Dip a COVID-cautious toe in cruise waters

We maintain a COVID-cautious* household as the third pandemic summer waxes. Where one member of our family is at high risk, we all choose to modify our daily behaviors to continue to protect him.

This is a cost of multi-generational living, though I find the personal and familial benefits of sharing our home with an elder abundant and easily justified. Since we can afford all the masks and testing we need, expending this trivial effort is well worth it. That’s the calculus in our home.Disposable surgical mask

Given our status, then, as “more careful than most,” it may surprise some that we plan to embark on a cruise with our teens in a little more than a month. Cruising, after all, gave the world its first widely reported COVID-19 super-spreader event.

Read a CDC research paper on the epidemiology of the Diamond Princess outbreak in February 2020 here.Cruise line booking page headlined 37 days before you leave with photos of Icelandic ports

There’s no doubt that the closed environment of a cruise ship offers a unique opportunity for certain germs to infect a captive audience of susceptible passengers. Many minds will leap immediately to norovirus. In truth, however, norovirus is common everywhere, but an outbreak is much more noticeable when a group of thousands travels en masse for seven or more days and management is required to track cases on board.

Similarly, though COVID-19 is definitively joining current passengers on cruise ships—in spite of requirements for vaccination and pre-embarkation testing—there is little evidence that the virus passes between personal staterooms via HVAC or other means. Actual contact tracing of ship-acquired infections, as on land, suggests spread directly from infected person to uninfected person.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 3

The greater risk on a cruise comes from queuing to board or partake in activities, eating or drinking in common facilities, or from socializing with other guests. More bodies in close proximity invites more infections. It’s math, not a magical zone of infection brought on by taking a ship out to sea.

Why, then, if we remain vigilant and siloed on land, is my family setting sail?

Like many, the pandemic disrupted our travel plans in 2020. For us, the result was a Future Cruise Credit (a.k.a., an F.C.C.). Cruise Critic defines Future Cruise Credits here.

We could have requested a cash refund when COVID-19 kept us from our 2020 voyage between Copenhagen and Boston. Instead, we opted to gamble on the future solvency of Holland America Line (HAL) and took the F.C.C. instead. Part of my personal rationale was the simple desire to see HAL survive the economic hit of the sudden shutdown.

The major down side to any credit like this is the set of contingencies for spending it. Unless we wanted to argue over the details of the F.C.C. we’d accepted, we had to book a cruise before the end of 2022.Pile of money

Here’s the key to why my family is cruising this summer: we’re not all going. While our 2020 trip would have included a grandparent, our 2022 party consists only of parents and children. All of us are vaccinated, boosted, and at statistically low risk of COVID-19 complications if infected. Our high risk loved ones are not inclined to sail at this time.

For those of us embarking on a pandemic-era Holland America Line cruise, we are opting in based upon a few important understandings:

  • We realize that we will be taking a greater risk of catching COVID-19 than we do at home, but we have decided that this risk is worth the benefit of a relaxing vacation together with the reward of a chance to visit foreign destinations long on our wish list(s).
  • We prefer the risk of being cruise ship passengers over that of unmasked air travel for the summer of 2022, especially given recent frequent flight cancellations and spectacular, hours’ long delays reported at major airports worldwide. We don’t have to fly to get to our embarkation/debarkation port, and we won’t have to leave** our cabin once aboard a ship unless we want to.
  • We booked two staterooms for our party of four, and one of them is a suite° with an extra large balcony. This is more space than we have ever paid for in the past, but we believe we might prefer to remain mostly cloistered while at sea, depending upon COVID case rates when and where we sail. We decided we wouldn’t travel without private access to fresh air, i.e., a balcony.
  • We reserved an additional, extra-fee private outdoor space for this sailing—on HAL’s fleet, these are dubbed Cabanas, placed in a restricted access area called the Retreat, and, again, booking one is a first for us—so we will have a dedicated area beyond our cabins to spend time if case rates exceed our comfort thresholds.
  • We’re prepared to skip going ashore at early stops in easily reached ports close to home in order to increase the odds*** we stay healthy for visits to rare, “bucket list” destinations further afield.
  • We’re each packing extra amusements that will allow any one of us to spend days on end alone in a room, and I’ve beefed up the travel medicine kit.
  • And, perhaps most important of all, we are setting sail having decided in advance that even isolating in our staterooms—aside from accessing our cabana via the stairs, no elevators—would be “enough” vacation to make the entire trip worthwhile. Dining on room service and entertaining ourselves on a balcony at sea will be sufficient, if not ideal. If we also get to enjoy the rest of the ship’s public amenities, all the better.

