Cruising? No, thanks, not yet.

The global cruise industry expected to carry 32 million passengers and taken $71 billion in revenue this year. This will fall by at least 50% this year.

Euromonitor International

According to a recent article in USA Today, cruising has been postponed until September 15, but there are a lot of us former fans who won’t be dockside again until there’s a vaccine.

Their entire business model is based on large group social activity. Americans’ failure to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines pretty much guarantees that we’d party like frat boys given the opportunity to hop aboard.

No, thanks.

We were huge fans of the cruise travel business, in part because of our proximity to the industry’s South Florida base. We can be dockside in an hour’s drive, feeling very grateful to avoid the hassles of flying and overnight stays in order to be ready to board. We’ve had great Caribbean trips out of Ft. Lauderdale and Miami.

But it’s images like this one that will keep us off ships until there is a vaccine.

As part of their response to the pandemic, cruise lines are looking to explore enhanced passenger and crew screening, social distancing, modifying or eliminating buffet dining options, enhanced medical capability, new training for crew members and pre-arranged medical evacuation options with consideration to local health care.

Notice how the medical capability line is buried in their press kit?

In an article that puts a Happy Face on reality, USA Today said that cruisers are ready to resume their seagoing lifestyle. The conditions required to reopen the industry do not include equipping ships with rigorous medical facilities. Damn the virus, full speed ahead.

Prior to last year, we hadn’t given a cruise ship’s medical support a whole lot of thought. We knew of ships on which illness had become rampant, but we sanitized early and often. I came down with a bad cold on the Baltic Sea, but that seemed a small price for such a stellar tour.

It was not until last year’s fateful Atlantic crossing, destination Amsterdam, that the medical risks became crystal clear.

We sailed easily through the first week and made our first landfall in Portugal’s Azores.

But by the time we pulled away from the Azores headed to mainland Europe, my husband had caught a bad cold, and it quickly blossomed into full blown bronchitis with a wracking cough that prevented him from sleeping. The ship’s doctor gave him aspirin and lozenges, recommending he seek medical attention ashore for anything stronger. He also mentioned that about half the ship had bronchitis.

In Amsterdam, my husband got medication.

[However, I became a patient when an undiagnosed abdominal aneurysm ruptured. Had I taken ill two hours later, we would have been back aboard the ship. I would not have made it.]

But, back to this story. Bronchitis is downright benign compared to coronavirus.

In February, cruise ships became an early symbol of how rapidly the coronavirus could spread in confined spaces, when more than 700 passengers on the Diamond Princess became infected as the ship idled off Japan. As social distancing grew more common in February and early March, cruises were among the first activities Americans started avoiding.

David Yaffe- Bellany, NYT

By March 13, the last day we were out in the world as we knew it, Americans were shocked by the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and complied with government’s stay-at-home orders. I wrote that hopping on a cruise ship with limited medical support was unthinkable. Two months later, Governor Ron DeSantis announced Florida was re-opening. I wrote that the data simply didn’t support that decision, that we were flying blind into the storm. And here we are, another two months into the pandemic and Florida’s cases are growing at record rates, causing other states to impose quarantines on travelers who would venture out. Florida’s failures part of the reason that Americans are being blocked from travel to Europe.

Vacationing seems awfully far away.

One of the things that we’ve seen from crises in general is that the industry is very resilient and that we rebound fairly quickly.

Laurie Pennington Gray, Tourism Crisis Management Initiative

Norwegian is installing medical grade air filters and adding medical staff. Carnival is raising the temperature in its washers and dryers to make sure napkins and sheets are fully sanitized. They are staggering boarding times, expanding dining times ,eliminating buffets, requiring masks.

They are also incentivizing group behavior with offers of free food, free drinks, free shore excursions.

And, only now, there is mention of improving medical capacity on board.

In a recent article for the Miami Herald, reporter Taylor Dolven writes that Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line have organized a panel of experts to develop safety protocols for the COVID-19 era when (if?) cruising resumes.

The industry is operating its ships — with no guests and reduced staff — under protocols for limiting the spread of COVID-19 control monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With mask-wearing, social distancing, and quarantine in place, nearly a quarter of the ships now at sea still have confirmed cases aboard.

It astounds me that it has taken six months of pandemic for this business- and life-saving collaboration to arise, and that the initiative does not include all the businesses in the industry. And that it is only now that I am seeing the mention of ventilators.

