What we learned from the SeaDream outbreak: America isn’t ready for cruising to resume
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Note: The author was SeaDream’s guest on its first restarted sailing out of the Caribbean.
It’s going to be tough for cruise lines to resume sailings in North America anytime soon.
That, in a nutshell, is the takeaway from last week’s COVID outbreak on the very first Caribbean cruise since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s how I see it, at least, and I’ve been following the cruise world for a long time.
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As the incident on a small SeaDream Yacht Club vessel showed, no amount of pre-cruise COVID testing for passengers is guaranteed to keep the illness off ships.
But that’s not the reason I think it’s going to be tough for cruise lines to resume sailings in North America soon. There’s a bigger reason why a wholesale reboot of the cruising industry here may not be imminent: Americans just aren’t ready for it.
That’s what we learned last week.
The reaction to the outbreak on social media was swift and vicious. Americans were outraged that cruise lines even were thinking about bringing back cruising in this part of the world in the midst of a major pandemic. Every major media outlet was quick to jump on the story, with reports that were dripping with incredulity.
North America is not Europe
The sailing last week on SeaDream’s 112-passenger SeaDream 1 was the first by any cruise company in the Caribbean since the start of the pandemic. But it wasn’t the first worldwide.
Cruising began resuming in a limited way in Europe way back in June, and it also restarted months ago in parts of Asia and the South Pacific — so far, with few COVID-related incidents. Some of the world’s biggest cruise vessels, including MSC Cruises’ 4,842-passenger MSC Grandiosa, have been sailing successfully in Europe for many weeks if not months.
But, for the most part, the public and the media in the U.S. haven’t paid any attention to the restart of cruising in these other places. Europe and Asia are far away, and Americans now are restricted from travelling to many countries in Europe and Asia anyway — at least for leisure travel. It’s not a story Americans have been following.
What the reaction to last week’s SeaDream sailing showed was that the American public and the media won’t be so indifferent to a restart of cruising in their own backyard.
It also sent a clear message that they don’t like the idea, and they’re going to speak up.
In North America, the memories of what happened earlier this year on cruise ships sailing out of U.S. waters are still too raw. We all watched the live feeds of vessels returning to Florida in March and April with sick passengers on board — some with dead bodies in their morgues — and the scenes of ambulances lined up at the piers. We heard the tales of passengers confined to their cabins for days on end, scared, wondering if any country would take them in.
It was a uniquely American story and one that many here have not forgotten.
In fairness to the cruise lines, they have worked hard for months to come up with a plan for restarting operations during this COVID era that will ensure that the illness doesn’t run rampant on their ships. But that may not be enough to placate Americans still scarred by what they saw happen earlier this year.
Anti-COVID measures were in place
In restarting cruising in the Caribbean last week, SeaDream had implemented many of the same anti-COVID procedures that other lines plan to implement as part of their restarts. The line tested passengers for COVID-19 in advance of boarding, imposed social distancing requirements on board, added enhanced cleaning measures and more.
There was one big thing SeaDream didn’t do. It didn’t initially require passengers and crew on SeaDream 1 to wear masks (it changed this policy two days into the trip after being heavily criticized for it). But even mask-wearing from the very beginning of the voyage wouldn’t have stopped COVID from getting onboard. The incident was a reminder that — no matter how extensive anti-COVID measures are — COVID will find a way to get on ships.
Still, this latter fact isn’t news to the cruise industry, or even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which regulates cruising out of U.S. ports. For both entities, a key part of the comeback plan for cruise ships is to assume that, despite the best prevention efforts, COVID could appear on ships at times. The key, they both have suggested, is to make sure there’s a robust response plan in place to shut COVID down when it does appear.
Both the cruise industry and the CDC have suggested this is possible, and the early evidence from the SeaDream outbreak is that it is, indeed, possible.
Thanks to a quick quarantine of all passengers, contact tracing by the ship and local health authorities, and other measures, there appears to have been only modest spread of COVID-19 on SeaDream 1 beyond a single family group that accounted for the majority of cases — at least that’s the latest as of today.
But even if it is possible to contain COVID outbreaks on ships in the Caribbean, that doesn’t seem to be enough of an argument right now to get the blessing of the American public for a resumption of cruising in North America.
Any cruise line that tries to return to cruising in North America in the coming months is going to run into the same sort of buzzsaw of scepticism, criticism and ridicule that we saw last week — particularly after a COVID case or two inevitably works its way onto their ships.
To get a sense of what the American everyman and everywoman is thinking right now about cruises restarting in North America, all you have to do is watch the piece on the SeaDream sailing that aired Friday evening on CNBC’s The News with Shepard Smith (which, full disclosure, includes a few soundbites from me). Tapping into the current zeitgeist of America, Smith channelled the prevailing sentiment that cruising during the COVID pandemic was the height of folly.
“Would you go on a cruise right now?” Smith begins the piece, with a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle that says he knows you’re not that stupid. “I mean, COVID is surging, like, every single where. Still, 53 people just did, and they’re likely regretting it.”
It goes on like that, as did pieces that aired on many other news broadcasts.
Waiting for the vaccine
Some cruise industry insiders have told me they think the big mistake that SeaDream made was letting media on board the ship — most notably me. I was on board last week’s sailing, as a guest of the cruise line, to write about what the experience was like.
If I hadn’t been there, the thinking goes, the story never would have gotten out. Or, at least, it wouldn’t have become so big.
I don’t think this is the case. Even before I stepped on board SeaDream 1, the backlash among Americans to the idea of the sailing already was growing on social media.
Once there was a COVID case on board, it was going to be a big story in North America whether or not I was there to report on it. In this day and age, any passenger with an iPhone and a semi-decent international roaming plan can serve as an international correspondent for CNN or Fox News. The story is going to get out, and if it’s a story like this, it’s going to get big.
When could cruising resume?
The cruise lines with the biggest North American operations — Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, for instance — already have cancelled all their sailings in the region through the beginning of January. On Wednesday, the biggest cruise operator in North America, Carnival Cruise Line, went even further, extended its fleetwide cancellations into February and even March for some ships.
That’s a long way off, and a lot could change by then. But unless the high number of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths that the U.S. is recording daily right now come way down by then, it’s hard to see the American public reacting in any way but negatively to a cruise resumption.
That might give the CDC cover to not move too quickly to give cruise lines a greenlight to restart cruising out of U.S. ports. For months, in a string of “no-sail” orders for cruise ships in U.S. waters, the CDC has expressed scepticism that cruising can restart safely in the midst of the pandemic.
As it stands now, a road map for a return to cruising that the CDC issued nearly three weeks ago suggests it’s unlikely the agency will clear cruise lines to restart cruising out of U.S. ports before March or even April.
Many hardcore cruising fans, of course, are itching to get back to sea as soon as possible, the coronavirus outbreak be darned. But they still represent a minority of Americans. Cruising remains a relatively small niche of travel.
For many Americans, getting comfortable with the idea of a cruising comeback may just take more time.
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