I got a text message from my daughter on Jan. 21. She lives in Seattle and was freaking out because there had been a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the area. I tried my best to reassure her that she wasn’t in the grave danger she was sure she was in – after all, I explained, Seattle is a large city with several sleeper communities surrounding it. I explained to her that the infected patient had been in Wuhan, China, and it was a contained, isolated case.
Famous last words.
Normally I am not the kind of person who buys into a lot of hype. I spent 30 years as a morning radio show host. The experience shaped me in that I tend to be a researcher. I like facts, statistics and science. Back in January, this virus was something that was happening far away. I promised Lacey that it all would be okay, and she needed to calm down. Boy, was I wrong!
As January turned into February, the news surrounding the coronavirus began to escalate. The virus had begun to infiltrate cruise ships. As someone with a compromised immune system, you might have thought that I would have been concerned – but I wasn’t. After all, the ships in question had been in Asian ports. I had absolutely no hesitation regarding my upcoming URComped cruise on the Royal Caribbean Empress of the Seas. My countdown to our March 1, 2020, cruise was on!
As February drew closer to an end, friends began to ask me if I were going to cancel my trip. I heard a lot of comments, such as “aren’t you afraid of the coronavirus?” I eagerly responded that I wasn’t concerned. In fact, I felt extremely safe. I had received several emails from RCCL outlining its new safety protocols. We were to disclose any illness, and RCCL’s medical facilities were being offered free of charge should you feel ill during the trip. These were unprecedented measures, and I was ready to hit the ship and finally capture my first hand pay! We were ready and fearless!
We flew from Nashville into Fort Lauderdale the day before embarkation. At the airport, there was no such thing as “social distancing.” We saw only one person wearing a protective mask – a young woman. I assumed that perhaps she had some medical issues and wanted to take extra precautions. I did not hear anyone express any concerns regarding the virus.
Embarkation day is always exciting. Ours was even more so when our Uber driver dropped us off at the entirely wrong terminal. We were quickly hustled to the baggage drop-off, and began to cue up. Both my husband and I were surprised at the long line of cruisers dressed in Star Trek shirts and costumes. I asked one of the Trekkies if there were some sort of special event on board. The line suddenly got quiet. By the looks I was given you would have thought I had just showed up in a Star Wars costume. One of the Borg looked at me and said, “This is a Star Trek charter cruise. You didn’t know that?” For a second I thought it wasn’t a big deal. I could live long and prosper in the casino, while they all boldly went to a Trekkie meet and greet. Then several asked how it was even possible that I was on this cruise since it had been sold out for more than a year!
We quickly ran back to the baggage area and were so lucky that we were able to find our bags and pull them off the cage. The port of Miami staff was amazing! They even told us that they would provide transportation to the correct terminal. As we were waiting, we began talking to a woman who had just disembarked from the MSC Meraviglia, and was doing a back-to-back, boarding the Empress with us. She explained that her cruise had experienced several issues due to “possible” COVID-19 exposure. She was eagerly anticipating this cruise on what she considered her favorite ship.
Finally in the right terminal, my husband and I quickly made our way to the check-in counter. We were asked about our health and encouraged to seek free medical assistance should we begin to feel ill. On board, we headed straight to the buffet.
Entering the buffet, we began to notice changes that had been implemented since our last RCCL cruise. Before being allowed to enter, we were told to “washy, washy” in the sinks provided. Antibacterial soap and warm water washes were followed by the obligatory spritz of hand sanitizer. Thoroughly cleaned, we headed into the foray of deliciousness that awaited us. It was here we noticed the second change – there were far less “self-service” options and much more employee service. Tables were quickly cleaned and sanitized. Workers were constantly wiping and mopping. But the most notable change – the ice cream machine.
One of the great joys of cruising is unlimited soft serve ice cream 24/7. For kids and adults alike there is something so cool about being able to create your own creamy frozen swirly cone. This luxury had been significantly modified. The ice cream machines were open only during specific hours, and the machine was being manned by crew members. While I am sure this was a disappointment to many younger cruisers (and my husband!), I will admit that it was a welcome change in my eyes. No longer did I worry about whether or not my cone had been touched by hands other than mine. And it was a change to see the area clean and sanitized.
Dinner brought another change. Since the main dining and specialty restaurants do not have “washy washy” sinks as you enter, they were manned by crew members who walked up and down the line squirting a liberal dollop of sanitizer in every hand before they would allow entrance.
We continued to see changes in how the crew was carrying out its duties. There were gloves being worn, mops in constant motion and hand sanitizer squirted by the gallon. I’m convinced that the hand sanitizer shortage was a direct result of the Empress of the Seas. The pool was drained and cleaned several times a day. The staff was relentless! As we climbed off and on the ship in port, again we were spritzed with hand sanitizer.
It wasn’t until we got home that we realized that we were the second to last cruise before the entire industry came to a screeching halt. I joked at the time that it would be awesome to be quarantined on the ship. Of course now I better understand the incredible stress, strain and fear that passengers who were stranded faced. I feel incredibly fortunate that we were able to fully enjoy our vacation without worrying about our health and safety.
Back at home, my heart began to break, thinking about all of the crew members we have befriended through the years. As cruise lines began canceling, the most incredible offers began showing up, courtesy of my URComped travel host. I have booked three cruises as of now – one at the end of September, one in December and one in February. And I won’t hesitate to book more. I want to support the industry that has brought my husband and me so much joy – an industry that has become my passion, and that supports people all over the world.
I never would have believed our world could get so crazy in such a short period of time. COVID-19 has changed the way we do business, the way we live, and definitely will change the way we cruise.
It’s no secret that the cruise and travel industry is going to have to make significant changes moving forward. I’ve had many friends tell me I’m crazy for booking flights and cruises, but I disagree. I see changes coming – perhaps a crew-served buffet, hand sanitizer in all cabins and all venues, and I hope reasonably priced/free medical care for those who get ill onboard.
I believe in science, our health care workers, essential employees, and I believe that our cruise lines will come back stronger and better than ever. As for me, I will continue to live my life cautious of hyped hysteria. Unless it’s my daughter, never will I downplay these concerns again!