So Yeah, About that “Floating Petri Dish” thing?

Norwegian Encore Departing New York City

With the first ship to resume sailing in the Caribbean having to return to Barbados after passengers tested positive for COVID, already there are calls to reinstate the CDC sailing ban. And dozens of articles this week have revived the term “floating petri dish” as a description for passenger ships.

FAKE NEWS? I understand where the comparison comes from. However, I believe the term is being used against logic and to advance a narrative.

“Floating Petri Dish” is a Shortcut Used by Lazy Journalists and Critics

Having been a journalist for a dozen years or so, I get it. You often search for hooks to allow readers / listeners / viewers to put their mind around complex concepts. But the term “floating petri dish” is more click bait sensationalism than a tool to help understanding. As i mentioned in an earlier post cruise ships are under a level of scrutiny not seen by other industries and gathering places. Just one example: airlines are no longer making any effort at social distancing aboard (not that their efforts were that stellar in the first place). Travel Vlogger “Where’s Walter” explains further:

Cruise Radio Has a Comedic (Sarcastic) Look at the Term

Ships are Clean. I Mean, REALLY Clean

Just how clean? Here are the standards they are held to: CDC VSP Travelers page. The Encore is so new it had yet to have been inspected, according to the record available here. So let’s look at the other 16 NCL Ships (screen shot from https://wwwn.cdc.gov/InspectionQueryTool/InspectionSearch.aspx):

Screenshot of table showing Vessel Sanitation Program scores for all Norwegian Cruise Line ships excpt Encore, which was too new at the time COVID hit to have required inspection yet.
CDC VSP reports on NCL ships (sans Encore), screenshot taken 2020-11-15.

The lowest-scoring ship in the fleet in its last inspection was the Epic. It barely passed, with an 86. Want to see what the crew was gigged on? Norwegian Epic VSP Inspection Report 2020-02-09 — no corrective report was issued due to COVID.

Think a ship which scored 100 was in compliance with all the standards? Think again. NCL Spirit Report 2016-03-29.

The standards ships are held to are — well, high. I get the feeling Amand Duplantis understands….

The Sea Dream Failed to Follow Their Own Protocol

Photo by Sam Jean from Pexels

SeaDream also is requiring social distancing on board SeaDream 1 and, since Monday evening, mask-wearing. The line did not require mask-wearing during the first two days of the voyage. [emphasis mine]

Gene Sloan, Reporter/Passenger on Sea Dream, 2020-11-11
Original Article on ThePointsGuy.com

Apparently the line thought the extensive testing ahead of the cruise had succeeded in creating the sought-after “bubble.” But they neglected to enforce the mask wearing required by their policy. In fairness, the symptomatic patient started feeling sick two days into the cruise. It is likely they contracted COVID before boarding and the virus load was not enough yet to be detected by the testing.

My Take

This incident shows why the CDC is mandating PCR quick tests before boarding, once ships are underway again. They are much more sensitive than the nasal swab tests.

My preference would be that lines also require what the Healthy Sail Panel recommended, a PCR test with results supplied to the line, taken no more than five and no less than three days prior to leaving home to begin the trip.

Once a vaccine is available, I think a record of immunization should be required to be provided to the cruise line as part of the eDoc process pre-boarding/pre-departure from home. I also believe a negative PCR should be required to board, in spite of the vaccination requirement. There is too much unknown about the vaccines yet and there is a percentage of people for whom the vaccine is ineffective. At least for 2021 (and possibly 2022) I think erring on the side of safety is warranted.

But I do not agree with Senator Blumenthal and Rep. Matsui. The No-Sail order does not need to be reinstated. If the directives in the Conditional Sail protocols are followed and the cruise lines maintain the enhanced cleanliness and improved air handling systems they have committed to, there is no reason cruising can’t begin. The general experience thus far in Europe shows this.

Will cruising be COVID-free? No. But with the proper protocols, especially masking and distancing, the risks from cruising can be brought in line with the industry’s record on other contagions. The reason the Diamond Princess had so many cases at the beginning of the pandemic is because the ill were not allowed to leave. Forcing thousands of people to remain in the same auditorium for 14 days would likely have produced even more cases than on Diamond Princess. And one of the keys of the CDC Conditional Sail protocols is rapid identification and isolation of ill passengers.

Bottom line: Can the Cruise Industry Survive?

I think the policies in place as I write this will allow for the industry to gradually restart and to sail safely by late-summer 2021. I worry that at least the first half of the Alaska summer season is at risk. Financially, NCL said at the beginning they had 18 months of runway on their cash without turning a single propeller. That means about 10 months left now. I expect the larger ships including Encore to be the first to begin revenue passenger service…I’m guessing sometime in February at the earliest. I say this because the larger ships take less passenger load to generate a profit…something like 30% passenger load is the break even point I’ve seen mentioned several times.

Here are some thoughts from University of Portsmouth Professors Liz Sharples and Kokho Jason Sit:

Although the long-term sustainability of the sector is uncertain, it can take solace in the fact that cruise passengers are notoriously loyal. Tourism studies have shown that visitors return even after a disaster. And, according to a survey conducted by CLIA, nine out of ten passengers said they “probably or definitely will” cruise again.

