Why I feel safer now on a cruise ship than in my home town

Sep 25, 2021

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Maybe I should just move onto a cruise ship full time.

It surely would take away some of my COVID-19 worries (and I do worry about COVID-19 — probably more than I should, given that I am fully vaccinated).

As I’ve seen first-hand on multiple cruises in the last few months, cruise ships have become like floating escape-from-the-COVID-19-pandemic zones. Thanks to what some may consider insanely strict new COVID-19-related rules (more on this below), they are places where you are likely to be surrounded almost entirely by people who are COVID-19 free.

To put it in “popcorn movie” terms, cruise ships have become the pandemic equivalent of the alien-free floating bases that you always see in apocalyptic alien and zombie films like this summer’s “The Tomorrow War” (yes, I know, the floating base in “The Tomorrow War” eventually gets overrun; the analogy isn’t perfect).

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This is, of course, an about-face from the way cruise ships were in early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Back then, as anyone who even remotely follows the news knows, the illness ran rampant through multiple vessels. But, as I’ve experienced first-hand, the situation on board ships now is far different than it was 18 months ago.

In the last few months, as the head of TPG’s cruise team, I’ve spent nearly half my days (more than 50) on cruise vessels big and small, documenting the industry’s return to operations. I’ve spent the other half of my days back in North Carolina, where I moved earlier this year.

After seeing what I’ve seen on ships and comparing it to what I’m seeing at home, there’s not much doubt in my mind about which environment presents more risk right now for me as I try to avoid exposure to COVID-19.

It’s being in North Carolina, by a mile.

If I had to pick one place to be — ship or shore — to feel most safe during this new era of COVID-19, it’d be ship. Hands down. Here’s why.

Vaccination rates are far higher on cruise ships

As noted above, cruise lines have instituted some insanely strict new COVID-19 rules. At many lines, these new rules include a requirement that every single person on the ship — both crew and passengers — be fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

Of the seven ships on which I’ve sailed since March, five have such a requirement.

The remaining two vessels, both Royal Caribbean ships, required that nearly all passengers be vaccinated. Royal Caribbean has a vaccine-required rule but is making exceptions to it for children under the age of 12 who are ineligible for a vaccine. But even on these ships, the vaccination rate when I was on board was over 90%.

That means that the vast majority of people with whom I have come in contact on ships have been vaccinated for COVID-19.

By contrast, in the state where I live, North Carolina, fewer than 50% of people are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 (as of today, the tally is at 49.2%). That means that, in theory, more than half of the people with whom I come in contact while living my life at home are not vaccinated.

That’s a big difference, and one big reason why I have a higher comfort level right now being on a ship than in my home town.

COVID-19 testing is more rigorous on ships

For every cruise that I have taken in recent months, I and every other passenger have had to undergo at least one or two and sometimes quite a few more COVID-19 tests in the days leading up to our sailing and once on board.

Take my latest sailing earlier this month on Crystal Endeavor, the new expedition ship from Crystal Cruises. I and other passengers had to test negative for COVID-19 three times — once before boarding our flights to the ship, which was sailing out of Reykjavik, Iceland; once at the pier on the day of departure before stepping on board the ship; and once about a week into the voyage, which was a 10-day sailing.

Such required and repeated testing has meant that I could be fairly certain that the vast majority of people with whom I have come in contact on ships are negative for COVID-19.

It doesn’t mean that the ships always were 100% COVID-19 free. In some cases, the pre-cruise tests will miss flagging someone who was just exposed to COVID-19 and has such a low amount of the virus in their system that they test negative. But the regular testing the cruise lines are requiring seems to be doing a good job catching most COVID-19-positive passengers before they board ships.

TPG cruise writer Gene Sloan appears for mandatory PCR testing for COVID-19 at a hotel conference room in New Orleans in advance of boarding an American Queen Steamboat Company vessel. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

Of the seven sailings on which I have been on, I know of only one passenger who tested positive for COVID-19 once on board. When I was sailing on Atlas Ocean Voyages’ new World Navigator in August, a single passenger tested positive for the illness during routine testing that all passengers had to undergo partway through the voyage. The passenger was asymptomatic.

Follow-up testing of other passengers on board found that there were no other cases.

On the other ships on which I’ve sailed that have done onboard testing, I’ve been told by officers on board that no passengers tested positive during the screenings. Some cynics might say that these officers might not always tell the truth on such matters. I suppose that’s a possibility. But I’ll tell you this: My experience having sailed on more than 150 ships over the years as a cruise writer is that it’s very hard to keep anything a secret on board a vessel.

When we had the one positive case on the Atlas Ocean Voyages sailing, pretty much everybody on board the ship — passengers and crew — knew about it long before the captain made the announcement. Passengers talk. Crew members talk. The idea that there are notable numbers of COVID-19 cases on ships that are being kept quiet seems highly unlikely to me.

Mask-wearing is more common on ships

Not every cruise ship has a mask-wearing rule right now. But most do, and in my experience, vessels are being fairly strict about it — more strict than what I’m seeing at indoor retail stores, bars, restaurants and other venues where I live in North Carolina.

On most of the ships that I have been on, every crew member and most if not all passengers wore masks in indoor areas at all times except when in the midst of dining or drinking.

Mask-wearing rules and rule compliance varies markedly in the U.S. — as I’ve seen first-hand in traveling to several states in recent months. But in my part of America, it’s not uncommon to see people without masks on in all sorts of indoor venues, even though many areas have reinstated a mask-wearing mandate over the past month or two.

At my local grocery store, where there are several “mask required” signs prominently displayed at the entrance, I routinely see customers walking the aisles without masks. Just yesterday, when picking up shirts at a local cleaner’s, I noticed that all four of the workers inside the store were not wearing masks as I entered. One of them did put one on as I approached the cash register, but only as she got close to me to ring me up.

The COVID-19 situation on land is not great

As noted above, cruise ships aren’t completely free of COVID-19. As I’ve written about quite a bit in recent months, cases continue to pop on lots of vessels in small numbers. The world’s largest cruise line, Royal Caribbean, has been reporting one or two cases per week, on average, on ships that carry more than 1,000. A few ships operated by other lines have had bigger outbreaks.

But such numbers are relative. In North Carolina, we’re averaging nearly 40,000 new COVID-19 cases a week. Nearly 400 people a week are dying from the illness.

Even in my relatively sparsely populated county (Buncombe), which is home to just 261,000 people, we have been recording around 1,000 new cases a week in recent weeks. The death toll is running at around 10 people a week.

I am careful not to read too much into the reported case counts on ships as compared to the reported case counts in my home state. There are too many data points missing to make a good comparison between the two sets of data.

We don’t know the true number of people who are positive for COVID-19 on ships, as not every vessel is testing every passenger every week — or routinely reporting its findings. We also don’t know the true number of people who are positive for COVID-19 on land, as not every resident of my state or any other state is being tested every week.

The point here is that the alternative to heading to sea on a cruise — staying on land — doesn’t promise a risk-free environment. Not by a long shot. At least if you want to engage with the world.

Bottom line

There is one sure way for me to never be exposed to COVID-19. I could never leave my home (and allow no one from the outside to enter it, either). I suppose I could pull that off for at least a few months if I stockpiled food. But assuming that I want to at least partially engage with the world and other humans in more than a virtual way, I feel just as safe right now going on a cruise as I do heading out in my home town. Indeed, I feel safer on a cruise.

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Featured image by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy.

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