Until our embarkation, we won’t really know which activities will or won’t meet our risk tolerance and feel worthwhile. This is a higher than usual level of uncertainty for me to embrace. I acknowledge I can be prone to anxiety; I’m better known for demanding control than going with the flow.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 1

Living through a pandemic serves to remind me, though, that life is short, and opportunities not taken can be lost forever. We have educated ourselves about the current situation with the virus, and we’ve prepared as best we can for such unpleasant scenarios as believing the risk of infection too high to risk socializing aboard ship or catching COVID at sea.

My kids are growing up fast. One will be moving away from home for the first time in just a couple of months. I want to take us all on one more vacation before it becomes necessary to negotiate with yet another adult life and all its mature entanglements to get away together.Woman hugs child

COVID-19 stole from everyone: lives, time, opportunities… I can’t know for certain that our cruise will be smooth sailing, but, if my analysis is correct, it should be worth the risk.

* Since there is no universal definition for “being careful” with regards to COVID, I’ll post mine. Our household choices in June 2022 continue to include:

  • limiting time inside any building beyond our home with the exception of one child who goes to school/camp in person,
  • wearing masks indoors anywhere but at home,
  • requesting that all visitors or tradespeople entering our home wear a mask,
  • wearing masks outdoors where social distancing isn’t possible,
  • antigen testing the kid who attends school/camp every weekend before he spends one unmasked afternoon per week with his grandfather (otherwise, that kid masks around Grandpa),
  • antigen testing our occasional visitors before eating or drinking with them,
  • only eating or drinking with visitors to our home outdoors or at a distance of ~10+ feet indoors.

We use—and offer those entering our home—several styles of N95, KN94, and surgical masks to ensure all this masking is as efficacious as possible. Even within the family, our faces don’t fit the same masks well.

See the CDC epidemiology paper referenced in paragraph three. The following quote comes from the Discussion section of that report, and it matches what I’ve read elsewhere over the past two years following pandemic news coverage:

“Spatial clustering was not identified on a specific deck or zone, and transmission does not seem to have spread to neighboring cabins, implying that droplet or contact transmission to nearby cabins was not the major mode of infection. Risk of infection did increase with cabin occupancy, but a relatively small proportion of cases in the same cabin had >4 days between their onsets, implying a common source of infection. Beyond that, however, the major transmission routes might include a common source outside the cabin and aerosolized fomite or contact transmission across different deck levels.”

I feel it is only fair to disclose that we had only paid a deposit for a fraction of the total cost, not the full fare for our cancelled 2020 vacation. Wagering many thousands of dollars would have felt foolish to me in support of a corporation, but a few hundred was an amount I could afford to lose with equanimity.

In particular, I found the crew aboard my past HAL sailing to be simultaneously professional and amiable. Keeping this subsidiary of Carnival Corporation in the black seemed likely to keep more of these excellent employees on the payroll during a bleak time.

**Apart from the mandatory muster—or lifeboat—drill. Cruise ships rightly enforce the requirement that every person aboard learns what to do in the unlikely event of an emergency at sea. Due to COVID, these are now conducted with less crowding and standing around in large groups than they used to entail.

°This will be our first experience of the Holland America Line suite category NS, or a Neptune Suite. The corner aft NS we chose is known for its exceptionally large balcony that wraps around the side and back of the ship, offering seating with more likelihood of shade-, sun-, or wind- protection than a standard balcony would.

***Testing positive for COVID-19 aboard a ship means a passenger will be quarantined according to that ship’s specific procedures. On HAL, last I heard, quarantined passengers are required to move to a balcony stateroom in a reserved section of rooms set aside and dedicated to housing those with COVID. On other lines, passengers quarantine in the stateroom they originally booked. In most cases reported by Cruise Critic board members, partners are given the option to stay together or lodge apart assuming only one tests positive.

We aren’t sure what will happen if both parents test positive but the young adults don’t, but we’re ready to live with the consequences either way.

These policies could change at any time, however, and I have read anecdotal evidence of ships adjusting rules on the fly by necessity when more passengers require quarantine than there were dedicated cabins for the sick.

Expressing gratitude for delivery drivers with snacks

In March, I hung a sign on our mailbox, thanking the postman* for working as a then-unknown virus blossomed in our metro area from hundreds of cases to thousands over the course of a few weeks.

Most of us were sheltering in place; he faced the world every day. He’s a gentleman who looks to be approaching retirement age. I wanted him to know his service to our community was not going unnoticed.

