In early July we started receiving news that a handful of cruise lines would resume sailing. Paul Gauguin, Ponant, Hurtigruten, UnCruise and Seadream were among the first ocean cruise lines to resume operations. It’s now been a few weeks since these lines returned to the seas and, in that short amount of time, most have had COVID-19 outbreaks. But more on that in a minute.
What Is It Like To Be A Ship Right Now?
On July 18, we held a webinar with our Belgian friend Mike Louagie, who had just disembarked a Ponant sailing. He led us through the protocols and precautions that Ponant implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These protocols included testing before departure from home; mandatory, in-depth health screenings with a doctor once at the terminal; wearing masks onboard, on zodiacs, and on excursions; temperature checks before entering dining venues; along with disinfecting luggage and personal items upon arrival, and additional cleaning and disinfecting procedures.
Chatting with Mike gave us so much hope for the future of cruising. Mike’s faith in the protocols that Ponant had put in place was reassuring. This, combined with the fact that many river cruise companies have been operating since June without any outbreaks of COVID-19, made it seem that the world of cruising was ready for a comeback.
What went wrong?
As noted, Hurtigruten, UnCruise and Paul Gauguin have all had COVID-19 outbreaks onboard. SeaDream passengers and crew are quarantining due to a previous passenger testing positive for COVID-19 upon arriving home. UnCruise’s Alaska voyage marked not only the first Alaska cruise of the 2020 season, but also UnCruise’s first voyage since the COVID-19 outbreak. A passenger tested positive for the virus and all other passengers will quarantine in a hotel in Juneau.
Why are we seeing COVID-19 outbreaks on ships when most cruise lines are requiring a negative test before boarding? There are many possible reasons – a passenger could have a false negative, they could have also contracted the virus in transport to the ship. In Mike’s webinar, he stated that he had to have a negative test 72 hours prior to sailing. One webinar attendee raised the question, “What about passengers who take trains, planes, or taxis to get to the ship?” This a valid point indeed. Even walking through the cruise terminal, there is a chance that a passenger could come into contact with someone who has COVID-19. There is also the possibility that passengers could contract the virus in port.
In the UnCruise incident, the passenger had tested negative before leaving home and was tested again, along with all passengers, immediately before boarding the ship. However, results from that test were not made available until after the ship had sailed, and the result, certainly to everyone’s surprise, came back showing the passenger positive for COVID-19. It would appear that somewhere between home and the gangway, the passenger in question contracted the virus.
Regardless of why there have been outbreaks on the majority of ocean ships that have resumed sailing, it poses the question: is cruising ready to make a comeback?
That question can best be answered by looking at what makes cruising susceptible to these outbreaks. As we all know, the risk of getting COVID-19 is everywhere. We are reminded of this daily by the bottles of hand sanitizer that we carry in our handbags or pockets and the masks we (hopefully) wear on our faces. The difference when you’re on a ship is that you are sharing confined spaces with other people. So while your risk may be equal to what it is at home, you are relying on others to take the same precautions that you are taking. But even if they are taking the same precautions, there is a chance that a fellow passenger could contract the virus and if you are touching the same handrails as them or in a stall next to them in the bathroom, you are now put at risk. It’s no different than going to a hotel or going out to eat at a restaurant. The risk is the same, but the difference is that you are not simply returning home after contracting the virus. You are now having the quarantine on the ship to ensure that you are not taking the virus back out into the world.
The other thing that we need to take into consideration is the port cities that these ships are visiting. A few of these cruises have been sailing the coast of Norway, a country that is reporting very few new COVID-19 cases daily, as is the case with Alaska, where UnCruise was operating. So what happens when a ship comes into port, passengers go out to explore, and then return to the ship without knowing that they have contracted the virus prior to their visit? The issue is going to always be less about the comfort of the passengers and the confidence of these cruise lines to handle and contain these outbreaks, and more about if port cities will continue to allow cruise passengers to visit. For a country like Norway, which has been relatively successful in handling the pandemic, an outbreak in one of the country’s port cities could reverse much of the progress they have made. UnCruise, by contrast, did not visit ports, calling instead on wilderness destinations.
As mentioned earlier, river cruising has returned successfully in many parts of Europe, and for the river cruise industry right now, it seems that no news is good news. We can only hope that ocean cruising will soon have a similar success story, even after a rocky start.
What we are reasonably sure of is this: Cruising is going to make a comeback. It already has. While it is easy to look at these few sailings with COVID-19 outbreaks, there have been several sailings that have been completed without them. Our friend Mike Louagie’s Ponant cruise went well, for example. And as Mike told us after hearing news of the outbreak on Hurtigruten, “We’ll need patience and should not panic. The pandemic is not over, of course, but doing nothing for a year is not an option.”
Perhaps. Many of our readers, however, have stated that they would not be ready to sail without a vaccine anyway. But with so much good news about a vaccine on the horizon it is hard to believe that we will not be on the waters again soon.