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What You Need to Know About Coronavirus and Cruises

by Matthew Meltzer Feb 28, 2020

The line between legitimate concern and paranoia is a fine one, and in the close confines of a cruise ship, that line gets broken pretty easily. Surrounded in small quarters by thousands of strangers from all over the world, the thought of even a tiny pathogen in the air can send people into an all-out panic. And when COVID-2019 — aka the coronavirus — is leading the evening news every night, well, imaginations can run wild.

On cruise ships, it’s not a completely unreasonable fear. Last year the Centers for Disease Control identified 10 outbreaks of other illnesses aboard cruise ships. And when stories of the Diamond Princess — where 691 passengers have contracted coronavirus after the ship was quarantined off the coast of Yokohama, Japan, on February 3 — hit the news, it seemed avoiding cruise ships for the foreseeable future is a wise idea.

But is it really? Granted, cruise ships can spread germs faster than, say, locking yourself in your home. But should we really be concerned on a ship that only shuttled between Miami and Nassau?

Cruise ships aren’t messing around with this.

This past week saw a couple of concerning advisories from the federal government. The CDC basically told Americans to prepare for the coronavirus to arrive here, with helpful disease-preventing tips like “avoid people who are sick” and “cover your sneeze with a tissue.”

That came on the heels of an advisory from the US State Department urging people with cruises in Asia to consider canceling their plans.

And while both actions are good advice to take, they don’t necessarily mean you need to up and cancel your floating vacation dreams. Cruise lines know their livelihood depends on passengers not contracting deadly illnesses on their ships and have taken exceptional measures to ensure coronavirus does not end up on their ships.

The Cruise Line International Association — effectively the trade group for cruise lines that comprises 90 percent of the industry — announced that all its member ships would deny boarding to anyone who’d traveled to China, Hong Kong, or Macau within 14 days. That denial goes for anyone who has come in close contact with people traveling to those places as well.

The two-week window is the generally agreed upon incubation period for the virus.

Other cruise lines have taken it a step further. Royal Caribbean, for example, extended that list of countries to Iran, South Korea, and the Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto. It will also require mandatory health screening for anyone who’s been to Japan, Singapore, Thailand, or the rest of Italy. Any passenger with fever or low blood oximetry will be denied boarding as well.

Norwegian Cruise Lines extended the China travel blackout period to 30 days.

MSC Cruise Lines is using thermal cameras aboard the ship to detect anyone with a body temperature over 100.4 Fahrenheit. These cameras will be used not only as passengers embark on their cruises but also at ports of call, as well, in case someone develops symptoms along the way.

That all is paired with increased sanitation procedures and onboard medical screenings of anyone who appears symptomatic. Major cruise lines have canceled about 40 cruises in Asia and rerouted others around affected areas, and they’ve said they’ll cancel more if the outbreak persists. Stock prices have dropped, but no new onboard cases have emerged.
The point is that the cruise lines are not taking this lightly, and the odds of anyone with coronavirus getting aboard a ship at this point are pretty small.

Only one quarantined ship actually had the virus.

You may have also read headlines about cruise ships being denied entry into ports because passengers aboard had coronavirus. Or, rather, you probably read headlines.
The truth is that only the Diamond Princess has been a disaster, and that is largely because passengers were not let off the ship, so previously non-infected people became infected because they couldn’t escape.

The only other instance of a positive test was aboard Holland America’s MS Westerdam, which was denied entry to five countries until it was allowed to dock in Cambodia. One passenger tested positive after it docked, and the CDC later reported that test was actually a false positive.

The other instances were for the most part precautionary. The World Dream was quarantined in Hong Kong after it was revealed to have carried virus-containing passengers on a previous voyage. After four days in quarantine, it found no passengers or crew with the virus.

Ditto for Royal’s Anthem of the Seas, which was detained in Bayonne, New Jersey, on its way to the Caribbean. Though 27 passengers were suspected of having the virus, none did. This was also the case for the Costa Smeralda, which was held in Rome when one couple showed symptoms. The 6,000 passengers were allowed to leave shortly after the couple tested negative.

The most recent case was the MSC Meraviglia, which was turned away from Jamaica this week when one crew member tested positive for influenza. Though he tested positive for Type A influenza and not the coronavirus, both Jamaica and the Cayman Islands refused to let the ship — which had sailed there from Miami — dock. But, again, no one onboard had coronavirus.

So despite frequent reports of suspected coronavirus aboard cruise ships, aside from the Diamond Princess, it has not been an issue. You just have to read past the headlines to understand that.

Even if your cruise gets canceled, you’re not totally screwed.

Should your cruise plans get derailed by the coronavirus, you still have some recourse. Cruise lines are refunding the cost of the cruise to anyone they deny boarding due to new procedures, and obviously any cruise that’s completely canceled will be refunded.

However, if you decide to cancel your own cruise booking out of abundant caution, you will likely not be offered a refund since the cruise line themselves would cancel the cruise if there was a legitimate concern. Similarly, if you have travel insurance, it likely won’t cover anything coronavirus-related, which is the case for most impacted travel.

So, while you might feel like we’re nearing the end of times every time you turn on the TV and see people walking through airports with surgical masks, cruise ships shouldn’t be any more cause for concern than usual. Take the CDC’s advice and exercise proper sanitation, avoid people who refuse to sneeze into a tissue, and wipe down surfaces before touching them, and you shouldn’t be much worse off than you are on land.
Though nothing in life is guaranteed, the cruise lines are taking exceptional precautions to keep coronavirus off their ships. And though chatter onboard may run wild, the reality is that your cruise is likely safe, and you should proceed with your vacation as planned.

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