The guest profile on typical cruise ship voyages matches those at greatest risk for severe illness which may require hospitalization and need for respiratory support.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

My heart goes out to cruise staff who must remain aboard. For the rest of us, let’s stay ashore.

It seems like a logistical nightmare to me.

Tara Smith, Professor of Epidemiology, Kent State University

Rethinking Cruising

In February, cruise ships became an early symbol of how rapidly the coronavirus could spread in confined spaces, when more than 700 passengers on the Diamond Princess became infected as the ship idled off Japan. As social distancing grew more common in February and early March, cruises were among the first activities Americans started avoiding.

David Yaffe- Bellany, NYT

About two weeks ago, Carnival Corporation, which owns a whopping 50% of the cruise industry, reported that it had 25 ships with as many as 6000 passengers in open waters off the Florida coast, awaiting permission to land. Governor DeSantis balked at allowing anyone but Floridians to disembark, moving Congresswoman Donna Shalala to liken his position to the turning away of the ship carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

DeSantis eventually relented and passengers are off the seas, but now it’s the employees who are stranded aboard. These are the waitstaff, the dancers, the room attendants, the masseuses, contractual employees whose contracts are terminating before they will be able to make their way home.

I loved this gentleman’s title….

Now, there are still 100 ships at sea off the American coast, with nearly 80,000 cruise employees stranded aboard.

Dave Sebastian and Costa Paris, Wall Street Journal
This trio performed nightly on our 2018 Caribbean Christmas cruise

My husband and I discovered the pleasure of getting on a boat, unpacking once, and seeing the world from a balcony over the water — several on the Caribbean, a Hawaiian island tour, a perfect Mediterranean journey, our 2019 Atlantic crossing from Florida to Amsterdam. Now, it seems likely that cruising may not recover, not without making a big change in how it handles illness.

It was on that final cruise, in May of last year, that Ray was stricken with bronchitis, for which the boat had no real medication. The ship doctor said that about half the ship was sick, and he had aspirin and lozenges only.

[We stayed in Amsterdam instead of going on a tulip tour just to get Ray antibiotics on May 5, which is why I survived my arterial rupture that day, but let’s not give the boat credit, maybe a higher power.]

Long before the coronavirus shut down the world, we knew we’d never again put ourselves at risk on the seas without a health safety net. The small print on the boarding documents make it very clear that the boat is not responsible for keeping you safe. The choices you make — the amount of alcohol you drink and the stupid things you might do under the influence, let’s say — fall under the “at your own risk” category.

But there is a difference between being stupid and being attacked by an illness. Our boat could offer Ray no help in beating back a crippling bronchitis. We were on our own to find help on land.

Here’s the standard description of what you can expect when you get aboard a cruise ship:

The ship’s medical center contains several beds and is set up to treat minor nonemergency conditions or to stabilize passengers facing life-threatening conditions…the facility should have wheelchairs, a stretcher, back board for spine immobilization, lab capabilities for tests, oxygen, EKG capability, two defibrillators, cardiac monitors and other equipment to gauge vital signs…it is important to view the ship’s medical facility as an infirmary and not as a hospital.

The Cruise Critic

Now, in comes the coronavirus. Although Carnival Corporation (which owns Holland America, on which we sailed last year) says they have ICU beds and ventilators that make some of their ships appropriate back-ups for mainland hospitals, these are limited at best: passengers requiring acute medical care and hospitalization were transferred off Carnival’s Grand Princess in March. We know how Ray suffered in our room, unable to sleep. We cannot imagine the anguish of those suffering with the coronavirus in similar circumstances.

When the Grand Princess sailed back out of the San Francisco harbor, it had on board 1,100 crew. They are part of the 80,000 who are no longer working and not yet home, drifting at sea as the coronavirus lockdown bars them from finding their way. We wish them Godspeed in getting home, but also in finding employment again. The cruise industry has a lot of work to do to earn the public’s trust.

UPDATE: Costa, an upscale Cruise line, is being sued. The lawsuit alleges that the cruise line was negligent in a number of ways such as failing to use reasonable care to provide and maintain a safe voyage — Transatlantic voyage that left Fort Lauderdale March 5 — failing to warn passengers that a prior passenger had shown Coronavirus symptoms. “Simply put, Costa recklessly and intentionally put thousands of passengers through a living nightmare so he could protect its bottom line.” Susan Salisbury, The Palm Beach Post.