Green foam sheet saying Happy Holidays & Thank You to essential delivery workersHere are photos of my new, similar-to-what-I’m-talking-about, winter Happy Holidays gratitude sign. The first one was pink with flowers in honor of the approaching spring. Also flowers, like the holly I’ve sketched here, are easy to draw even without artistic talent. Both were drawn with Sharpie marker on EVA foam construction material to withstand the elements.

Though I’d exchanged pleasantries with our mailman pretty regularly, and friendly waves often, he took time from his rounds to come to our door and acknowledge our well wishes. Our letter carrier told me he’d posted a picture of our little sign to his social media, he felt so touched. He wanted other postal workers to see that people cared.

It mattered, to our most regular delivery driver, that we had made an effort on his behalf.

Thanksgiving give thanks - 1The pandemic has raged on, waning over the summer here in New England, and waxing again under the current punishment of the second wave. Essential workers carry on, and delivery drivers are keeping my family—which includes two septuagenarians with pre-existing conditions and a child with asthma—fed, medicated, and able to enjoy many of the usual trappings of the winter holidays we celebrate.

Without these men and women, business would grind to a complete halt. Never mind those of us who choose and can afford to shop from home; without deliveries, there would be no parts to assemble in factories, no flow of goods or services, no products to buy on the shelves for those who still prefer to visit stores in person.

Delivery drivers are the pulsing lifeblood of modern society. I’m grateful for every one of them, for showing up at work, for keeping our economy functioning, for taking on personal risk to allow me to protect the vulnerable members of my family.

Words alone can’t express the depth of my gratitude!

Winter/Xmas/Hanukkah decorated box of snacks with note of thanks to delivery driversHere’s one tangible way that I’m saying thank you to the drivers who serve my community.

I got the idea for putting out snacks from the internet. I decorated the box with scraps of wrapping paper in hopes the festive decoration would lift spirits while the calories in the snacks nourish bodies. I tried to include a mixture of sweets, savory, and tangerines for a bit of healthy.

Gratitude sign text: Delivery drivers, please take any snack you like as a token...I was a little surprised, actually, by how easily I found an array of grab-and-go snacks in my pantry. The cessation of packed school lunches has left me with more “extra” individual serving items than I might have in normal times. Some of these items were included in a gift basket from a colleague, the cereal was one type in a multi-pack that my family didn’t go for, the kosher doughnut came in a Hanukkah Cheer package we received from a local Jewish group.

Pile of moneyThe internet—and the official sites for the United States Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS—offers conflicting advice on whether and how one may tip professional delivery drivers. Officially, cash seems to be a no-no, or at least strongly discouraged; off the record, I know some drivers sometimes accept gratuities of money or gift cards.

espresso with foam art served with sparkling waterIf I were going out, I might buy a dozen or so small denomination gift cards for places like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts that abound in our area. $5 cards to drive thru restaurants seem reasonable, but I hesitate to offer gift cards that may be against the rules for drivers to accept.

I suspect they would be taken, and appreciated, if I had some to leave out; I’m just rule-abiding, perhaps to a fault, but I offer the idea to my renegade readers.

Insulated thermal carafes labeled Hot Water and CoffeeI wish I could think of a hygienic way to offer a warm drink on cold days right at my door, but leaving out a flask of hot coffee seems unappealing while a contagious virus is circulating.

goSun oven bake cookies from prepared dough - 4If my snacks go quickly and appear popular, I may also try home baked items I don’t know if drivers would risk a homemade muffin in a baggie, but I’m comfortable with the waste if those go untouched. I’d rather keep offering something rather than nothing if my packaged options dwindle. I’ve committed to shopping as rarely as possible as our hospitals fill and COVID-19 case counts continue to rise in our region.

If you’d like to do something similar, I’ve uploaded a PDF of my gratitude sign. Feel free to print it and use it yourself, or adapt it in any way you’d like. I laminated mine because I have a plethora of home business equipment, but a sheet protector offers some protection from the elements, and even a layer of tape extends the life of paper in light rain.

It isn’t important exactly what you do. But, if possible, find some way to thank the delivery drivers making daily life possible in your area. Every one of us has been touched by their contributions.

* The same person who has routinely delivered our mail for many years at this address. I’m thinking of a particular man, hence my choice of the gendered job title.

I wish I had some single serve drinks to include, but my feelings about wasteful packaging keep me from buying many of those. I didn’t have any on hand to include. Any beverage I might offer would have to be schlepped to my house by a delivery driver; is the lugging of liquids worth it in this case? I’ll admit; I’m a bit conflicted on that point.

I would affix a label matching my home address to offer confidence I wasn’t a creeper, up to no good, trying to poison someone!