In early March, I disembarked a cruise ship at the Port of Los Angeles, gleeful to have survived what I already knew would be my last cruise in a long while.
Cruising to a balmy climate has become my winter ritual over the last decade, and this year was no exception. This spring, for eight full days, I found myself aboard a cruise ship, avoiding the elevator (there are germs on those buttons!) like a champ, toning my calves as I strode the stairs from my cabin to the adults-only poolside lounge, and shying away from the buffet at peak hours (do you know how many people touch the serving utensils?). This was a point when we weren’t yet, as a culture, wearing masks and gloves—I used my shirt’s sleeve to open doors, and I only used my cabin’s bathroom–none of the public ones.
When cruises open back up again for sailing, some things are going to have to change, particularly on these massive ships that pack thousands of sailors aboard each voyage. Cruises have always been breeding grounds for illness, whether it’s COVID-19 or norovirus, and the last place you want to get sick is at sea where you’ll be—pardon the pun—untethered from your friends, family, personal doctor, and your own bed.
Allow Fewer People on the Ship
I’m just going to cut to the chase and put the number-one item on my wish list right here. Please reduce the number of passengers on board! The average number of passengers is 3,000–the reason why cruise ships are dubbed “floating hotels” and “cities on the water.” Here’s the big issue I see right now: what if the ship can’t dock at port due to COVID-19 and now everyone is trying to access the buffet, casino, and pool-deck bar all at once? If you’ve experienced a sea day, you know the struggle of trying to find your own space. Just like restaurants have announced they’ll reduce the number of seats for dine-in service once they reopen to avoid spreading COVID-19, cruise ships need to cut the passenger load, too.
More Flexible Cancellation and Refund Policies
It wasn’t until early- to mid-March of this year that cruise lines started to relax their policies about refunding money applied towards pre-booked cruises. In the weeks leading up to my cruise, even as coronavirus had become a global issue, there wasn’t the option to postpone the cruise and use the money I already spent as credit toward a future cruise (this is why I ended up on the late-February cruise on the first place). Now, with COVID-19, policies are more generous—allowing cancellations closer to the departure date—but the caveat is that this offer comes with an expiration date. Cruises are the type of vacation that people tend to book far in advance, especially if they involve a bucket-list destination like Patagonia or Hawaii. Cabins fill up and itineraries are already set, giving you a chance to plan and drool over the natural wonders and city cultures you’ll embrace. With airlines extending their cancellation and refund policies farther and farther out, when are cruise lines going to—pardon the pun—get onboard?
Increased Sanitation at the Buffet
Even if you’ve never been on a cruise, you know that the most crowded dining space is…the buffet. This culinary cornucopia is also one of the reasons most of us adore cruises. You can literally eat your way around the world with Mexican, Asian, Caribbean, and French influences, all in one meal. And even though steps have been taken to ensure staff—not guests—are manning the carving station and pre-sliced cakes, there’s still a lot of people in one space. And while an employee is doing their best to direct buffet-goers to the hand-sanitizing or hand-washing stations, it’s not required—some people are going to slip through (with their germs). I don’t even want to know how many people touched the guacamole spoon or the push buttons on the self-dispensing soda machine.
More In-Depth Passenger Screening
For years now, you’d fill out a short form during the embarkation process, essentially answering a few health questions. If there was any sign of a serious gastrointestinal illness, a doctor’s visit was either suggested or mandated at the ship’s discretion. The idea was to rule out easily spreadable viruses (like norovirus). When COVID-19 hit, cruise lines added even more questions to these forms, designed to ban certain travelers at risk of being COVID-19 carriers or—worse—spreading the virus to others on board. These included, “Were you recently in China?” and “Were you in contact with anyone who was recently in China and is showing COVID-19 symptoms?” Maybe the questions should also cover contact tracing. What states and/or countries have you visited within the last 30 days? Remember, some cruises last up to three weeks. There could be a breakout in, say, Dallas, Texas, and if a few of the ship’s passengers are from there, tests could be ordered.
Add Pop-up Entertainment and Programming
This isn’t so much a problem on small-passenger cruise ships, but on the big ships (Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, Celebrity, etc.), the theater’s capacity is huge. And with everyone touching handrails and seat backs, and sitting in such close proximity, it might be better to skip the Broadway revue and watch a pianist tickle the ivories in a small cocktail bar. On my last cruise, a guy in front of me literally flossed his teeth in the theater (gross). But what if the concept of two nightly showings in the theater switched to several throughout the day and evening (even if it’s a smaller cast) or a roving performance group utilizing the ship’s bars and lounges? This would be much safer for everyone—and could be a good social distancing exercise.
Quarantine Rooms Should Feature a Balcony
Think about it. If you are going to be quarantined in your cabin for 14 days because you started to show COVID-19 symptoms and the space is an interior, window-less cabin (otherwise known as a “closet”), your mental health will likely take a nosedive. Cruise lines might get more bookings if they can ensure passengers will not have this fate. By reserving a few balcony cabins, passenger reassurance would soar. There might be an initial gasp about losing money (because these cabins would be given away for free) but the knowledge they are available in an emergency might inspire more bookings overall.
Smaller-Sized Groups for Shore Excursions
When booking shore excursions through the cruise line, I’m drawn to those with cultural immersion. If it’s a walking tour, I’m all in, because I know that 200 people cannot logistically participate. Coach buses where I’m packed in like a sardine? Ick. What if, in the name of social distancing, cruise lines capped all excursions at 10 people? Now you can actually ask the guide questions and go to places like intimate restaurants and compact village streets that were not possible before. You might even all be able to squeeze into a van (wearing masks, of course).
Make the Doctor’s Office More Accessible
The doctor’s office on a ship is this little-known, mysterious, closet-like space you may not hear about until you need it. And at that point, you are in such a fog that you won’t remember it anyway. This cloud of mystery—combined with limited hours, almost like a college professor’s “office hours”—makes you not want to go to the doctor unless you’re dying. It’s almost like that’s the point. So, let’s make the doctor’s office bigger and more accessible.
Get Rid of Communal Tables in the Dining Room
Cruising with your sweetie and enjoying one-on-one dining time isn’t easy if you opt for the dining room every night. There are not a lot of tables for two. You might be seated with a group of strangers (some cruises’ dining rooms seat up to eight or 10 per table). Of course, if you’re traveling with a group of family members, other couples, or girlfriends, you get your own table. But in the name of social distancing, please stop this. This is how germs are spread. Let’s swap out those large tables and separate people into twos or fours.
Obtain Pre-Approved Authorization to Dock in Certain Ports
People pick cruises largely based on the itinerary’s’ ports. And sure, a hurricane can make sailing into, say, Grand Cayman, a very bumpy ride, but we understand when that happens. What we don’t have sympathy for is a paperwork snafu, like when the airplane pilot announces, after you’re buckled in, that the maintenance crew needs to sign off on a few things. What?! This flight was scheduled for takeoff three months ago (at least). Imagine taking a seven-night cruise that ends up being a month-long quarantine because, due to a few passengers being sick (and not necessarily having COVID-19), ports refuse entry. This could mean you sail in international waters for a long while, without docking, or—worse—miss your flights home because the final disembarkation date is now later.