the first two weeks of December.
CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky, speaking at a senate health hearing on Tuesday, said that the numbers have continued to skyrocket, though the agency did not respond to requests for updated case counts.
“Just over the last two weeks with Omicron, we’ve seen a 30 fold increase in cases on ships,” Walensky said.
But the case surge is nonetheless causing headaches for cruise operators and passengers. Florida maritime attorney James Walker said that thousands of cruise ship crew members have tested positive and that many are quarantining on a handful of out-of-service ships.
“Given the number of crew members who are ill, there are significant staffing problems,” said Walker, who believes cruise lines should suspend their operations until after the Omicron surge. “For the people who pay to go on a cruise, the service isn’t there.”
The people interviewed for the story seemed to have made the best of the situation and fortunately there have been no reports of deaths.
The CEO of a cruise line went a little overboard in putting a good face on the situation.
Officials in the cruise industry, which has lost a lot of money since the start of the pandemic, were also trying to take the setbacks in stride. “Omicron is having a big short-term impact on everyone,” said Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean in a statement, but argued that cruises are one of the safer places for people to vacation because everyone aboard is vaccinated. “Many observers see this as a major step towards Covid-19 becoming endemic rather than an epidemic.”
One of the safer places to vacation? A large number of people in a confined space far from emergency health care for an extended period of time? I don’t think so.