Original arTicle

In researching this article I came across a research study that described the type of traveler I am: Crisis-resistant:

Empirical results indicate that segments of tourists resistant to external or internal crisis events indeed exist and—as theoretically postulated—demonstrate higher levels of risk propensity and resistance to change. In contrast, risk shifting is not associated with being a crisis-resistant tourist.

Annals of Tourism Research
Volume 53, July 2015

I think that comes from my history in the EMS and Emergency Management sectors and my exposure to disasters and disaster planning in my journalism career. I tend not to get terribly excited in the midst of crisis. Adequate planning and preparation is key.

What are your thoughts? Sound off below:

Double Standard Much?

We only made the decision to do the this trip once the CDC made its ruling Friday concerning how the cruise industry must behave in order to be allowed to sail in US waters and dock at US ports. Before that, we’d planned a 30th Anniversary cruise for June, doing a 9-day round-trip from Seattle aboard the Sun.

The Sun, docked in Alaska (via Wikipedia)

Let’s see, how does the order change that sailing? Can’t be for sure, but here’s my calculus:

  1. 9-day voyage – CDC max voyage length is set at seven days through Nov. 2021. With the caveat that CDC can shorten that arbitrarily at any time.
  2. Onerous burdens for passengers – it doesn’t appear to my reading that rapid tests at shipside and a negative blood test taken just before departure from home (as proposed by the Healthy Sail Panel) will cut it. To my reading, we’re going to have to have a blood test for COVID shoreside before boarding. That is going to cause longer delays in the enclosed spaces of cruise terminals.
  3. Everybody in, lock the doors, and sail for where you started from – if a (so far undefined) threshold of COVID is confirmed in passengers on any ship, the passenger(s) must be isolated and everyone else is quarantined. The ship turns tail and heads for the port from which it embarked.
  4. Wear a mask. Social distance. Take only cruise line-sponsored excursions.

Compare this to flying:

  • Wear a mask.Distance when you can. End of instructions.

Bus:

  • Wear a mask.Distance when you can. End of instructions.

Train:

  • Wear a mask.Distance when you can. End of instructions.

Doug Parker at CruiseRadio riffs on the double standard

Not to be outdone, the people of Key West have voted to limit total cruise passengers daily to 1,500. No docking for large ships. Election 2020: Key West Gives Cruise Industry the Middle Finger [via Cruise Radio].

A libertarian Take on the Whole Thing

Let’s look at this in the “little-L” libertarian framework for a bit. I can’t fault the people of Key West for voting as they have, even though it upsets me. They are absolutely the people who should have the final say on the cruise industry’s impact on their economy, natural resources, and so forth. I give them the benefit of the doubt that the impacts were considered by the voters rather than the result being ginned up by agitators.

Meanwhile back in Washington

On the one hand, the bailout bill gave billions of dollars to the airline industry, supposedly to save jobs. Air travel is still down, even with (or maybe a little because of) airlines back to their overselling ways, and there have been thousands of layoffs since the money ran out in October.

The point is, airplanes are flying. The airline industry got billions in bailout money, and guess what? It went to line executive pockets, not to keep line workers employed.

The cruise lines, however, have not sought nor received federal bailout funds. AND they have a government agency that’s in essence rent-seeking on the COVID status. Because CDC has the inspection authority over health and sanitation conditions on ships, it can set whatever rules it likes. Because if the lines don’t jump through the agency’s hoops, they aren’t getting the little piece of paper “Temporary Authorization to Sail” or whatever. The agency threw out a number of what I considered excellent recommendations by the Healthy Sail panel. And they made the process for getting the cruise industry back to work much more difficult than necessary.

But, but…

What about the fact that cruise passengers are in close quarters for days? Guess what, compared to an airplane we aren’t. Many cruise ship staterooms are larger than a commercial plane cabin (and they only have 1 to 4 occupants for extended periods). The lines have already committed to running limited capacity until this is past us. As in other public locations, lines are taking measures to help with distancing, and we can expect to be wearing masks in the hallways, theaters, and other situations where we can’t distance.

Aren’t cruise ships a “petri disk of germs and bacteria?” Nope. Everyone say it together now: “Washy, washy, happy happy!”

The bottom line

Canada will not decide until Feb. 1 whether ships will be allowed to dock at Victoria, Vancouver or other Canadian ports of call. That happened to be the 120-day mark before our cruise on the Sun. The risk of putting money into a cruise that was going to be less than we anticipated in just about all ways just became too high. So we started looking for ways to do something different, and from there came the back-to-back cruise idea.

To us, this is somewhat a mix between the Parable of the Loaves and Fishes and making lemons into lemonade.

Now we have 18 more months to save and make this trip something really special. I’ll write soon about all the things this kind of planning ahead (which is new to us) will enable us to do on this trip…many of them ideas that hadn’t crossed either of our mind as of five days ago!

712 days until embarkation!

Here are the links to the back-to-back trips we’re taking, if you might like to come along!

Seattle to Alaska (round trip)
Seattle to Miami via Mexico, Costa Rica and the Panama Canal

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