Will These 7 COVID Cases Sink the Return of Cruises?

In total, more than 53 million people have tested positive for coronavirus since the pandemic began. That includes a number of high-profile names, including Tom Hanks, Prince William, and even President Donald Trump.

And as for cruises, roughly 4,000 cases are reportedly tied to ships. That includes headline-making outbreaks like aboard the Diamond Princess at the start of the pandemic.

But it might be a handful of COVID cases occurring right now that are the most important to the industry’s future.

Multiple Cases Aboard a Small Cruise Ship

On the first cruise to sail the Caribbean since the pandemic began, a small ship — SeaDream 1 — with just 53 passengers and 66 crew, reportedly had seven people test positive for COVID.

SeaDream cruise ship
The SeaDream 1 was reportedly hit with virus cases while sailing.

The boutique cruise ship (which actually is termed a yacht by the line) was sailing its first trip on a cruise from Barbados under new health protocols designed to reduce the risk of the virus. According to passengers, this included multiple tests before boarding and more testing during the cruise.

The goal was to make a “bubble” where passengers could cruise with limited worry about COVID, despite cases spiking around the world. In fact, it’s reported from some on the ship that given the “bubble,” masks were not required for passengers or crew, but were later worn a few days into the cruise.

Even though mega-liners like those from Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Lines aren’t allowed to return to sailing in the U.S. just yet, everyone in the industry is watching this situation closely. And for good reason.

If cruise ships can’t prove they can sail safely, then it’s possible they won’t be able to sail at all.

New Rules and Testing Failed to Keep Cases Off the Ship

The cruise industry as a whole has paused sailings from the United States through at least the end of 2020 as it works to comply with new CDC standards outlined in a path to return to sailing. (Since the SeaDream 1 is sailing from Barbados, it does not fall under this suspension.)

This “Framework for Conditional Sailing” from the CDC — which replaced a previous “No Sail Order” — outlines dozens of rules and changes that cruise lines must implement to return, and will likely take months to complete. 

New CDC rules create several layers to sailing safely, including comprehensive testing of passengers at embarkation and debarkation, social distancing measures, limited capacity, limited trip duration, and strict policies about what to do if cases are found among the passengers or crew. But the most basic safety measure is universal testing of those boarding a ship to keep cases from ever getting on in the first place.

According to reports, the SeaDream 1 did this sort of testing, and the virus still found its way onto the ship.

So will this incident put a dent in the return of cruising? It’s difficult to say, but we personally feel there are reasons for concern.

Reasons to Worry About a Return

While seven cases stemming from a restaurant or a grocery store would be unlikely to make headlines, cruise lines face much more scrutiny given their reputation for virus spread.

The CDC has continually referenced the danger of cruise ships with concern to the spread of coronavirus. In the order laying out the framework to return, the agency cited a study that put a reproduction rate aboard the Diamond Princess at 14.8 before quarantines were enacted, meaning one person infected nearly 15 others. This, the CDC wrote, was “approximately four times higher” than was seen in Wuhan, China.

In other words, the public, media, and even the government are putting extra scrutiny on cruise ships during this pandemic. If the first cruise back in the Caribbean can’t sail carrying only a few dozen passengers without cases being found, it doesn’t bode well for other cruises carrying even more people.

Add to this the soaring number of cases seen worldwide, especially in the United States.

At this time, the nation is seeing more than 150,000 new cases a day. That represents a sharp new peak and has no signs of slowing down. Daily cases are now more than 50% higher than just a couple of weeks ago when the CDC “No Sail Order” expired and it put in the pathway to return to sailing.

Already there have been major disruptions due to the rising case count, including multiple college and professional football games postponed. Events like concerts and even fans in stadiums have yet to return in many areas.

Finally, while few of us want to think about politics, it’s hard to avoid in this case. When the CDC announced an extension of the “No Sail Order” in late September for just a month, reports were that the CDC Director, Dr. Robert Redfield, wanted to extend the order until February, but was overruled by the Trump Administration.

With President-Elect Biden, there is reason to believe there could be more focus on battling the pandemic, as well as following the advice of health experts like Dr. Redfield. Could that mean a longer pause on the return of cruises and a return of the “No Sail Order”?

Some politicians, including Senator Richard Blumenthal, are already calling for exactly that:

Plenty of Time to Turn Things Around

Even with cases rising and seven cases found on one of the first ships back in the Caribbean, there are some reasons to be at least slightly optimistic.

First, there is still plenty of time before cruises sail again from the United States with the CDC’s pathway. Exact dates aren’t laid out for when cruises can return. Instead, it’s whenever the cruise line meets the CDC’s requirement to return.

That said, there are lead times on many of the steps laid out for the cruise lines, including a 30-day notice before a simulated voyage and a 60-day notice before applying for a certificate to sail. That means even without the time it takes to actually complete the steps required, cruise lines are likely looking at several months before they get back to sailing.

That gives the world time to get a better handle of the pandemic. This includes the promise of a vaccine, which is expected to begin delivery in late 2020 or early 2021. While it will take months to have widespread use of such a vaccine, there are also therapeutics being approved to lead to better outcomes for those that do get sick.

It’s possible that by the time cruises look to sail again given the current pathway, cases and their severity could be less.

As well, the new health protocols put in place to combat the virus have largely worked well up until now.

Cruise ships in Europe starting sailing back in August, with success as tens of thousands have sailed. Yes, there have been some cases linked to cruise ships. Some ships have also decided to pause sailing as European countries deal with outbreaks. In large part, however, the return of sailing in the region has been smooth.

Finally, cruise lines have always known that there will be cases on ships, no matter what sort of steps are put in place. The goal is to limit the number of cases to a minimum and reduce spread on the ship.

“With all the protocols we have, there’s still likely, eventually at some point, to be a case on board,” said Carnival Corporation CEO Arnold Donald. “If it’s in the community overall, there’s no perfect system to prevent it.”

That’s why the new safety protocols and CDC rules aim at how to mitigate spread once it is found on the ship, including isolation and quarantine policies.

In other words, while it is disheartening that this cruise has cases already, it’s not a surprise.

Still Months Before Any Return to U.S. Cruises

There’s no doubt that seeing cases aboard the first ship to sail the Caribbean isn’t a good omen. Given the headlines, mixed with soaring cases, it does give some pause as to whether cruising can — or even should — return before a vaccine or fast-acting therapeutic is widely available.

That said, a return to sailing aboard ships from the United States is still months away. As we’ve seen with this virus, even weeks can change the trajectory of cases. And it’s possible that a vaccine may be available even before cruise lines meet the CDC framework to return.

At this point, the seven cases should give anyone pause. And if things continue on the current trajectory, then a pause in the return to sailing seems possible, and maybe even likely, in our opinion.

Even so, there are still months until cruises sail again, and there’s simply no sure way to know what the situation will be at that point. For now, we will just have to do what we’ve done since the start of this crisis: wait and see.

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