Why I feel cruising is one of the safest forms of travel right now
There are plenty of people in the United States right now -- including, it seems, some key government regulators -- who think it's too soon to let cruise ships restart operations.
Letting hundreds or even thousands of people congregate in close quarters on a cruise vessel while COVID-19 remains an ongoing threat is just too risky, they say, even though they seem to have few qualms about the fact that many resort areas on land (think: Disney World in Florida) have been welcoming back tourists for months.
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But after a couple of days on board one of the first cruise vessels to restart operations in the U.S. in more than a year, American Queen Steamboat Company's American Countess, I have come to a different view: Cruising to me seems no more risky right now than many other forms of travel.
In fact, it feels less risky to me -- I might even say a lot less risky -- than quite a few other types of travel you can do these days.
I'm saying this as someone who has been very cautious about COVID-19 since the beginning. My wife and I still are not dining indoors in restaurants. The only socializing we've done with friends for months has been in outdoor settings with social distancing.
People have developed a wide range of views on the seriousness of COVID-19 over the past year, and there surely are many who would find my level of cautiousness absurd. I am no doubt far to the "more cautious" side of the spectrum on the COVID-19 caution-o-meter.
But it is this very tendency to err on the side of caution that is making me see cruising as a top choice among the many types of travel that have been ramping back up as vaccination rates in North America rise and case counts generally fall.
This is because the cruise industry is going to extremes when it comes to health safety on vessels that are far beyond what any other segment of the travel industry is doing -- and far beyond what I think many Americans looking to travel in this new era of COVID-19 realize.
A bubble of safety
To be on the American Countess right now -- and on other cruise vessels that are slowly starting back up -- is to be in a "bubble of safety" of sorts.
Every crew member on American Countess -- from my room steward to the wait staff in the dining room -- was only allowed on board the vessel in recent weeks after testing negative for COVID-19 using a highly-sensitive PCR test. Since then, the line has required every one of them to remain isolated on the vessel. They will be working and living on American Countess for six weeks at a time, during which they won't be allowed off in ports when it stops.
This may seem like a highly restrictive rule. But it creates a level of confidence that the staff is free of COVID-19 that doesn't exist at hotels and resorts on land. Unlike hospitality workers on land, the crew members of American Countess aren't going home every night to their families, or meeting with friends or going out for beers and dinner in town in a way that might risk exposure to COVID-19.
In addition to the crew, every passenger on American Countess also must test negative for COVID-19 just before boarding. Passengers must arrive for their cruise a day in advance for testing with a PCR test, which is sent out overnight for processing while they stay in a hotel. Passengers are asked to stay as isolated as they can overnight while they wait for the results.
American Queen Steamboat also screens passengers with health questionnaires and temperature checks in advance of letting them on board American Countess, and it has implemented quite a few additional anti-COVID-19 measures on the vessel. These include social distancing requirements and a mask-wearing requirement for times when social distancing isn't possible. The vessel also is sailing at reduced capacity.
Taken together, these screening measures in theory knock down the chances of COVID-19 getting on board American Countess significantly. Still, the screening is just the first line of defense in keeping travelers safe.
The "bubble of safety" on American Countess also is extended by a new, more cautious approach to touring during port stops.
American Queen Steamboat is known for offering "hop-on, hop-off" tours in the river towns its vessels visit that allow passengers to explore at their own pace while stopping at multiple attractions. But such touring has been scaled back for now in the interest of safety.
Instead, tours are more closely managed with passengers traveling together by motorcoach for sightseeing with a more limited number of stops. They tour as a group with fewer interactions with locals.
On Monday, for instance, American Countess stopped in White Castle, Louisiana, for a visit to Nottoway, the largest remaining antebellum mansion in the South, for a touring experience that was very "contained," as one executive put it to me. Passengers wandered through the site in a "self-guided" manner without even local guides.
It's the same sort of "touring bubble" system that several other cruise lines that have started up in recent months in other parts of the world, such as MSC Cruises, have put into effect with good results. MSC Cruises has carried tens of thousands of passengers on cruises out of Italy since last August with no COVID-19-related incidents.
The changes to touring on American Queen Steamboat sailings are likely temporary, as the line is in the process of implementing an even stricter COVID-19-related rule that should have the result of making a COVID-19 outbreak on its vessels almost impossible.
Starting in July, all passengers and crew on the line's vessels will be required to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine.
This is a measure that a growing number of cruise lines are announcing, and it may make cruising the ultimate "safety bubble" vacation for this coming year.
But even now, before the new rule takes effect, many of the passengers on American Countess already are vaccinated -- adding another level of defense against a COVID-19 outbreak.
This is because the average age of the typical cruiser in general, and river cruisers in particular, skews older than the average age for many other types of vacations, and passengers are thus more likely to already have had access to a vaccine.
While the current sailing of American Countess isn't typical for the line -- it's a nonrevenue "preview" sailing of the vessel with company executives, their friends and family, and local dignitaries -- the demographics of the passengers on board aren't all that different from a normal sailing. I am finding that well more than half of the people I've met on board already have received a COVID-19 vaccine -- far more than the percentage of the general public that's been vaccinated.
No system is perfect
The best way to avoid getting COVID-19 right now, of course, is to just stay home -- at least until you've been vaccinated. Vaccination rates may be rising and case counts may be falling across North America, but the illness is far from eradicated.
But for people who feel comfortable getting back to at least a limited amount of traveling and are comfortable with some interaction with other humans, my argument here is that cruising is not some wild outlier on the spectrum of reasonable things to do. In fact, it could be a top choice.
In my mind, it's definitely safer for me to have sailed out of New Orleans on the American Countess on Sunday for several days of "bubble cruising" upriver to Memphis than to have stayed in New Orleans at a hotel for local touring, dining and entertainment.
Just think it through with me a little.
When heading out to dinner in New Orleans, I would have no idea if the people sitting at the tables around me, with their masks off for dining, had COVID-19 at that very moment. I wouldn't know if one of the waiters or one of the chefs had just come down with it, or if one of the dozens of shopkeepers, bartenders, taxi drivers and museum attendants that I would inevitably meet over the coming days might have it, too.
Most of them would have no idea, either, if they were COVID-19-positive, as most of them would not have been required to have had a PCR test for COVID-19 just before I met them.
So, is it safe to get back to cruising right now? Only you can make that decision for you, based on your personal situation.
But I will tell you this: I've been anxious during parts of the trip this week. But not during the times I've been on board American Countess.
I felt much less safe during the process of getting to American Countess -- moving through three airports at the beginning, middle and end of the process, and sitting on two planes -- than on board the vessel.
When I arrived in New Orleans on Saturday, I turned down an offer to go to dinner in town with friends. I didn't feel that it was safe enough yet to eat indoors in a New Orleans restaurant.
I've had no such qualms dining in the Grand Dining Room of American Countess over the past two days.
The Points Guy cruise writer Gene Sloan is traveling on American Countess this week as a guest of the cruise line.
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