At the beginning of this year, none of us could have imagined how COVID-19 would impact our daily lives. I remember hearing about the novel Coronavirus in January, a mysterious virus that was spreading in Wuhan, China. Though there were few known cases of COVID-19 in the United States in January, late in the month when my grandmother developed a cough I worried about her. “What if it’s the Coronavirus?” I asked her. She responded, “Britton, if you are worried about the Coronavirus, you are even more paranoid than I thought.” We laughed about my worries, but I remained careful. I didn’t eat the shared dishes at the Oscars party I attended at the beginning of February, I washed my hands vigorously before eating tacos at my favorite Mexican restaurant. I worried passively but in the back of my mind I knew my grandmother was right – there was no need to worry.
Let’s fast forward to the end of February. I was invited to sail aboard MSC Cruises’ Meraviglia. Our sailing started March 1 and concluded on March 8. I was nervous about cruising during the pandemic, especially since my sailing was on the heels of Diamond Princess getting stuck off the coast of Japan. I wasn’t the only one who was nervous. In fact, two other journalists who were invited on board canceled due to concerns about what would soon become a global pandemic. My mother was joining me on the sailing so I consulted her. We both decided that we would go – keep in mind, at this point things still were not bad in the US – all we were hearing about was a surge of cases in Italy. While on board the ship, however, we started hearing of cases appearing in different states. First North Carolina, where we were traveling from, and then Florida, where some of the other passengers in our group were from. Things were getting real, and then we got the news that Princess Cruises’ Grand Princess was stuck off the coast of California.
I remember sitting in the theatre one night and hearing five people cough in a span of ten seconds. I started to worry. If Grand Princess wasn’t allowed to dock, and passengers weren’t allowed to disembark, surely my mother and I were going to be forced to quarantine in our staterooms aboard Meraviglia for weeks. Fortunately, that was not the case and we returned home to North Carolina where there were four known COVID-19 cases, which at the time seemed to be a shockingly high number. As I’ve learned more about COVID-19 and its symptoms, I realize that my mother and I may have been the fifth and sixth cases. I recall my mother coughing all night long and finding herself winded after walking up a flight of stairs. It wasn’t until the Friday that we returned from our trip that I got an email from MSC saying that one of the passengers on our sailing tested positive for COVID-19. So when I mentioned that things got real – they got very real. My mother and I both quarantined for two weeks to make sure that we did our part in keeping the virus at bay. By the time our quarantine was over, North Carolina had enacted a stay-at-home order, and the CDC had enacted a No Sail Order.
The No Sail Order was enacted on March 14, 2020. There were three stipulations to the order, that cruises must be suspended until either the Secretary of Health and Human Services declared that COVID-19 was no longer a public health emergency; or the CDC Director rescinded or modified the order; or 100 days had passed since the original order. July 24 marked 100 days from April 15, when the order was renewed, but the CDC released another update on July 16 with the same stipulations mentioned before. It was not until September 30 that a final update to the No Sail Order was made, stating that if the conditions above were not met cruise lines could resume sailing October 31, 2020. So, what does that mean here at the beginning of November?
The CDC released what it calls a Conditional Sailing Order on October 30, 2020. But just because cruise lines are allowed to resume sailing does not mean that passengers are eagerly flocking to cruise ships. It also doesn’t mean that cruise lines are allowed to resume sailing however they wish. There are multiple stipulations, most importantly that cruise lines must complete simulated voyages before they are issued a COVID-19 Conditional Sailing Certificate. These voyages will be conducted with volunteer passengers over the age of 18 who have clearance from a healthcare provider. They must provide written proof that they are not at high risk for COVID-19. The simulated voyages must include embarkation and disembarkation procedures, on board activities including dining and entertainment, shore excursions, evacuation procedures, transfers of symptomatic persons to isolation rooms, and quarantine of remaining passengers and crew. Essentially, the cruise lines must prove that they meet the CDC’s requirements and guidance for safe sailings.
Cruise companies must also test all passengers and crew on the day of embarkation and disembarkation. This is a contrast to some of the procedures that we have seen in place throughout other areas in the world, where a COVID test must be completed and come back with negative results within a few days of the sailing. Once all of these conditions are met, the cruise lines will be eligible to receive a Conditional Sailing Certificate and welcome passengers back on board.
While this may seem like a lot of work for the cruise lines, these steps are crucial in making sure that Diamond Princess 2.0 doesn’t happen. And even though there are multiple vaccines on the horizon, a vaccine will not make the virus magically disappear. In an interview on 60 Minutes, Dr. Anthony Fauci stated that even with a vaccine it will still be important to maintain some of the safety practices that are in place now – including wearing masks for much of next year.
Though at the beginning of the pandemic we could have never imagined how much our daily lives would change, we must also think about how much our lives have been able to return to a “new normal” as we gain more information about the virus. While many of our readers did not think that we would be sailing again from the United States until mid-2021, here we are in 2020 with a few weeks to spare and cruise lines able to run simulated voyages. So while I can’t tell you exactly when the next time I will be on a ship will be, I can say with confidence that it will be sooner than I imagined it would be a few months ago.