Cruise Lifestyle

Is it irresponsible to go on a cruise in the post-COVID-19 era?

The Coronavirus pandemic has shaken confidence in the safety of cruising unlike any other event in history, leaving cruise lines scrambling to make this type of holiday safe once more.

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The global Coronavirus pandemic has changed the world in ways unimaginable a few months ago, and has precipitated the greatest crisis the cruise industry has ever faced.

But, bookings for 2021 show strong demand, suggesting the industry may be able to bounce back if a virus is found or containment measures work to prevent the spread of the virus.

A nagging concern for cruise passengers, even those of us who are self-declared cruise-addicts, will be whether it’s safe to go on a cruise (even after the virus has been brought under control).

The Coronavirus pandemic hit the cruise industry particularly hard, with several dozen cruise ships in the US alone reporting Coronavirus cases onboard, several cruise ships were even quarantined (such as Diamond Princess in Tokyo and Grand Princess in the US).

Aboard the Holland America Line ship Zaandam, several passengers even died as they awaited permission to dock from port authorities in Florida.

There have been countless media reports about how easy it is for a virus like COVID-19 to spread aboard a cruise ship, which is by design compact and fairly crowded in public areas.

So how safe will it be to go on a cruise in the immediate and long-term future?

Cruise safety in the short-term

In the immediate future, for the next few months at least, it would be irresponsible to take a cruise, and indeed most governments around the world won’t let you.

The US Centres for Disease Control have barred any cruises departing US ports until at least July, while South Africa and the UAE have suspended cruise operations until at least the next cruise season, which in both countries begins in November this year.

There are seven cruise ships docked in Port Rashid in Dubai amid the global cruise shutdown

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Depending on whether a vaccine has been rolled out by then, or on how containment measures have fared, even those dates may be optimistic for a return to full cruise operations around the world.

In an interview with the BBC, Prof Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious diseases specialist at the Australian National University, explained why there is an increased risk of respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases on cruise ships:

“In general, you’ve got passengers and crew members from different parts of the world mixing intimately and intensely for a short period of time,” Dr Senanayake says.

“They’ve all got varying levels of immunity and so that does set things up for an infection outbreak.”

With coronavirus, which is believed to spread through droplets – such as from mucus or saliva – people could be infected without direct contact with a carrier.

“Say if someone sneezed on to a table, and then someone else immediately touches that table, that could lead to infection,” Dr Senanayake says.

“People might not all be talking to each other – but they are in shared spaces like swimming pools, spas, dining rooms and auditoriums.”

Cruise safety in the long-term

For this reason, cruise lines are looking at a number of options to make cruises safer in the post-Coronavirus era. These include looking at changes to the way cruise ships are designed, with anti-microbial carpets and other features, to new embarkation proceedures.

In an emailed statement to CNN, Carnival Corporation’s Chief Communications Officer Roger Frizzell noted enhanced protocols including monitoring of guests for fever, plus additional sanitation and cleaning.

While outbreaks of gastrointestinal illnesses such as norovirus make occasional headlines, the CDC says that acute intestinal illnesses on cruise ships are actually relatively infrequent.

Diamond Princess was quarantined with passengers restricted to cabins and crew made to wear Hazmat suites

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Covid-19 appears to be far more contagious though, and of course more dangerous. When cases of communicable illness do occur, the CDC notes that close contact between passengers on cruise ships makes it easier for the sickness to spread.

But, because of this, cruise lines have advanced containment protocols that they’re able to bring to bear. “Cruise lines have extensive experience providing for a clean and sanitized environment aboard cruise ships in their daily procedures,” says the CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association).

“The CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP) provides a level of federal scrutiny and transparency for cruise line sanitation that’s unique in the travel and hospitality industry.” (While the VSP addresses gastrointestinal illnesses, not respiratory illnesses, some of its hygiene recommendations do intersect with CDC recommendations for Covid-19 prevention.)

Future plans regarding Coronavirus and cruise safety

Both the CDC and the cruise industry are working to address the passenger safety in the wake of COVID-19. When the CDC issued its ‘no sail’ order for the cruise industry in the US, it also required that cruise lines submit operational plans to tackle infection control and outbreak response.

These plans need to be submitted to the CDC for approval before cruise lines will be allowed to sail again, and similar measures are likely to be required by authorities around the world, such as Public Health England and the ECDC (European Centres for Disease Control).

The link between the spread of COVID-19 aboard cruise ships and the air-conditioning system is being examined after more than 700 got sick under quarantine aboard Diamond Princess.

Cruise ships docked in Miami prior to the outbreak, all US cruise have been suspended

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The Department of Health and Human Services wrote in a February 8 letter on Covid-19 and cruising that “CDC has no current evidence to suggest that the virus spreads between rooms on a ship through the air-handling system.”

However, according to the CLIA “all options remain open for consideration” when it comes to measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

The key take away, according to experts, is that even once cruising is back up and running, the current crisis has proven the value of travel insurance.

While coverage varies between companies and policies, Scott Adamski, head of US field sales for AIG Travel, told CNN that many standard plans cover onboard treatment from the ship’s doctor, treatment at port or transport to another medical facility.

Medical evacuation, which can be very expensive when paid out of pocket, is also covered by some plans. That evacuation could range from commercial flights with a medical-provider escort to an air ambulance.

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