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.

Phone a friend, if only to confess “I have no energy to talk”

An article* in the newspaper prompted me to reach out to a friend yesterday. It reminded me that we are all hopefully not sick but tired of the pandemic, and that perhaps our loved ones with small children are even more drained and hungry for a moment of adult contact.

It’s okay to reach out—a great idea, actually—even if your message is merely a confession that you’re too exhausted for a big, meaningful talk. What really matters is letting people know that you care. A text, a ping, a postcard: any of these is a whole lot better than nothing at all.

The article reminded me that my low energy might still be higher than someone else’s emotional charge.

Contact phoneLike many others, I’ve found the pandemic to be paradoxically physically isolating, yet discouraging to my tendency to reach out in other ways, even electronically. I may be the only person in America who has yet to join a Zoom meeting.

Perhaps because I’m an introvert, I’ve realized that stress tends to shut me up.

Though I never lack for opinions or the desire to share them, my mother’s death in 2019 made it very hard for me to post to Really Wonderful Things for a period of months. Similarly, while I think of many friends, often many times per day, the oppressive weight of living in a COVID-19 limited world often keeps me from calling or texting or even answering my phone when it rings with a call from someone I really miss.

I have no doubt that surviving a pandemic induces grief. As one bereaved just a year earlier, the parallels are plain to me.

Chatting with my friend—okay, it was texting—was a nice break from my current reality. She was the last person I saw socially before everyone sequestered at home. I met her still tiny baby that 2020 day over coffee at a shop near her house. NZ espresso Wildlife Refuge cafe

Already aware there was a mysterious virus swirling about the Earth, I didn’t ask to hold her little bundle of joy, but I did briefly get my freshly washed hands on one irresistible, itty bitty foot. Consider it the elbow bump version of appreciating a newborn as a pandemic loomed.

About a year has gone by since then. My friend’s baby is now a toddler with hair long enough to style in an up-do for a windy walk around a reservoir. I got to see a picture. I noted how the wee one’s hair favors the younger of her big brothers; my friend pointed out that her face is more like the elder sibling’s was in early childhood. Her eldest was about the age her baby is now when she and I first met!Woman hugs child

While joyful, the conversation was also full of pining for a return to our old kind of visits. I want hug her youngest urchin for the first time. She wishes she could help me fix what I’ve done to my poor sewing machine. We both miss those hours, here or there, that we used to steal for a cup of something and a chat while our kids were at school.

No wonder it’s so hard to catch up in the virtual realm. The act is such a stark reminder of all the real visiting that’s missing!

But we wandered, too, through the tentative plans our respective families are finally feeling free enough to make for the future. They’re thinking of moving for more yard space, or perhaps she’ll take a community garden plot to get her hands into the soil. I’m expecting that—come Hell or high water—I will find a way to get cross-country to see my father this summer. Both of us have begun pondering passports and international travel, but neither of us wants to board a long flight any time soon.

Her husband has always wanted to show their kids Niagara Falls; my family hopes to do a round trip cruise from Canada that circumnavigates Iceland from a port within driving distance in 2022.

It’s a bit like ordering seeds in January. It’s a lot like those longer, brighter New England days in early March when you can feel that spring really is a-comin’… while also remaining fully aware it would be unwise to put away the snow shovel just yet.purple and gold flowers blooming in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland

Reaching out and making contact—in even the tiniest way—plants another tiny grain of hope that we may all soon put this period of illness and extreme loneliness behind us. So phone a friend; nurture a bloom of camaraderie. They’ll understand if the best you’ve got to offer is, “I miss you, but I have no energy to talk.”

* “The parenting crisis without a vaccine: loneliness” by Boston Globe Correspondent Kara Baskin

Mail a greeting card in 2020 to uplift lonely holidays

Even if you don’t usually send Christmas cards or other holiday greetings, this year might deserve to be an exception. So many people are lonely and missing far-flung families due to the pandemic; getting a hand-written note in the mail may be the most human connection in a person’s day. That is well worth 55 ¢ in postage and a few minutes of your time.

greeting cards on desk blotter with pen and stampsI send cards sometimes; other years, I don’t get around to it.

I have written Hanukkah greetings, Christmas cards, acknowledgements of the Winter Solstice, and best wishes for happy New Years. I send the message I think the recipient would most appreciate; my religion* in no way dictates the blessing I offer a friend of a different persuasion.

My family hung the same red felt banners on the entry hall wall every year of my life. They went up early in December, empty canvasses, ready to receive holiday missives as they arrived. The oldest was made by my mother’s mother and features pockets and a waving Santa at the top; Mom had to craft another when I was little to accommodate the deluge of communiques that her sociability and dedication to friendship and public service inspired. Cards were pinned or stapled to that display.

In 2019, my mother died.

Somehow, that year also saw a huge reduction in the number of Christmas cards my widowed father received. In years past, every inch of these many yards of felt was hidden by the volume of cards and letters; last year, only one banner ended up even partially covered.

Torn black felt heart pinned to garment to signify grief and k'riah

I don’t believe that people were intentionally ignoring my dad in the absence of Mom, though her enthusiasm** for Christmas did put that of other, mere mortals to shame. I received fewer cards last year, too. The dentist and the auto body shop we used only once historically sent pre-printed cards, untouched by even a secretary’s hand. A lot of that has stopped. I suppose it’s a sign of the growing reliance on electronic communication, and I don’t miss impersonal mailings from businesses too much.

Dad’s passing comment about getting so few cards, however, was like a punch in the gut to me. It was already such a hard year for him; I grieved again to see him feeling forgotten. What a dreadful time for the world to decide to save a tree and skip a mailed paper greeting!

I’m going to be sending at least a few cards this year, myself. I’m prioritizing older relatives, and those who live alone. Even if you never send cards, hate to write, or don’t celebrate any of the winter holidays, this may be a year to reach out in the spirit of warmth, light, and joy—just because.

There’s no real deadline, either, in case you’re worried about the already overburdened postal system. Send Warm Winter Wishes in January, if that feels more appropriate. After the happiest of holidays, that month can be a real let-down. After a grim, lonely season you believe should have been festive? January could be gruesome.

Our shared humanity is reason enough. Care for others is the animating gift of all societies. Winter is dark and feels too long in the good years; 2020 has not been a particularly good year for most. Pandemic winter is an enemy to us all, but a terrorizing monster to the isolated and the lonely.

Reach out, if you’ve got a few minutes, an envelope, a stamp. You’ll be making the world just that little bit better for someone else. I’m willing to bet it will brighten your day, too.

I might even argue that the very definition of faith makes the fear of someone else’s difference a rather fundamental failing of it…

** Mom liked to say that Christmas was the reason the rest of the year exists. She called herself Mother Christmas, and Dad had a song commissioned for her about that by a talented musician friend. My parents’ over-the-top outdoor decorations were so spectacular, their house was featured in a television public service announcement in the 1990’s. Mom had a unique holiday outfit for every day between Thanksgiving and Epiphany, reckoning the arrival of the Wise Men was the true end of the Christmas season.

I wouldn’t turn back the clock to more paper spam either. This is not an argument that we return to physical documents for conducting most business.

That said, I do notice, enjoy, and appreciate the personalized greetings sent by some institutions, such as my son’s school and my former personal trainer who takes the time to hand write all of his cards.