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.

Wear a mask, people of faith, or live in sin

Wearing a mask or other face covering to reduce the spread of coronavirus should not be a political issue because protecting members of our own communities is so obviously the right thing to do.

Safety goggles, cloth face mask, and disposable glovesThis partisanship doesn’t even make rational sense in the context of America’s “culture wars.” Republican party members often proclaim themselves pro-life,º yet many refuse to don protective gear during a pandemic, callously risking the lives of others because the price of a few dollars and mild inconvenience is too high.

GOP.com suggests that Republicans believe Culture should respect and protect life.

You should wear a mask—and follow government mandates ordering you to do so—for the same reason you shouldn’t drive while intoxicated: these rules are enacted to save human lives. We have always limited some freedoms via the common law when one person’s actions infringe upon the rights of others’ lives or property.

It’s none of my business if you are an adult who chooses to get drunk; it is anyone’s business to intervene if you callously murder other people by operating a motor vehicle in that condition. I make no moral or ethical distinction between that action and firing a gun with a bullet in its chamber into a crowd, nor should the law. Mask directives land squarely in this legal territory.

I’m not making accusations from a place of partisanship, either. Objective evidence suggests that Republicans are those least likely to wear masks. A New York Times article from June 2, 2020, referenced a Gallup poll showing fewer than half of Republicans had donned a mask in public. In the same poll, 75% of Democrats had worn one, as had 58% of my fellow independents.

While this inaction flies in the face of the GOP’s pro-life position, it also repudiates the Christian faith of the majority of its members. A 2017 Washington Post article gave me the figure that “73% of the Republican party is white Christian.”Jewish Torah, Good News Bible, and cloth face mask

The 6th Commandment: Thou shalt not kill

I grew up attending a United Methodist Church, though I converted to Judaism as an adult. My daily life is enriched by living amongst observant Christians. While I won’t pretend to be any kind of theological scholar and I personally believe much of the revealed truth of Torah/the Bible to be allegorical, I find the Ten Commandments clear and straightforward, especially this one:

Thou shalt not kill.

There are variations in understanding the Ten Commandments depending upon whether you ask a Jew, Protestant, or Catholic. Thou shalt not kill is usually cited as the 6th*.

Wearing a mask definitively reduces the chances that the wearer will infect someone else with COVID-19. Doctors and scientists are still working to unravel the many mysteries of this novel coronavirus, but there is solid evidence that many cases are transmitted by asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals, i.e., people who don’t think they are sick. If you wait to wear a mask until you are sick with COVID-19, you may well have already infected another innocent victim.

COVID-19 has killed over half a million people around the world already, and it is especially lethal when it infects the elderly. I can’t help but leap from this fact to another of the Ten Commandments, number five:

Honor thy father and thy mother; in order that thy days may be prolonged upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

Excerpt of page of Torah/Bible showing Exodus 20:12-13From my again, admittedly, allegorical interpretation of this commandment, wantonly endangering the lives of any elderly person is quite literally a sin. Even according to a strict interpretation of the words, not wearing a mask to protect your own parents would be the sin. Taking part in a culture of resistance to protective measures makes you complicit in endangering this vulnerable population whether you’re the one who infects your mom or a member of her church does.

Refusing to wear a mask while a virus ravages the weak is an indefensible position for anyone purporting to ascribe to Judeo-Christian values.

The author wearing an improvised home-made face coveringI didn’t need more reasons to cover my face in public during a pandemic, but, upon reflection, I found two more in my faith.

º The Republican party website, on its Platform page, has a poll “Why Are You A Republican?: Tell Us Which Principles Are Most Important To You.” The choices are compiled from previous visitors feedback, and include the option: “Culture should respect and protect life.”

Dated September 6, 2017, but behind a paywall. You could try searching for “The stark racial and religious divide between democrats and republicans in one chart.” Please note that the racial aspect of this chart had nothing to do with my point, but this was the first recent and reliable source I found for statistics on the religious makeup of the Republican party. Presumably there are Christian people of color in the Republican party as well, so it is likely that more than 73% of party members consider themselves to be followers of Jesus Christ.

* Catholic interpretation would say this is the 5th, not 6th, commandment.

Catholics omit the second clause, but the shared portion makes my point. For them, it is commandment number four.

Note: The author’s improvised face covering shown in the last photo is not ideal COVID-19 protection for others as it fits too loosely around the face. See the CDC for further advice. This hat+mask combination was my first attempt when PPE was still scarce for health care workers, but the idea of home-made cloth masks was introduced as a reasonable alternative for civilian wear in daily life. It was comprised of a napkin and pipe cleaners and designed to be worn on local walks where social distancing could usually be expected. A loose mask like this is still better than no face covering, however, and it is much easier to breathe in during socially distanced exercise.

Teen wearing medieval plague doctor mask leaving house for a walkMy teen opted for a rather more historical mask that he happened to have lying about the house. My claustrophobia would make this style very difficult for me to wear, but we did get some great photos that day.