OPINION: COVID-19 and the cruise industry

The subject of this column is that which we can’t get out of our minds: Covid-19, of course. But it will be centered on its impact on an industry we landlubbers rarely read about – the cruise industry.

Having just returned from a two-week cruise of the Caribbean with my wife Cathy, I thought that what this segment of our economy has been through and continues to suffer from would be interesting. There are two topics: 1) maintaining the health environment on board, and 2) the CDC’s oversight of the industry to safeguard passengers.

Before proceeding, it’s important to make these points: 1) The cruise industry is no longer limited to serving the well-to-do. Far from it. Worldwide, in 2019, 27 million cruise travelers were served. Almost 14 million of them left from U.S. ports. The industry is highly segmented, to be sure, but the larger lines are very careful to structure their fares so that almost all working families can take advantage. 2) The industry is enormous. As of December 2018, there were 314 cruise ships operating worldwide, with a combined capacity of 537,000 passengers. According to an outfit called Statista, 2019 cruise industry revenue in the United States alone was over $13 billion (it sank to just around 1.2 billion U.S. dollars in 2020).

By necessity, the cruise industry got shut down in the spring of 2020 as the virus spread. To those who aren’t familiar with them, cruise ships have been characterized as floating petri dishes. That reputation did sometimes seem to be borne out when outbreaks of Norovirus or other infectious diseases spread quickly on a given cruise ship. And, to be sure, a cruise ship is a relatively confined space to be home to as many as 6,000 people (passengers and crew).

Today’s cruise ship health environment: Anyone who has any recent experience on board a cruise ship will tell you, the industry has developed (yes, with the help of the United States CDC) elaborate protocols that kick in at the very first sign of a contagious disease on board. Of course, it is in the cruise line’s best interests to do so, but the fact remains that they do so without the need to be constantly and suspiciously watched over by the federal government as if they will allow viruses to run rampant the minute CDC officials turn their backs. And, by the way, since every single person on board is 1) fully vaccinated, 2) has passed a Covid test administered just prior to boarding, 3) required to wear masks everywhere and 4) may have periodic Covid tests during the voyage, it is practically the safest environment you could possibly ask for. Crews are tested at least weekly while on board as well.

Recent U. S. government response: So, as noted above, the industry has lost billions. But the pandemic is almost two years old, and you would think that the CDC might have learned something about – and from – the industry on whose neck they have had their heavy foot all this time. 

But you would be wrong. Instead of learning how best to combat the disease aboard cruise ships, primarily by observing how well these protocols are already working to control the spread of disease and learning from the industry’s phenomenally responsible responses in the past (i.e., “following the science”), the CDC completely overreacted to the Omicron variant.

On December 30, 2021, the CDC came out with a Traveler’s Advisory that stated, in part: “Avoid cruise travel, regardless of vaccination status. If you travel on a cruise ship, make sure you are fully vaccinated before travel and get a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose if you are eligible.” 

Just when the industry was coming back to life, the government bureaucrats deemed cruises dangerous. The impact was immediate, from what we have heard from other passengers on our cruise. Our ship normally carries 1,250 passengers. Our cruise line, Oceania Cruises, in order to ensure proper social distancing, had already put a limit of hundreds less than that. The CDC bureaucrats caused a proverbial rush to the exits, and, with all the last-minute cancellations, the ship sailed with just 602 passengers. 

Cruise industry bookings cratered. Noting the damage done by their hasty, overwrought pronouncements, and noting the reaction Americans were having to other now-nonsensical edicts, three weeks later those same bureaucrats scrambled to rewrite the rules to allow much more “flexibility.”

In other words, in its initial December 30th guidance to “avoid cruise travel” the CDC was hardly “following the science.” Apparently, there was no reason to issue the original warning in the first place because, within a space of just three weeks, the rules were all changing again. 

This is an all-too-common occurrence: regulators issue directives, unsupported by evidence, that do significant harm. Were that they had to abide by this sentiment which is part of the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.





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